Nader and Kucinich pick sides in Iowa

Few Democrats probably care about Nader blessing John Edwards, but Kucinich might help Barack Obama at the margins.

Published January 2, 2008 12:32AM (EST)

In June 2002, I accompanied John Edwards on an exploratory trip to New Hampshire, one of his forays into presidential politics. Now more than five years later, I plan to go out with him in Iowa, spending tomorrow -- the final day before the caucuses -- on a campaign bus trailing him around east-central Iowa. As I interview voters at Edwards rallies, I am willing to wager (and I will report in this space if I am wrong) that not a single Iowa Democrat will mention Ralph Nader's endorsement of the 2004 vice-presidential nominee. In case you missed the seismic rumbles from the Nader announcement, he revealed his presidential blessing in an interview with the Politico

With very rare exceptions (maybe Oprah campaigning for Barack Obama) endorsements do not matter in the Iowa caucuses. In late 2003, both Al Gore and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin backed Howard Dean, who went on to finish a weak third in the caucuses. As a result, it is hard to believe that as goes Nader so goes Keokuk. Nader was unquestionably one of the most influential Americans during the last third of the 20th century, but he never had much throw-weight in electoral politics. (I should know the limitations of the Nader brand -- I trumpeted my "Nader Raider" credentials when I ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1972.) After his third-party effort in 2000 may have cost Al Gore victory in Florida, Nader has been more a political pariah than a coveted vindicator of candidates.

Nothing better illustrates the double-edged nature of a Nader endorsement than the silence from its recipient. The Edwards campaign has not mentioned the anointment in a single press release.

Dennis Kucinich's Iowa-only endorsement of Barack Obama is another matter. The Obama campaign issued a press release late Monday afternoon heralding the New Year's gift from Kucinich. In an open letter to his Iowa supporters, Kucinich declared, "In those caucus locations where my support doesn't reach the necessary threshold, I strongly encourage my supporters to make Barack Obama their second choice."

Now for the explanatory paragraph that is boring but necessary. Democratic Party caucus rules in Iowa say that if a candidate does not get 15 percent support in a precinct, votes for him will not be counted in that locale. Supporters of contenders who are not "viable" (Iowa caucus lingo for "below 15 percent") will then get a chance to switch to their second choice for president.

On the eve of the 2004 caucuses, Kucinich told Edwards in a whispered deal that he would help him with second-ballot votes. While there are no statistics available (the Iowa Democratic Party refuses to release initial caucus vote totals), it was thought at the time that the Kucinich move might have added a percentage point or two to Edwards' total.

This time around, Kucinich probably has even less support to throw Obama's way. According to statistics kept by the Washington Post, Kucinich has only spent five days in Iowa since Labor Day -- and one of those appearances was to protest his exclusion from the Des Moines Register debate. Knocking on doors Saturday with Edwards volunteers in Newton (a hard-pressed blue-collar town that Kucinich courted before the 2004 caucuses), I did not encounter a single voter who even mentioned Kucinich.

Still, every vote may matter in Thursday night's too-close-to-call caucuses. And, unlike Nader, Kucinich at least has some Iowa votes to give away.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Dennis Kucinich D-ohio