HOWARD DEAN SOUNDED WORRIED. Last Wednesday in Burlington, Vermont, toward the end of his announcement that his presidential candidacy was over, Dean paused and looked directly at his audience of supporters. "Let me be clear," Dean said. "I will not run as an independent or third party candidate." Then Dean paused again. "And I urge my supporters not to be tempted to support any effort by another candidate." The governor's voice began to rise: "The bottom line is that we must beat George W. Bush in November--whatever it takes."
Why would Dean be worried? Two words: Ralph Nader. Democrats are concerned that if Nader runs for president in 2004, he will play the spoiler in the race, much as he did in 2000. Four years ago, the rap against Nader was that he siphoned off progressive voters from Al Gore and helped George W. Bush win the presidency. When you talk to Democratic strategists nowadays, they tell you that the party can't risk something like that happening again.
On Friday, Nader said he'll announce whether he's a presidential candidate on Sunday's "Meet the Press." But whatever Nader announces on Sunday, he certainly has been acting like a presidential candidate lately. Over the last five months, the consumer activist and former Green party presidential candidate has moved steadily toward another run. Last October, he set up a presidential exploratory committee. Beginning in January, he discussed his plans on a variety of television and radio talk shows. And in early February, he told Miles Benson, a reporter for the Newhouse News Service, that he was "itching" to run.
When you listen to Nader talk about a possible candidacy, you are struck by how much he sounds like a man who has already made up his mind. For example, earlier this month on NPR, Nader discussed the three things he would need before running for president: a rationale, volunteers, and money. The rationale for his campaign would be (take a deep breath): "heralding the agenda of many subject matters and necessities of the American people that are not adequately emphasized or even discussed by the two parties." It's a "quite compelling" reason to run, he said. And Nader is "satisfied" with the number of volunteers that have pledged their support. That's two out of three. The only thing missing is fundraising, which is "still under [a] testing-the-waters framework."
Nader refused many requests to be interviewed for this article. But there is probably a reason why he is still testing the waters: A presidential run this year wouldn't simply be a replay of his 2000 campaign. For one thing, Nader won't be running as the Green party's presidential candidate. He rejected the idea in December, when he called various Green party leaders and told them he wouldn't run for the party's nomination. Nader later said the decision was logistical: The Green party doesn't formally nominate its candidate for president until June. And June is "too late" a date to mount a serious campaign, Nader told CNN's Bob Novak.
Also, some Democrats are confident that Nader's support has diminished. In 2000, Nader drew huge crowds: A November 2000 rally at the MCI Center in Washington drew more than 10,000 people. Another at New York City's Madison Square Garden drew 15,000 people. The crowds came at a price. Nader won 2.7 percent of the national vote in 2000--not enough for the Green party to receive federal matching funds, but more than enough for Nader to earn infamy among Democrats. Why? Look at the electoral results in two key swing states. In New Hampshire, Gore lost by a margin of 7,211 votes. Nader received 22,198. And in Florida, a state Al Gore lost by 537 votes, 97,488 people voted for Nader. "Nader was clearly an element in the campaign that arguably cost Gore the election," says Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.
These days Nader voters have a serious case of buyer's remorse. If you ask progressives whether they'd vote for Nader in 2004, as the website Alternet.org did recently, only one in nine respondents say yes--a 60 percent decline from 2000. Donna Brazile, a democratic strategist and Al Gore's campaign chair in 2000, says, "Nader will not be as effective in 2004 as he was in 2000. The political landscape has shifted. Base vote will be an important factor for both parties. Nader will not have as much oxygen to suck up as Nader did in 2000 when he ran to Gore's left on many issues." A prominent liberal journalist agrees: "In general, I think Democrats are in a very different mood this year and that Nader would have much, much less traction," says the journalist. "Conceivably Dean voters could end up disaffected from the eventual candidate, if that weren't Dean. But my hunch, and of course my hope, is that that won't happen."
It certainly won't if John Pearce has his say. Pearce runs RalphDontRun.net, a website devoted to discouraging Nader from running for president. He is 39-years-old and has a wife and daughter. He voted for Gore in 2000 and doesn't want to see Nader spoil a Democratic victory again. So when he began to hear that Nader was contemplating a run, he teamed up with a computer programmer and created the website. It's now his full-time job. "It's a citizen's initiative," he says. He is speaking literally. Other than the computer programming, which was a one-time-only job, Pearce handles "the script, op-eds, media relations, email outreach, radio, tv and print media interviews, and overall management of the project."
He has been surprised at the response. "Three weeks ago we had less than 100 visitors a day," he told me. "Yesterday we had 10,000. We've run op-eds in a number of papers, and were in the Sunday Times and Fox News and 'All Things Considered.' We've started to get some exposure. The total number of visitors to the site is now more than 120,000. And this is all in three weeks."
Pearce fears that Nader may be playing into the hands of the right wing. "I think WEEKLY STANDARD readers might gleefully anticipate Nader running and splitting off some critical amount of Democratic voters and causing the reelection of George Bush," he says. Also, he would not be surprised if conservatives were secretly bankrolling Nader. "If I was Richard Mellon Scaife, I know where I'd be putting my money right now," he says. "And it would surely be with mischief and malevolence in mind." Of course, "this is pure speculation--I have no information on whether reactionaries are contributing to Nader's campaign--it's just that given the deafening silence from the grassroots for a Nader run, you have to wonder what's propping up his campaign, and it leads to wilder and more paranoid speculations."
"There's one objective barometer of grassroots support out there," Pearce told me last week. "It's essentially a stock market of grassroots support: Meetup.com." Pearce has been following Nader's support on the Meetup.com website for weeks. He emailed me the results. They show very little support for Ralph Nader. For example, on February 3, John Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner, had 37,000 people registered on the Meetup website. Nader had 373. Eight days later, Kerry had 44,600 people registered--an increase of 7,600. Nader had 374. I happened to log on to the Meetup website on February 18, the day I spoke with John Pearce, and told him that Nader's support had risen to 388 people.
"O my gosh! A grassroots tsunami!" he said. "Seriously, it's significant to note that this was mentioned in the New York Times this weekend, so out of 1.8 million New York Times readers, 16 of them leapt immediately to the barricades to join the Nader movement."
Pearce is not the only person trying to stop Nader. Aaron Toso and Jason Salzman, former Nader voters who manage a two-man public relations firm called Cause Communications in Boulder, Colorado, have started their own website, RepentantNaderVoter.com. The two came up with the idea for the website over stout beer and French onion soup at a local chophouse. Over 500 people have signed their pledge urging Nader not to run. Over 200,000 people have visited the website. "I love Ralph Nader as an activist," Jason told me. "But I don't think there's a lot of support for another presidential run." The two friends feel Nader's central claim in the 2000 election--that there wasn't a whit of difference between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates--has proven to be horrifically wrong. "I bought into it personally," Aaron says. "But Bush isn't a moderate. He's governing from the radical right."
"Tweedledee is still Tweedledee," Jason says. "But Tweedledum has turned out to be a global tyrant."
Then there is the Nation magazine. Long an advocate for Nader, it urged him not to run in its February 16 issue. "If you run," the editors write, "you will separate yourself, probably irrevocably, from any ongoing relationship with this energized mass of activists. Look around: almost no one, including former strong supporters, is calling for you to run, compared with past years when many veteran organizers urged you on."
Nader has been dismissive toward his critics. "I really don't deal with the web," he told the New York Times, when asked about RalphDontRun.net. "There isn't enough time in the day to go into virtual reality." Nader can also be hostile. For example, he has said that his civil rights are being violated. He told Fox News Channel's Andrew Napolitano recently, that "singling out the Green candidacy of Nader-LaDuke among these other what-ifs that are under the control of the Democratic party reveals a bigotry, a civil liberties offense, against the right of all candidates to run for political office in this country and not be considered second-class citizens."
Nader's supporters share his testiness. After George F. Will wrote a column in the Washington Post blaming Nader for Gore's defeat in 2000, Kevin B. Zeese wrote a letter to the editor in which he accused Will of repeating a "liberal myth." "Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, Bill Clinton's Arkansas and traditionally Democratic West Virginia; with any one of these, Gore would have won," Zeese wrote.
Does Zeese's letter show there is support for a Nader candidacy? Not quite. You see, Zeese is more than a Nader supporter. He's a Nader employee--one of about eight who work at the Nader exploratory committee. Before Nader can become a potent force in the presidential race, he's going to have reach beyond his own flacks. And that's unlikely to happen, says Tom Schaller, the University of Maryland political scientist. "Nader runs this year at his own peril, because there's really a lot of animosity toward him other than his core supporters among mainstream Democrats--including Democrats who would normally be sympathetic to Ralph Nader and his positions." Schaller also had this to say: "Nader does long term damage to his very credible reputation as an activist by running again." Maybe the Democrats shouldn't be worried after all.
Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.