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If you believe the early polls, Ralph Nader could again be a factor in deciding the winner of the 2004 presidential contest. Count me as a skeptic. [IMGCAP(1)]

While as many as a dozen states could be headed for a photo finish in November and King Ralph draws anywhere from a couple of percentage points to as many as 7 points nationally, Nader’s time has passed. The early polls simply exaggerate his strength.

The most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey shows Nader drawing 4 percent, while Newsweek’s most recent poll finds Nader at 5 points. Those showings are considerably better than the 2.7 percent of the vote he received as the Green Party nominee in 2000.

In this case, the polls defy logic. Given the polarization of the electorate, Democrats’ frustration with losing the 2000 race because then-Vice President Al Gore lost Florida narrowly and liberals’ acceptance of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and disgust with President Bush, it is inconceivable that Nader’s showing would improve by 50 percent or more in the 2004 election.

One of the problems with the national numbers, which generally show Nader getting anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent in hypothetical general election tests, is that, as one savvy Democratic observer told me recently, “those numbers are irrelevant, since [Nader] isn’t a national candidate.”

The 2000 Green Party nominee is running this time as an Independent, and it is unlikely that he will make it onto every state ballot. So testing his electoral appeal in a national sample makes no sense.

But even if Nader were to get on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it still would be a waste of time and money to poll his national strength. It doesn’t much matter how well he is doing in South Dakota, Mississippi, Massachusetts or New York, since none of those states will be “in play” in November.

While I normally prefer hard numbers over anecdotal evidence, for now I’m taking the anecdotal evidence about Nader’s ultimate appeal.

A handful of 2000 Nader voters have already told me that they will vote for Kerry in November, and their comment is always the same. They say the following: Nader cost Gore the White House four years ago, and they want to be sure that the Kerry doesn’t meet the same fate — for the same reason — later this year.

Of course, some Nader voters won’t be dissuaded from supporting the consumer watchdog turned anti-establishment, anti-globalization rabble rouser. There are still enough backpack carrying, anti-corporate vegans to get 1 or 2 percentage points in the general election.

Those voters truly are Nader voters and Green voters, and they aren’t impressed by arguments about “throwing away their votes.” While they may regard President Bush as their enemy, they regard Kerry as very much part of the establishment and therefore unacceptable. They wouldn’t vote for Kerry even if Nader wasn’t on the ballot.

Why will Nader’s numbers shrink between now and November? First, the Green Party will have a presidential nominee this year who will attract some environmental voters who supported Nader in 2000.

Second, the longer the campaign goes on, the more voters will see stark issue differences between the two major parties’ nominees. And, notes one Democrat, “every time Bush or Kerry points out differences between themselves, they make it less likely that Nader will be a factor.”

And third, Independent and third party candidates inevitably see their numbers fall, and Nader’s own numbers slid between the spring of 2000 and Election Day.

In early April 2000, a Zogby poll showed Nader drawing 6 percent of the vote. Later that month, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey found Nader at 4 percent, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put him at 5 percent.

In mid-May, the Los Angeles Times showed Nader at 4 percent, while ABC/Washington Post had him at 5 percent and Fox News/Opinion Dynamics at 2 percent.

Whether Nader’s appeal waned or the early polls exaggerated his appeal, it is clear that the Green Party nominee didn’t receive the support that early polling predicted.

Does this mean that on Nov. 3 we won’t look at Nader’s vote in Florida, New Hampshire, Oregon or New Mexico and conclude that he “cost” Kerry a state or two and therefore the election? Of course not. If an election is close enough, anything is possible.

Given that, it is understandable that Democrats are concerned about Nader’s candidacy, even though he isn’t likely to attract the same level of support. While Democrats would prefer Nader not to be on the ballot in key states, they can accomplish much the same by pointing out the differences between Bush and Kerry on many issues. That should persuade any persuadable Nader voters that the real choice in November is between the Republican and Democratic nominees.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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