'Nader nation' - who are these voters?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jonathan Becker doesn't like his options between the two major-party candidates in a duel for the US presidency. George W. Bush's politics don't reflect his own. And John Kerry, he says, is too hard to pin down. So Mr. Becker will be voting for Ralph Nader.

"He's specifically clear on where he is on the issues," says Becker, a computer-support specialist in New York who names civil rights and Iraq as his own hot-button concerns.

"In an election, you vote for who you want to vote for," he adds. "I'm not into voting a guy out of power just to replace him with an unknown quantity."

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By all appearances, Nader supporters like Becker - ready to stay with his candidate to the end - are a rarer breed today than they were four years ago. On April 5, for example, Mr. Nader failed to get enough signatures in his first bid to qualify for the ballot in Oregon, which would have been the first state to list him for the 2004 race.

Nader's prospects for at least making a blip in November - assuming he stays in the race - rest in the hands of a group many experts call relatively small in number, but remarkably broad in terms of the agendas it represents.

Some of Nader's "true believers," as one observer calls them, have an almost nihilistic take on major-party politics. But his supporters also include some conservative Christians, one of whom calls Nader a "puritan patriot [whose] morals require all of us to do more for each other and the public good."Also among core backers: ardent internationalists and elements of the more isolationist Reform Party.

"They don't care about Republican or Democratic politics," says Michael McDonald, professor of public affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "They have a commitment to something they believe in, and they're going to support that."

Democrats have worked hard to win them over, labeling votes for Nader as wasted votes and citing Al Gore's contested 537-vote loss in 2000 in electoral-vote-rich Florida. Nader drew 97,000 votes there - many of which were probably pulled from Mr. Gore.

Howard Dean - whose "Deaniac" followers were thought by some observers to be among the ripest for conversion to the Naderite nation - wrote an opinion piece in Monday's New York Times that hailed Nader's accomplishments but added that Nader had "no realistic shot," and cited the "danger of voting for any third-party candidate in elections this close."

Indeed, some experts point to signs that commitment to Nader could falter as the election nears.

"I suspect one of the reasons Nader will likely end up with much less support - aside from the fact that he's not likely to get onto the ballot in some states - is that many of his voters did accept the analysis [that he was a spoiler]," says Howard Gold, a professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Only the relatively few who reject that analysis - perhaps less than half the 2.7 percent Nader won over in 2000, says Mr. Gold - will stay with him. Polls show he is now drawing anywhere from 2 to 6 percent.

"You're talking about the ultimate protest voter," Gold says of the holdouts. "Their vote is an expression of disaffection from the system.... [But] I think it'll be tempered by what's happened in the past four years, and by an awareness among former Nader voters about the consequence of their actions."

Yet nothing seems to anger Naderites more than being told they should feel chastened by Gore's loss.

"That is offensive," says Julio Postigo, a retired physician in Miami. "By saying that, they are trying to deny me a choice [in 2004].... I like Ralph," says Mr. Postigo. "I think that he has a chance to build a party," Green or otherwise.

Nader is running this time as an Independent. That his appeal seems to cut across so many lines - even within a small bloc - is significant, observers say.

"Nader keeps saying that they may be a different set of people [than in 2000], and there's some information that he's right," says Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News.

"When we think about Nader, we think about his having some kind of ideology," says Mr. McDonald, "And that would be a liberal ideology that's to the left of Kerry." Logically, that would lock out support from the right side of the spectrum, he says. But in Nader's case, some intangibles appear to override that. Another factor: more voters willing to mix and match from major-party menus. "Not all political issues fit neatly in the left/right thing," says Mr. Winger.

The broad implication is that a viable third-party movement could finally emerge as voters gain the confidence to go their own way. Voter participation spiked when Ross Perot ran for president in 1992. He claimed 19 percent of the vote as new voters stepped forward.

"We see Mr. Nader's candidacy as [another] vehicle to do that," says Carey Campbell, state chairman of the Independent Green Party in Virginia.

Before the 2000 election, a Gallup poll found 67 percent of Americans favored a strong third party. Recent surveys have shown the elusive 18-to-30 set of voters to be watching the 2004 election closely. Nader's contingent, experts say, could be a sign of things to come.

It begins with city councils and mayoral races, McDonald says - and with grass-roots campaigns like Nader's.

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