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The Nader Factor


PRINCETON, NJ -- Ralph Nader announced his candidacy for president on Sunday, hoping to improve on his performance in 2000, when he won 3% of the national vote. As in 2000, Nader's impact on the election is most likely to be seen in closely contested states, as it is highly unlikely he would be able to win any electoral votes of his own. For example, Nader received almost 100,000 votes in Florida in 2000, a state George W. Bush won by 537 votes over Al Gore. Gallup's pre-election polls as well as exit polls showed that Nader voters were more likely to support Gore than Bush. If Nader had not run that year, it is reasonable to assume that enough of a majority of Nader votes would have been cast for Gore, giving him Florida's electoral votes and the presidency.

An analysis of the past Gallup data suggests that Nader supporters in 2000 tended to be younger, not affiliated with either major party, and ideologically liberal, further underscoring the assumption that his 2004 candidacy is more of a threat to the eventual Democratic nominee than to Bush. However, young voters and political independents are among the least likely groups to vote, so nationally, Nader's support should be somewhat limited. Additionally, without a formal party organization backing his candidacy -- Nader was the Green Party nominee in 2000 -- he faces a difficult challenge in trying to improve on those results, in part because of difficulties in getting on many states' ballots.

Nader Support

A September 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that just under one in four Americans, 23%, said they would like to see Nader run for president in 2004, while 66% said they would not. It is difficult to know how many of those who would like to see him run would actually vote for Nader on Election Day, as opposed to expressing support for the general notion that more choices on Election Day are better. However, this percentage could be considered a possible ceiling on Nader's support. Enthusiasm for a Nader presidential bid in the September 2003 poll was highest among 18- to 29-year-olds (39% wanted to see him run for president) and among political independents (29%).

In fact, these two groups were among the most likely to have voted for Nader, according to aggregated data from Gallup's final week of election tracking in 2000. Nader's 2000 support showed a downward trend with age -- his support among 18- to 29-year-old likely voters was 9%, compared with 5% among 30- to 49-year-old likely voters, 4% among 50- to 64-year-olds, and 3% among those 65 and older.

Fourteen percent of "pure" political independents -- those who do not identify with or "lean" to either of the two major parties -- gave their support to Nader in 2000, compared with 6% among Democrats and Democratic leaners and just 2% of Republicans and Republican leaners. Of course, these figures may overstate the relationship somewhat, as current voting intentions often influence one's self-reported party identification, and those supporting a third-party candidate may therefore be more likely to say they are non-leaning independents.

Ideological liberals also gave considerable support to Nader in 2000. Eleven percent of likely voters who described themselves as liberal -- including 21% of those who said they were "very liberal" -- supported Nader in 2000. This compares with just 4% of moderates and 2% of conservatives who intended to vote for Nader. In Gallup's final pre-election poll, Nader actually outpolled Bush among liberal voters, while the vast majority of them (78%) supported Gore.

The challenge for Nader's candidacy, surely as it was in 2000, is that his supporters tend to come from groups that are among those least likely to vote. Only 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds in Gallup's final week of tracking data could be considered likely voters, compared with 59% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 74% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 72% of those 65 and older. Likewise, just 34% of non-leaning independents were likely to vote in 2000, compared with 67% of Republicans and Republican leaners and 61% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Even liberals (53%) tended to score lower than moderates (56%) and conservatives (67%) on the "likely voter" scale.

Effects of a Nader Candidacy

Without a doubt, the deck is stacked heavily against third-party candidates in presidential elections. Since 1920, only three third-party candidates have won any electoral votes, and all were primarily regional candidates -- George Wallace in 1968, Strom Thurmond in 1948, and Robert LaFollette in 1924.

Nader's lack of regional appeal -- he polled similarly in all regions in 2000, though slightly better in the East and West than in the Midwest and South -- more or less assures he will not get any electoral votes in 2004. His greatest impact could come as a "spoiler" candidate, who could take votes away from one of the major-party candidates in a closely contested state and cause the other party to win that state. When asked in the September Gallup Poll whether Gore would be president if Nader had not run in 2000, 41% of Americans said he would and 52% said he would not. Democrats (58%) were much more likely than Republicans (24%) or independents (38%) to believe Gore would be president today if Nader had not run; this belief among Democrats may be enough to dissuade them from voting for Nader or another third-party candidate over the Democratic nominee.

Given that Nader's supporters tend to be ideologically liberal -- and thus, members of a group who overwhelmingly identify themselves as Democrats and who voted heavily for Gore in 2000 -- he continues to represent a much greater threat to the Democratic nominee than to Bush. Gallup's final 2000 election tracking poll did show Nader voters were more likely to say they would have voted for Gore than Bush if Nader had not run.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,003 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 19-21, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Results from the 2000 tracking poll are based on interviews with 8,194 national adults -- including 5,302 identified as likely voters -- conducted Oct. 31 through Nov. 5, 2000.

Results from the "likely voter" sample have a maximum margin of sampling error of ±2 percentage points.

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