Certain amount of sturm und drang among Democrats today with the news that Ralph Nader is again running for President. Most of the commentary has been devoted to revisiting Nader’s spoiler effect in the 2000 election. Nader is much less of a threat to the Democrats in this go-round, however. The 04 election showed that many of his supporters in 2000 have trickled away from him. The Green Party won’t be providing him with backing or organizational support. Finally, Barack Obama has done a better job than either Gore or Kerry of motivating the young, progressive voters who might have been inclined to support a Nader election.
The final fact that will be working against the possibility of Nader playing the spoiler is the change in attitudes among progressives. What hurt Gore more than anything in 2000, with respect to the Nader vote, was the feeling among the electorate that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between Bush and Gore. Gore was an un-personable technocrat. Bush was a malapropism spouting unknown quantity, who claimed to be a “compassionate conservative”. Support for both of them ran lukewarm, as neither was able to capture a significant number of independents or crossover voters. The result was the 50-50 split that saw Bush take the presidency despite a lower popular vote, thanks to the peculiarities of the electoral college.
This year, there is a much stronger feeling among Democratic and independent voters that their vote is a significant choice- particularly with Obama as the Democratic nominee. While there’s still some frustration with the two main stream parties among some independents, an Obama-McCain general election would would result in the independent and crossover votes that might have once gone to Nader being apportioned between McCain and Obama- with Obama taking the lions share, thanks to his appeal to both the more liberal Republicans who might vote for McCain, and the young, liberal Democrats who might have previously been tempted by Nader on the Green Party ticket. Conservative Democrats might split their vote, but that effect will be mollified by Obama by the fact that some hard-core conservatives might not turn out for a McCain election.
Interestingly, I think Nader plays a much bigger potential role in a run-off between Clinton and McCain. Both could inspire some antipathy among their own party members (particularly if there are any convention shenanigans that result in Hillary taking the nomination) that could push supporters towards a third-party candidate. In such a scenario, though, it’s difficult to state with any confidence what would happen to the protest vote- you might see more write-in votes for Obama than votes for Nader.