Nader Is No Green Giant

ralph nader speaks
When Al Gore joined running mate Joe Lieberman for a town hall meeting in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, the two were met by dozens of Ralph Nader supporters chanting "Let Ralph debate!"

The consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate has enjoyed a relatively strong following in Western states such as Oregon, Washington and California, attracting as much as 9 percent of the vote in some areas. For a while, it looked like he might siphon off enough Democratic votes to tip the balance to Republican George W. Bush in these key states.

But fresh polling information shows Nader's impact may be more menacing than murderous to the Gore campaign.

A Washington state survey conducted this week by independent pollster Stuart Elway showed Gore leading Bush by 42 percent to 35 percent, which reflected a 13-point gain for Gore since July. Nader garnered just 3 percent of the vote. And a poll conducted the weekend after the Democratic National convention by independent polling firm Evans-McDonough showed Nader with only 5 percent of the vote in Washington.

Gore and Lieberman are heading to Seattle on Thursday for their first campaign rally since the party's gathering in Los Angeles, no doubt riding high on the remnants of a post-convention bounce.

But pollster Don McDonough suggests Gore's recent surge has more to do with the typical decline of third-party candidates like Nader, who traditionally enjoy the apex of their support about six months before the general election when it's "easy for voters to flirt with them." This attraction may be even more pronounced in Western states, adds McDonough, because voters in this part of the country tend to identify less with particular parties.

Independent pollster Tim Hibbitts in Oregon agrees. In his state, Nader has seen polling highs in the 7 percent range. Hibbitts now suspects that number has peaked and is likely falling.

As for Nader's impact on Gore, Hibbitts says his data suggests that out of a 7 percent support base for Nader, just 3 percent would otherwise back Gore, while about 1 percent would vote for Bush. The rest are "bleep-you votes" by those dissatisfied with the current two-party system, who wouldn't consider voting for either major-party candidate.

"Nader could only hurt Gore if his numbers keep going up," says Hibbitts, because he would peel away soft Gore supporters.

In California, recent polling also suggests Nader's support has faltered. A survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in the last week of July showed Gore with just a 3 percent lead over Bush, with Nader attracting a significant 8 percent of support.

But a survey conducted after the Democratic National convention by the nonpartisan Field Institute gave Gore a 13-point lead, with Nader at just 4 percent. In a June Field poll, Nader garnered 7 percent of the California vote.

Analysts say Nader's support comes from environmentalists wh are troubled by Gore's relatively weak stance on Northwest ecological issues; liberals who resist the Democrats' drift to the middle; and those who like Nader's high-octane fight against globalism, multilateral trade pacts and campaign corruption.

But Gore's choice of the moralistic Lieberman to be his vice president may shore up some votes among those attracted to Nader's reputation for integrity. And Lieberman's voting record in Congress received perfect scores from environmental watchdog groups such as the League of Conservation Voters.

Although Nader is running under the Green Party banner, he does not necessarily come across to voters as someone who is passionate about the environment, observes pollster Don McDonough, and that could also hurt his prospects.

Nonetheless, no one expects Nader to ride out the fall campaign quietly. He is still fighting to take part in the presidential debates, and his appearances last weekend in Portland drew a crowd of 10,000, while another in Seattle drew a sellout crowd of 1,600.