With Ralph Nader's announcement last week that he will mount another presidential campaign, public perceptions of Nader have again become relevant to America's political future. Gallup's public opinion database, the Gallup Brain, offers some interesting historical perspectives about how Nader has been viewed at several points over the course of his long career.
Nader's track record as a consumer advocate is remarkable. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played David to any number of Goliath industries. But while his staunch consumer advocacy made him a well-known figure, it never materialized into true political capital.
Nader became a public figure by taking on industries and agencies that were previously unchallenged. His best-selling book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, skewered automotive safety regulations when it appeared in 1965. His investigation of the Federal Trade Commission triggered a revamping of that agency and spawned Nader's first consumer advocacy group.
Dubbed "Nader's Raiders" by the press, Nader's taskforces investigated, reported on, and prompted changes in government agencies regulating railroads, public health hazards, and the food industry. In 1971 and 1972, Nader and his troops investigated and published books on 17 topics still germane today, such as water pollution, the banking industry, frauds in nursing homes, pesticides in agriculture, and overdevelopment of land.
The Public Takes Notice
In 1971, roughly 4 in 10 Americans (43%) were able to correctly identify Nader as a consumer advocate. And he appeared in the top 10 on Gallup's annual list of most admired men several times in the 1970s. Relatively few Americans, however, believed that Nader should be a candidate for president. A February 1971 Gallup Poll showed that just 11% of those who knew who Nader was wanted to see him run for the Democratic nomination for president. Gallup also matched Nader against some of the leading Democratic contenders from that time in trial heat questions -- including Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. George McGovern, and Sen. Edmund Muskie -- but each of these outpolled Nader by a decent margin among those who were familiar with Nader.
Nader's tendency to gain public awareness without being seen as a true political force would persist. In a May 1975 Gallup Poll, Americans were read a list of public figures who were considered possible contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination and asked to identify which ones they had heard something about. Sixty-eight percent had heard of Nader by that time, making him one of the most widely recognized people on the list. But the increased notoriety did not necessarily translate to a higher political profile for Nader. When asked to choose from the same list whom they would like to see nominated as the Democratic candidate for president in 1976, only 3% chose Nader. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Gov. George Wallace, and Sen. Hubert Humphrey garnered the top mentions. At that time, just 1% chose Jimmy Carter, the eventual Democratic nominee and 39th president.
2000 and Beyond
The same story was reprised in 2000, when Nader ran as the Green Party's candidate for president. Roughly 6 in 10 knew who Nader was, and Americans generally viewed him more favorably than unfavorably. For example, a July 2000 poll showed 42% of the public with a positive view of Nader, 22% with a negative view, and 36% unfamiliar with him. Nader never polled more than 6% nationally in the 2000 campaign, and finished with 3% of the vote on Election Day.
Recent polling implies that Nader's declaration to run in 2004 will do little to change his reputation as a political anomaly. His support is most likely to come from younger voters and those not affiliated with either of the major political parties, and both of those groups have historically been among the least likely to turn out on Election Day.