Nader's Republican pipe dream

The spoiler candidate insists he's drawing GOP voters away from George W. Bush. There's only one problem: They only exist in his mind.

By Peter Dizikes
Published June 10, 2004 7:12PM (EDT)

Ralph Nader's latest presidential campaign does not have an official slogan. It does, however, have a kind of official rationalization. "I think I'm going to take more votes away from Republicans than from Democrats," Nader says, almost every time he speaks. Democrats doubt this theory. And Nader admits no Republicans have asked him to leave the race or expressed fear he will siphon votes from Bush. "I don't think they're in with the trend," Nader explained.

But Nader insists his Republican backers are real. To find out more, I spent a good chunk of time over the last few weeks talking to Nader supporters in New England. I attended Nader meetups, Nader volunteer meetings, Nader campaign events and Nader press conferences. I spoke with Nader supporters who are still in high school, and Nader supporters with gray hair. I talked to people who have admired Nader since the 1960s, and others who first heard of him last year. I found Nader supporters who have voted for him multiple times, Nader supporters who have never voted, and Nader supporters who voted for Al Gore in 2000.

What I did not find, however, was a single supporter of Ralph Nader who voted for George W. Bush in 2000, or who had been planning to support Bush this year before Nader entered the race. After a while, I felt like a stymied naturalist stalking a rare species. Sure, Naderus Republicanus must exist somewhere, but it is an unusual creature, capable of eluding human observation for long stretches of time.

Nader supporters themselves treat the idea as a curiosity -- even in states where Republicans are supposedly most independent-minded. Take Greg Stott, a schoolteacher from Goshen, N.H., who attended a recent Nader press conference in Concord, the state capital, holding a "Teachers for Ralph" sign. Stott is a registered Democrat. Does he know any Republicans or former Bush voters who are supporting Nader this year?

"No, I don't," replied Stott. "That's a pretty big leap. I haven't met anybody [like that] yet. I have met a lot of Democrats who have switched over. I mean, a lot."

Even Nader himself has only caught a few fleeting glimpses of his Republican backers. Unable to locate Naderus Republicanus, I sat down with Nader for an interview in Concord, to ask him about the subject. "Have you encountered people who have told you they supported Republicans in the past, and Bush in 2000?" I queried. "Oh, yes," Nader answered immediately.

Really? Where?

"Georgia, for example. Three of them came up at a volunteer gathering and said 'I'm fed up, my Republican friends are fed up.' At a retirement village in Arizona, the same thing happened."

Well, every vote counts. But Nader had just finished a press conference at which he claimed more Republicans than Democrats supported him in New Hampshire, in 2000. (Bush beat Gore in the state by 7,211 votes, while Nader collected 22,198 votes.) That Nader would then point to a handful of apparent supporters in the Sun Belt -- the only examples he gave me -- will probably not convince Democrats about his theory. Which, in turn, is all the more reason Democrats should be interested in finding out more about Ralph Nader's supporters.

After all, Nader still sits at 4 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll -- high enough to be a decisive factor in the race again, and higher than the 2.7 percent he drew in 2000. Somebody is backing Nader. Who are these people, and why do they support him?

Two distinct topics, actually, seem to matter most to Naderites: the war in Iraq, and the consolidation of power -- economic, political, cultural -- in the hands of large corporations. Again and again, when I asked people at Nader events why they supported him, those were the first issues to surface.

"Corporate control, and our foreign policy, which I think has gone terribly, terribly wrong," said Bill Grennon, a Nader supporter in Concord, N.H. "Between those two things, I think those are the most important issues." Grennon agreed with Nader's diagnosis of right-wing discontent: "Particularly here in New Hampshire, there are an awful lot of Republicans angry at the direction of the country." By chance, did he support Bush in 2000? "I did not. I ended up for Al Gore."

Indeed, Nader supporters almost unanimously express disgust at Bush -- and then lump Kerry in with Bush, because of Kerry's support for military action in Iraq. "The direction the country's gone in is appalling," said Sarah Bayer, a social worker from Cambridge, Mass. "But Kerry voted right along with the war." On the campaign trail, Nader also uses the Iraq war to link the major-party candidates. "That's the big issue that distinguishes Greens and Independents from Republicans and Democrats," Nader told an audience in the leafy bedroom community of Canton, Conn., near his hometown of Winsted.

To be sure, Nader attacks Bush more forcefully than he did in 2000, calling the president a "messianic militarist" who should be impeached. Nader has also mothballed his "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" line about Democrats and Republicans. He thinks Republican support will come from people "furious with [Bush] over the huge deficit, over corporate subsidies, the sovereignty of trade, NAFTA, the big-government Patriot Act, the federal regulation of schools."

Nonetheless, Nader also began a press conference at Suffolk University in Boston -- a few blocks from John Kerry's Beacon Hill townhouse -- with a short speech laying down two challenges for Kerry. First, Nader said, cutting corporate subsidies "should be a high priority for any presidential candidate, especially one such as Sen. Kerry, who has uttered the magic words, 'ending corporate welfare as we know it,'" then adding: "Senator Kerry has to have an exit strategy dealing with the war in Iraq." Nader barely mentioned Bush before taking questions. In this case, it seemed clear where, on the political spectrum, Nader was hunting for votes.

For that matter, no Nader backers I met even framed their decision as a choice between Nader and Bush. "Before he [Nader] announced, I was for anyone but Bush," said Steven Schade, a high school student from Andover, Mass., who plans to attend college in Florida next fall. "After he announced, I was for no one but Nader." And Nader makes it clear that his current rapprochement with Kerry could be temporary. "Right now, if you'll notice, I am urging things on John Kerry," Nader told me. "If weeks go by, two months go by and there's no response, the urging will turn to criticism."

Still, it seems likely that a significant chunk of Nader's support has not been wrestled away from Kerry directly, but is "a real mix," as Nader says. "These are not pure, normal Democrats," said Pete Ellner, a Connecticut Green Party member who organizes meetings of Nader backers. "I can best characterize them as Perot voters." (Numerous Nader backers also told me they wanted to limit free trade.) In 2000, the Voter News Service's national exit poll showed that 47 percent of Nader voters would have voted for Gore, 21 percent would have voted for Bush -- they're out there somewhere -- but fully a third would not have supported either.

This limits the number of Naderites who might throw votes Kerry's way in a close election. "I don't think I've ever voted for a winning presidential candidate in my life," said Michael Richardson, Nader's Massachusetts ballot-petition coordinator. Many of these people are not in the habit of voting pragmatically.

And then there are people who simply say Nader is the best man for the job. Alan DiCara, a longtime Connecticut activist and what you might call a Friend of Ralph, told me he favors a "Nader-Kerry fusion" ticket on the Democratic line: Nader as president, Kerry as vice president. And why would John Kerry accept this arrangement? "John Kerry has a great deal of respect for Ralph, as he should, because Ralph, after all, went to Harvard Law School and Princeton, and knows a lot more than Kerry ever will about corporations, the rule of law, the history of our government, and how things work in Washington, in the Beltway."

Beyond Nader's loyalists, however, it's unclear just how much backing for his candidacy remains intact in 2004. "Half of democracy is just showing up," Nader likes to say, but few supporters are doing that so far. In Canton, for example, about 60 people turned out -- but most were kids brought in from a school across the street. Four years ago, Nader held "Super Rallies" at places like Madison Square Garden and the Oakland Coliseum en route to his 2.7 percent showing. His retail campaigning in 2004 is nowhere near that level yet.

Those who do attend a Nader event often get a short, vigorous talk -- on Iraq, corporate reform, or political reform -- followed by a longer question-and-answer session. Nader speeds through his points without the carefully placed applause lines of most political speeches. Intriguingly, the event I saw where Nader seemed most engaged with his audience did not feature potential voters: A discussion in Hartford with students hoping to become journalists. "How many of you want to be leaders of the future?" Nader asked them at one point. Only one tiny girl raised her hand. Nader sized up the situation for a few seconds. "Does that mean the rest of you want to be followers?" he asked, eliciting giggles, and softening the mood, before launching into an earnest monologue on the importance of idealism.

Occasionally, the low turnout leads to the off-script moments campaigns hate. "Has anyone here served in the Army?" Nader asked the Canton audience while discussing Iraq. Not a single hand went up; the teenagers recruited for the event sat there whispering. In New Hampshire, a local crank wearing an old-fashioned military getup barged into Nader's Concord press conference and proceeded to fire a loud volley of questions at the candidate.

Soon thereafter, a lunchtime volunteer meeting at a Thai restaurant down the street yielded just 10 people -- including Nader, a campaign aide, a Democratic candidate for New Hampshire's second congressional district named Roy Morrison, a Washington Post reporter and myself. Aaron Rizzio, Nader's ballot-petition coordinator in New Hampshire, gamely broke the news to Nader that all the volunteers who had shown up were, in fact, gathered around the table. "This is the group," explained Rizzio. "It's a weekday, people are working." Nader took this stoically, and a short discussion of logistics ensued. With only 3,000 signatures needed by August, New Hampshire is a relatively easy state for ballot access.

Presently, the meeting wrapped up and one of the volunteers asked Nader to autograph a book. While major-party candidates are typically asked to sign their hokey ghostwritten autobiographies, in this case the volunteer produced his copy of "The Bathroom Book," a weighty tome from the 1960s consumer-advocacy time capsule warning of things like dangerous toilets.

For all these visible quirks, the Nader campaign in many ways resembles politics as usual. Nader's most underrated skill as a politician is his ability to use catchy sound bites relentlessly -- like his stock response when asked if his supporters are throwing away their votes: "You only waste your vote when you vote for someone you don't believe in." Nader also bats away thorny questions like a pro. One voter in Connecticut asked Nader about news reports that wealthy Bush donors are also giving Nader campaign contributions, in the belief it will help Bush get elected. "I don't know where you're getting that we're taking Republican money," Nader retorted sharply. "I haven't seen any, by the way."

Actually, the Dallas Morning News reported in March that about 10 percent of donations of more than $250 to Nader's campaign come from individuals with a history of contributing to the GOP. These donors remain coy about their motives. Nader chooses not to address the question head-on and instead typically cites a Center for Public Integrity study that says only 3 percent of his total contributions are from Republicans. It is curious that Nader, whose professed aim is to win the election, would advertise his minimal support from a large voting bloc -- especially while claiming Republicans are ever more likely to support his 2004 campaign. Further questions about the nature of Republican funding for Nader seem likely to arise; already Arizona Democrats have claimed a GOP consultant is bankrolling the candidate's petition drive in Arizona.

In short, the Nader campaign, like any other, contains its own inconsistencies. Nader complains the Democrats offer little beyond a critique of the Republicans, but much of his campaign consists of, well, a critique of the major parties. Nader says he wants to "raise the tone" of the campaign, yet he merrily compares Al Gore to "petrified wood." Nader also insists this is only his second presidential campaign. In 1996 and 1992, he says, "I just agreed to let the Greens put me on the ballot."

In a complicated world, inconsistencies may be inevitable. But Ralph Nader portrays himself -- it is the whole basis of his campaign -- as a beacon of integrity in the fallen world of politics. "We separate the word and the deed," Nader often says -- meaning the two should match, but rarely do. "You have to always stay on the back of these politicians," Nader added at one event. "Before elections, during elections, after elections." Another time, he remarked: "We should all be held to account, we should all be held to levels of specificity."

How true. Since Nader says he wants to defeat Bush, then, I asked him if he would return contributions from Republicans who think -- mistakenly or not -- they are helping Bush.

"I've been looking to see whether that's happened," he said. "It hasn't happened yet. If it happens, then I'll ponder it." Does the donation he received from Terrence Jacobs, president of Penneco Oil and a Bush backer, make Nader, the anti-corporate candidate, uncomfortable? "I don't even know him," Nader said. "I don't know him."

Nader's campaign itinerary raises more questions about his professed drive to find GOP support. I was following Nader on his "Northeast Tour," which hit some of the most Democratic-voting cities in America. Visiting Amherst, Boston and Concord -- the liberal center of New Hampshire -- is a funny way of looking for Republican votes. "Well, in June I'm going to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois," Nader told me. "I'm just going to every state." (Iowa and Illinois voted Democratic in 2000.)

The real issue, though, is if Nader will campaign in Republican-voting areas within any given state. "Yes," Nader said firmly when I asked him that. "The big problem there is the venue. How are you going to reach large numbers of people? I mean mega-churches, they're not going to have me speak." From what I saw, mega-churches are not needed right now. If the campaign wants to seek votes in GOP-voting areas, though -- if Nader really believes that is where the votes are -- they will find a way. Will Ralph Nader's deeds match his words? We will find out.

Peter Dizikes

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.

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