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Lowman S. Henry



Efforts to stop ‘minor party candidates’ affront to Democracy

by Lowman S. Henry, CEO
Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research

It may be the dog days of summer, with many Pennsylvanians trying to make the most of the waning vacation season. But politically, the campaigns are already in high gear in what used to be post-Labor Day over-drive.

In this the most un-typical of election years a little known date on the election calendar has turning into a major milestone. The August filing deadline for independent and so-called “minor party” candidates usually generates few headlines, little response, and a general ho-hum reaction from the “major party” partisans.

Not this year. Pennsylvania is a battleground state in the Presidential election, and with a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, one of the hottest pieces of real estate on the political landscape.

And so it was that the filing of Ralph Nader as an independent candidate for President, and Jim Clymer as the Constitution Party candidate for U.S. Senator drew attention and – in the ultimate political compliment – support from and attacks by the major political parties.

Charges flew from the Democrats that Republicans covertly helped Nader gather more than 45,000 signatures to secure a coveted spot on the November General Election ballot, while Republicans blamed the otherwise hapless campaign of Congressman Joe Hoeffel for assisting Clymer’s successful ballot access drive.

Why the fuss?

Clearly Democrats see Ralph Nader as a serious speed bump on John Kerry’s road to the White House. As a noted liberal, Nader’s candidacy is viewed by fellow Democrat left-wingers as tantamount to treason, and their rhetoric has been accordingly harsh. Take for example Pennsylvania House Democrat Leader Bill DeWeese’s broadside upon announcing plans to challenge Nader’s petitions: “This is a lugubrious and nefarious moment in Ralph Nader’s otherwise admirable career of helping American consumers.”

The unabridged Webster’s dictionary I bought just to translate DeWeeseese into English defines “lugubrious” as “sad, mournful or dismal”. And it is an apt word, as Nader’s candidacy could doom Kerry’s run for the White House. Thus, the Democrat establishment in Pennsylvania is engaged in an effort to deny Nader, his 45,000 supporters, and countless thousands of voters an opportunity to register their true choice on election day.

Four years ago, Nader, running on the Green Party ticket, received 103,392 votes in Pennsylvania. Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by 204,840 votes, therefore Nader at no point endangered Gore’s claim to the Keystone state’s electoral votes. In Florida, however, where various recounts had Bush winning by just a few hundred votes, Nader attracted 97,488 ballots, while Pat Buchanan drew only 17,484 votes. Democrats believe that had Nader stayed out of the race, his Florida votes would have gone to Gore – and so would have the White House. Hence their hyper-sensitivity to Nader’s 2004 effort.

If the election in Pennsylvania is as close as most observers think it will likely be, Nader could in fact siphon off enough potential Kerry voters to tip the commonwealth into Bush’s column. Having watched Ross Perot siphon off support from George Bush-the-elder in 1992, and from Bob Dole in 1996, the Democrats know the powerful effect of “third party” candidates.

While the Democrat’s rail against Nader, the Specter camp has taken a different approach to Jim Clymer. Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas said there would be no challenge to Clymer’s petitions. Specter has the luxury of a sizable lead over Joe Hoeffel, but given the evenly-divided nature of Keystone state politics – and Specter’s natural combativeness – no lead can be viewed as big enough.

The near-miss by Pat Toomey in the Primary election energized the conservative wing of the Republican Party as few elections have in recent years. With many conservatives smarting over the Bush White House and Senator Rick Santorum’s pivotal support for Specter in the Primary, significant numbers of GOP voters could be attracted to a Clymer candidacy.

But rather than call attention to that option, the Specter Campaign has enough confidence in its own abilities to simply let Clymer run and deal with the challenge like it has all others, but simply running a strong campaign. That contrasts sharply with the “sky is falling” reaction of the Democrats to Nader’s campaign.

But all this strategy aside, Nader, Clymer, and hundreds of other “minor party” candidates have a right to ballot access. The fact they have surmounted all the obstacles to the ballot the system puts in their way is testament to their dedication. Yes, Nader could cost John Kerry Pennsylvania, and Jim Clymer might – if and when the race tightens – cost Arlen Specter his seat in the Senate. If that happens, so be it. Nader and Clymer have done what it takes to become candidates, and we the voters of Pennsylvania deserve the opportunity to choose for ourselves, not have the DeWeeses of the world deny us our right to select our leaders at the ballot box.

Lowman Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc., a Harrisburg-based non-profit, educational foundation, and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal.