October 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — Ralph Nader is running for
president, even if nobody is paying attention. It's
an organized nationwide campaign, if cheaply
operated and largely ignored by news outlets.
But here are the facts that could allow a repeat of
Nader as electoral disrupter: Nader will be on the
ballot in 45 states - one more than in 2000. And
although, since September, he has polled between 2
percent and 4 percent nationally, he has been even
higher in some front-line states.
"We're on track to do considerably better than
2000," Nader said during an interview in his
Washington headquarters this month. But if so, it's
been a tree falling in a vacant forest. Through the
2000 election season, Nader had appeared in a few
minutes of news on the broadcast networks. "This
time," he said, "it's zero."
"Two-thirds of the people don't know we're
In 2000, the White House was won by a crowd of
voters that would barely fill the dining room at
Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach. Four years ago,
George W. Bush won the popular vote by a still
narrow 3 million (in a year when Nader tallied less
than 500,000). If Nader manages to grab a fraction
of what his polling suggests this time - and if the
race between the major parties narrows - it's
possible that his campaign could suddenly find
itself making big headlines again. Possible, but
mathematically doubtful.
So why should people bother paying attention?
Nader doesn't seem to have illusions about riding a
last-minute wave into the White House. He runs
because he has something to say, and he hopes to
force the major candidates to adopt some of his
ideas - just as he hoped in previous elections. But
it's hard to argue that he's had much success.
"I think he's pretty irrelevant right now," said
Richard Semiatin, a politics professor at American
University. Semiatin compared Nader with the
protagonist of "Gulliver's Travels," stuck in the
land of the giants. "They don't even see him."
Semiatin said he'd be surprised if Nader managed to
get anywhere near the 2 percent or 3 percent of the
vote indicated in polls. "Maybe if I'm wrong, he
maxes out at 1 [percent]. What's the point of
running, then?"
In the infamous 2000 electoral clash over Florida's
crucial electoral prize, Democrat Al Gore lost by
an official 537 votes, and Nader earned 97,421. In
that piece of history lies the only scenario under
which Nader seems able to rise again to wide
political relevance. If he somehow repeats 2000, he
would return to the prominence he otherwise
seems incapable of achieving. But it would be a
kind of notoriety that could see half of the nation's
voters loathing him.
The first line of the Winsted native's eventual
obituary will surely mention his lifetime work as a
consumer advocate - his push for advances in
automobile safety and for environmental
protections. But chances are, the second line will
resurrect 2000 and how his presidential bid was
only successful enough that some voters who
might have chosen Gore went for Nader instead,
and the eight-year George W. Bush presidency was
For Nader, his 2000 campaign as the Green Party
candidate is a weight that has never left his
perpetually slumped shoulders. That moment
slashed ties to many old friends who blame him for
the Bush win, and it's still the question he hears in
almost every interview: Don't you feel responsible
for the reign of the current administration?
Connecticut's candidate - the "unreasonable man"
of a 2006 documentary - rejects that notion.
Nobody owns votes, he argues.

To add further uncertainty to the 2008 contest,
Nader could be the focus of a surprising twist.
Some polling has hinted that Nader may actually be
dragging more support from Republican Sen. John
McCain than Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. A
number of polls looked at the election as if it were
both a two-person race - McCain vs. Obama - and
also as if it reflected the actual ballot, including
Nader and Libertarian Bob Barr. In the latter, there
were some indications that Nader's involvement
would widen Obama's lead over McCain.
How could that be? "It's not for me to explain,"
Nader said. "I have no idea."
Maybe it's former fans of Sen. Hillary Clinton who
are unable to forgive Obama, he said. Some
analysts have guessed it might be young white men
and/or blue-collar voters who haven't warmed to
Nader's campaign is pretty much the same one he's
always run. It champions access to health care. It
calls for slashing military spending. It rails against
the abuses of corporations. Nader acknowledges
that his lack of novelty leaves the media
"In some societies, when you are right so much for
such a long time, you usually are considered an
attractive invitee by the media," he said. "This
society is totally opposite that. It's the crooks that
get the publicity."
He may see himself as a champion of strict
progressive ideology, but Semiatin sees Nader as "a
caricature of himself" and the campaign as "a
manifestation of his ego."
Though older than McCain, who hears constant
gibes about his age, Nader, 74, has maintained a
heavy travel schedule with his vice presidential
pick, Matt Gonzalez from San Francisco.
"I campaign in 50 states," Nader said, and he's
close to proving it, with just a short list of states
left to visit in these last weeks.
He accuses the major parties of "campaigning for
electoral votes, not citizen votes." Nader has spent
more time than the leading candidates in California,
where his staff thinks he could make a splash
behind the comfortable Obama. He has also
campaigned in Connecticut, watching one of the
presidential debates (to which he wasn't invited)
from his hometown of Winsted.
Nader is relatively popular in some states - even
polling in the high single digits in a few places
considered battlegrounds by the two major parties.
So the 2000 scenario is theoretically possible, if
highly unlikely.
"Very often, what happens with these third-party
candidates is their support drops off," said
Howard Reiter, a political science professor at the
University of Connecticut. "People don't want to
throw away their votes."
Actually, if Obama maintains a strong lead going
into the election, Reiter thinks Nader could earn
more votes than if the race is tight. His supporters
can safely "indulge their preference for Nader"
without risking a McCain presidency.
Robert Richie, executive director of FairVote, a
nonpartisan organization advocating fairness in
elections, said presidential elections generally aren't
close enough to affect with Nader-level numbers. "I
think it's unlikely." Only if the race turned
suddenly close could Nader affect it, he said. "Even
being almost completely ignored, he has high name
recognition, and there is a certain dissatisfaction
with the major parties. And who knows what's
going to happen with the economy in the next
couple of weeks?"
Richie laments the sidelining of Nader. "This year,
even more than ever, would have been a fascinating
year to have his perspective a part of the debate."
The Commission on Presidential Debates requires
candidates to earn at least 15 percent in a collection
of several polls before being allowed into the
general-election debates - where Nader thinks he
could have boosted his support. But a number of
the major polls haven't bothered to include the
minor candidates - including Connecticut's own
Quinnipiac University.
Doug Schwartz, director of the respected polling
center there, explained that using all of the names
that might actually appear on the ballots is
"impractical" for telephone polling. So Quinnipiac
uses the candidates "who we believe can have a
significant impact on the outcome of the election."
Anyway, Schwartz said, history demonstrates that
third-party candidates typically do better in
polling than in the actual voting.
Until Nov. 4, nobody can say for sure what Nader
has accomplished this year. Although Nader
blames the unintentional stealth of his campaign on
the media's "political bigotry," Richie said he was
hampered from the start. The major candidates this
time around came charging into the fray with
nontraditional stories.
"This year was just going to be tough for Nader,"
Richie said.
Nader's best hope now is that in states such as
California, those virtually locked up for a particular
candidate, that people cast their votes for him as a
protest to the system, "that they send a message."
Can he win 3 million votes and beat his own mark
in 2000? If he gets some last-minute attention from
the big media outlets - the national papers and
broadcast news operations - "I think we could," he
said. "Maybe even do better."
Of course, even Nader couldn't have expected a
much better showing than he has seen this year,
and it's increasingly unclear whether such efforts
are going to pay off in his true goals - the pushing
of his beliefs, including his criticism of tough ballot-
access laws across the country.
For a figure whose popularity and glories lie so
much in his past, he still holds a positive outlook:
"We've laid the groundwork. It's like planting the
seeds. And next year, it's spring."