As we all navigate through the fog of the polls that are rolling in almost hourly this week, one factor in the presidential race is especially confusing: what about Nader? Will he pick off anti-Bush votes in battleground states and throw the election to the incumbent? Will his support melt away in a close, high-stakes contest? What if anything can Kerry and his allies do to minimize his vote?
The threshold question here is how many Americans will have a chance to waste a vote on the wiggy former Green. And the answer is very unclear at present. According to a very comprehensive AP story published today, Nader's currently on the ballot in eight of the 18 battleground states (AR, IA, ME, MI, NV, WA, WV, and CO), and is likely to get certified in three others (MN, NH, and WI). He's definitely off the ballot in MO, and probably won't make the grade in OR and PA. The situation in AZ, FL, OH--all states where Nader's ballot status is in legal limbo--is hard to assess, and LA is just now looking at the petitions.
There's rich irony in all the kvetching we've heard from Ralph about the flotillas of lawyers Democrats have unleashed on his ballot petitions and on the dubious credentials of the Reform Party (last seen as Pat Buchanan's vehicle) that is sponsoring him in several states. After all, Nader is a lifelong ally of the Maximum Litigation wing of the trial bar; if given the option, he'd probably prefer to make his case against the Corporate Conspiracy To Sell Out America via a vast class-action suit than by running for president. And it's hard to symphathize with his apparent belief that he's a national icon with the inherent right to hop from party to party like a political cowbird, gaining ballot access on the prior efforts of others.
So Democrats have every right within the law to challenge Nader's ballot access. And I can't see how even Ralph can complain about the very public efforts of former supporters like Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, and half the editorial board of The Nation to deride his candidacy.
But Democrats should not get hysterical about Nader's 2-4% standing in national polls. Even in 2000, when the dishonest "compassionate conservative" candidacy of George W. Bush and the eccentric "I'm not Clinton" candidacy of Al Gore convinced millions of voters that the stakes in the election were low, Nader's support dropped 50% between the pre-election polls and the actual results. Sure, Nader's Florida vote exceeded that of Bush's dubious margin in the state, but so too did the vote of the Trotskyist and Natural Law candidates. In a tie election, everything matters, and all the dirty tricks and screwups in Florida election procedures undoubtedly had a greater impact than Ralph.
In the end, Democrats should recognize that there is an irreducible minimum of roughly one percent of American voters who, basically, are crazy people. They've always been there, and God bless 'em, they always will be there. They have every right to their opinions. Some of them will vote for overtly crazy-people candidates, and some will vote for Ralph, who's staked out a position near the gates of delirium. Some won't vote at all, and nobody knows what they'll do if they show up at the polls and don't see a valid crazy-people option.
The Kerry campaign should obviously make every effort to convince voters that this is a high-stakes election with stark differences between the two candidates, in which every vote counts in the actual, two-party choice. But beyond that, Democrats should leave the fringe votes that Nader and others may receive in the hands of the Lord, or whatever other voices fringe voters happen to hear.