The Nation’s Flawed Calculus

by GREG BATES

 

“Nader Voters Favor Kerry Over Bush by 3-to-1 Margin,” screams a Nation press release announcing the results of their recent poll, October 24, 2004. Playing gotcha politics, the Nation’s John Nichols claims it proves “Nader’s Flawed Calculus” (October 24 on the web).

Nichols writes of the survey,

“That’s a far cry from the picture Nader has been painting as he has continued to campaign in pivotal states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio. In late September, in an interview with The Nation, Nader said, “You are going to be surprised at the number of Republicans who back our campaign. We are going to help beat Bush in a number of these states.”

Nichols cites the meat of the poll:

“Were Nader not in the running, 49 percent of those surveyed said they would switch to Kerry, according to the poll by Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a firm that frequently works for Democrats and public-interest groups. Only 17 percent indicated a preference for Bush. Another 24 percent said they were unsure what they would do, while 10 percent indicated that they would not vote.”

But count that up and you get 51% are either coming from the Bush camp, unsure, or wouldn’t vote in any case. Even assuming the undecideds split down the middle and cancel each other out, and it leaves Kerry 49% vs 27% for people who would either not vote if Nader wasn’t on the ballot or who would pick Bush.

Nichols continues,

“According to a new poll conducted for the Democratic National Committee, support for Nader in a dozen battleground states has fallen from 3 percent last summer to only 1.5 percent now. But that 1.5 percent could still matter a great deal.”

What Nichols doesn’t tell you is what anyone reading those numbers can see: a trend. Nader stated in the spring that his progressive support would melt as the election neared, especially in a close contest. That’s exactly what the numbers Nichols cites prove. But he’s so concentrated on alarming people that there’s no time to think whether that trend might continue. And certainly no consideration that Nichols might be proving rather than disproving Nader’s claim.

I asked David Mermin who is Senior Vice President of the firm that conducted the poll, Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, about whether Nader’s support among progressives might continue to melt. He didn’t know but said it was clearly possible. He pointed out that 30-40% of Nader voters found issue-based messages about Iraq, healthcare and the economy “very convincing,” and might switch to vote Kerry. He then stated that those 30-40% who could go to Kerry are likely to be concentrated among the 49% of Nader voters who would otherwise vote Kerry anyway if Nader wasn’t on the ballot. If you subtract up to that 40%, your left with 9% of Nader voters who would otherwise vote for Kerry if Nader wasn’t an option. Meaning, if there is a continued shift toward Kerry, we could wind up with more Nader voters coming from the Republican camp than from the Kerry camp, which was precisely Nader’s prediction.

Also used to hammer Nader is a result that only 16% said they would not vote if Nader wasn’t running, appearing to contradict Nader’s claim that he will get more voters to the polls. But the question had a high refusal rate, 13% wouldn’t answer, casting some doubt on how firm that 16% is. Presumably those who say they would not vote if Nader wasn’t on the ballot are the true diehards. If Nader’s progressive support continues to melt as he predicts, that 16% sliver that goes to the polls because of his candidacy might in the end represent a higher percentage of Nader voters, knocking away yet another criticism of his campaign.

There’s also some cheer in the poll. As mentioned above, the poll firm’s memo states that “After hearing issue-based message about the risk of four more years of Bush, Nader voters are more open to Kerry. Four in ten voters find messages on the Iraq war, health care, and the economy “very convincing” as reasons to vote for Kerry.” But what about the other six in ten? Does that mean they continue to see Kerry clearly? Does that 60% majority realize that Kerry’s plan for Iraq isn’t substantially different from Bush’s, that Kerry’s healthcare plan will still leave millions uninsured while shoveling cash into the hands of business, that Kerry’s economy means the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people?

I asked Mermin about this. He said that while 30-40% found the messages to be “very convincing” reasons to vote Kerry, for the rest they “weren’t very convincing,” and therefore unlikely that such messages would be a factor in their decision, he concluded.

I’m not saying it’s good or bad that some Nader voters are rigid. Only that it’s heartening that a majority of them can see the limits of the propaganda. Here are the messages designed to sway Nader voters, that only 40% found convincing:

* Our economy is at risk. Bush supports continuing tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and expanding tax breaks for the wealthiest 1%. He opposes raising the minimum wage and Bush has given billions in no-bid contracts to friends at Halliburton. We need politicians that will help working middle-class families. We can not risk electing Bush.

* We went to war in Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction. We have spent 200 billion dollars rebuilding Iraq with no bid contracts to corporate contributors like Cheney’s company Halliburton. Bush has no plan to get out of Iraq and now Bush and the Pentagon have a plan to reinstate the draft. We can not risk electing Bush.

* We went to war in Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction. We have spent 200 billion dollars rebuilding Iraq with no bid contracts to corporate contributors like Cheney’s company Halliburton. Bush has no plan to get out of Iraq. We can not risk electing Bush.

* Health care costs are rising out of control. Bush has no plan to get health care costs under control. He has taken 7.5 million dollars in contributions from drug companies and insurance companies and now opposes re-importing cheaper drugs from Canada. Under Bush, Medicare rates were just raised 17% – the biggest increase in history, with the money largely going to HMO’s and drug companies. With health care costs going up and coverage reduced, we can not risk re-electing George W. Bush.

There’s nothing wrong with these accusations against Bush, but you can see immediately why so few Nader voters find in them reason to vote Kerry: the need to oust Bush doesn’t translate, in these questions anyway, into a need to elect Kerry. There’s not a single line that pitches Kerry in a favorable light. And that, in my view, is Kerry’s fault.

There’s something more profound about the Nation’s glee: they are sounding the alarm over a group of Nader voters so small in number that they are incredibly unlikely to swing the election. As Nichols says, support is down to 1.5%. That’s half what it was in 2000. So a repeat of 2000, where Nader voters were a marginal factor, would require an election far closer than 2000. If Nader’s support melts further, the election would have to be closer still. That’s plain unlikely. Polls abound showing Nader voters capable of swinging the vote. But the only voters really capable of doing that are the ones who might otherwise vote Kerry, which the nation poll shows are just 49%, or about half of the 1.5%. Virtually all polls state a margin of error of a few percentage points. Measuring the effect of so few voters who would otherwise vote Kerry isn’t really possible with current polling techniques.

Major media have commented on why polls are so unreliable this year-more voters are using cell phones that don’t get dialed into by surveyors the way land lines are, and those with landlines often have caller ID and screen out unfamiliar numbers, and with an election. Crucially, since polls often provide wildly differing results from each other, what matters is the trend over time in polls taken by the same organization. Comparing Gallup in the summer to Gallup in the fall, CBS last week to CBS this week, etc., is what yields a sense of direction and clarity about likely outcomes of a close race. In short, you can’t really tell much of anything scientifically by looking at a one-shot poll like the Nation’s. But analysis has never stopped a Nader critic in the midst of a rant.

The proper way to view a one-shot poll like this is in the context of other polls. There’s an interesting poll from USA today at http://www.usatoday.com/
taken October 14-16. It shows that those who would vote for Nader come evenly from the Kerry and Bush camps, with actually slightly more from the Bush camp. But Nader critics, to maintain their consistency, have to be selective. Here’s Jim Motavalli of E Magazine, using an article from the New York Times, October 15, 2004:

“Nader either blatantly lied or displayed willful ignorance on polling results. He claimed that a Zogby poll revealed that he draws as many votes from Republicans as Democrats. The Times was forced to correct the record. ‘Shawnta Walcott, a spokeswoman for Zogby, said its polls showed Nader drawing far more from Kerry.’ The Times wrote, ‘She said the polls, aggregated from March through September, showed that if Nader were not an option, 41 percent of his supporters would go to Kerry, 15 percent to Bush and 30 percent to another candidate, with 13 percent undecided.’ “

Most progressives take the New York Times with a grain of salt, but when it comes to Nader, critics accept it as gospel. As Motavalli goes on,

“How does Ralph Nader sleep at night? Even such presumed Naderites as GREG BATES, author of the recent book, Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion, says voters in swing states should consider voting for Kerry.”

That lie caught my attention. I don’t give advice to swing state voters-selecting a candidate is an intensely personal decision about how voters perceive the differences between Kerry and Bush, about how risky it may be to vote Nader, and about whether they are willing to accept those risks. Those are subjective value choices, not objective questions. Voters need dialog and discussion of the factors. But I don’t think urging voters one way or the other is helpful. Swing state voters are every bit as capable as the next person of making thoughtful choices.

But hasn’t Motavalli nonetheless caught Nader in a bald-faced lie, the ridiculous premise that he’ll have as many Republican votes as progressive ones? I asked one of his campaign staff, Kevin Zeese about this. He pointed out the USA today poll cited above showing Nader voters were split between Kerry and Bush, and then noted that Zogby himself pointed that this was true back in August. As John M. Glionna reported in “Nader Faces Legal and Ballot Challenges, Dwindling Support:” in the LA Times, August 28:

“Pollster John Zogby said it was unclear who would be hurt more if Nader
remained in the presidential race – the Republicans or Democrats.

” ‘Half of Nader voters would not vote if he dropped out of the race,” he
said. “A quarter of them are people who would otherwise vote for Kerry.
But interestingly, we’re finding that a quarter are being taken from Bush.’ “

Zeese points out that the Times simply interviewed a Zogby staffer who said something different. With the polls all over the map in a tight election, calling Nader a liar for saying he didn’t see any evidence to support the idea that he’s taking more from Kerry than Bush, is hardly the kind of journalism progressives should be proffering. In fact that very Times article goes on, right under the quote Motavalli pulled, to illuminate the trend that neither Motavalli nor Nichols acknowledge. The Times reports that Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said that the profile of likely Nader supporters was changing and beginning to resemble that of voters who supported H. Ross Perot, the third party candidate, in 1996, rather than those who supported Nader in 2000.”

The Times quotes her further,

“‘Nader is taking less out of Kerry now,’ she said. ‘So the leftover Nader vote is more conservative,’ meaning that they were Bush supporters originally but have defected, probably because he has allowed the deficit to balloon.”

But for Motavalli, as for Nichols, the trend is outside what constitutes respectable debate.

Returning to the Nation, instead of proclaiming that “Nader voters favor Kerry over Bush by a 3 to 1 margin,” and bashing Nader for being wrong, they might have put their poll into the context of others and stated that the data are just plain inconclusive. And they could have acknowledged that so many had ridiculed Nader for a prediction that, with each passing day, looks more and more likely to come to pass. That would have been correct. But complex facts that get in the way of the Nation’s simple truth are omitted.

It’s easy to see where this will probably lead. The decks are statistically stacked against the possibility that Nader voters who would otherwise vote for Kerry will in fact cost Kerry the election. Yes, it’s possible, but less likely than the possibility of a journalist fitting through the eye of a needle. Far more likely is a victory by Bush or by Kerry without Nader voters playing a pivotal role. Then, when the Nader doomsday scenario fails to materialize, all those pundits and groups who have trashed Nader and urged voters to vote Kerry will proclaim euphoric victory for having illuminated the difference between Kerry and Bush. They won’t credit the half a billion dollars spent by Kerry and Bush to outline their differences. They won’t credit the Democrat’s scurrilous campaign to keep Nader off the ballot. They won’t credit the fact that 2000 was a statistical fluke unlikely to appear again. And they certainly won’t credit Nader for having accurately predicted in February that he would take more votes from Bush than from Kerry. Whatever the truth, Nader just can’t be right. That would necessitate an apology for all that they’ve done to his reputation that they so carefully pretend to be concerned about. Instead, if Kerry wins, we will probably be fed the line that the country was saved from Nader by the Nation and other anti-Nader groups.

GREG BATES is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case For Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at gbates@commoncouragepress.com.

 

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