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How Nader might help the Democrats this fall

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, February 24, 2004

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“What do you think Ralph Nader is going to do?” my friend asked me at early church this week. Then he said, “I am going home now to see if his big ego is going to ruin the Democrats’ chances again this year.”

This year, Nader’s candidacy might be a blessing for the Democrats.

It turned out, as you of course know, that Ralph Nader told NBC’s Meet the Press that he would run again for President as an independent. In 2000, he was the Green Party’s nominee. Most observers believe that had Nader not been on the ballot in 2000, Al Gore would have won the presidential election.

In Florida, Nader drew about 97,000 votes. Presumably, most of those votes would have gone for Gore rather than for Bush. If so, they would have given Gore many more votes than he needed for a clear win in Florida--and a presidential victory.

For most Democrats, Nader’s candidacy this year is their worst nightmare. They believe it will be 2000 all over again and that the votes that go to Nader will again reduce the total for the Democratic nominee. All this, in their minds, could make President Bush the winner if the November election is another very close one. Some of my Republican friends are smiling quietly. They agree with this line of thinking, remembering their own disappointment when Ross Perot’s strong third-party campaign helped Bill Clinton win the Presidency.

Maybe Nader’s candidacy is bad news for Democratic presidential hopes, as my friends, both Republican and Democrat, believe.

But I think they are wrong. This year, Nader’s candidacy might be a blessing for the Democrats.

It has to do with the benefits of negative campaigning--and how it helps and hurts candidates. We have learned some things about negative campaigning. First of all, it works. It drives away support from the candidate who is the target of a negative campaign. But there is a problem for the candidate who runs the negative campaign. Since most people do not like “dirty politics,” the candidate doing the attacking loses support, too.

In the usual two-way race, both candidates lose support. The voters wind up choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” But when there are more than two candidates, it is different. If the first candidate attacks the second one with a negative campaign, both of them lose support. That support tends to go to a third candidate, one who is neither attacking nor being attacked. Remember the recent Iowa primary, where Dick Gephardt’s negative advertisements against Howard Dean and Dean’s barrages in reply drove away their former supporters right into the arms of John Kerry and John Edwards.

Nader says he will be campaigning negatively against the policies of both major parties. But most of his venom will be directed at the incumbent president.

Whatever damage Nader does to Bush, the resulting drop in support for the President will not shift to Nader. Instead, the Democratic nominee will get the benefit without having to take responsibility for being a negative campaigner. In other words, Nader will be doing the Democrats’ “dirty work” for them.

Wait a minute, you say. The Democrats still have to worry that Nader will take votes away from their candidate on election day, just as he did in 2000. I do not think so. This year, nobody whose first priority is defeating President Bush is going to vote for Nader. Perhaps he will get a substantial number of votes, as he did in 2000. But almost all of those votes will come from those who are truly disenchanted with both major parties, people who could not in good conscience vote for the candidate of either party, and would not vote for either major candidate whether or not Nader is on the ballot.

Thus, here is my advice for the Democrats: Stop whining and complaining about Nader. He might be your secret weapon this fall.

My advice for Republicans: Don’t laugh too hard at the Democrat’s “Nader’s problem.” And don’t turn your back on Nader. He is not your friend.

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which is taking a break during the special programming for UNC-TV’s “Festival.” It will return to the air in the spring.

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