Missing the Forest for the Trees

Gladdening the hearts of Democrats everywhere, the Associated Press reported today that John Kerry and Ralph Nader will meet next month to discuss their efforts to defeat President Bush.

That got us thinking: Since Nader announced his run for the presidency, news coverage has focused almost exclusively on the notion that the more support he gets, the more his candidacy hurts Sen. John Kerry. (Some recent polls have given him as much as five or six percent support, with Bush and Kerry running even.)

But most news accounts of the issue have missed a key point: Nader only matters in the swing states.

Thus, to get an accurate sense of the harm Nader could do Kerry, we need to know, first, what his chances are of getting on the ballot in the swing states, and, second, is he really polling five to six percent in those states? So far, no one has told us.

Anne Kornblut of the Boston Globe has come closest, soliciting the advice of an actual “ballot specialist” who “can’t imagine [Nader] getting on fewer than 45 states’ ballots.” Kornblut goes on to note that “it is notable that the five states to which Nader is least likely to win access are all deeply Republican, while battleground states where Nader could swing the results have looser rules.”

This recent Knight Ridder treatment of Nader’s run includes a “Ballot Access” sub-hed, but, bizarrely, considers the issue only as regards Texas, which is a lock for President Bush anyway. And a New York Daily News piece notes, apropos of Nader’s candidacy, “What is more worrisome to Democrats is battleground states such as Pennsylvania,” but it offers no information on Nader’s chances of getting on the ballot there — though it does consider the issue in Oregon, another swing state.

A few regional outlets have provided useful assessments of Nader’s chances of getting on the ballot in specific swing states: This St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, from March 1, considers the challenge for Nader in Missouri. And the Columbus Dispatch looked at the situation in Ohio recently.

But no one that we can find has provided an overview of Nader’s chances of getting on the ballot in each of the swing states. Yes, there’s no exact consensus on what those states are — but why not follow the ads? (Any state in which it is advertising heavily is, by definition, a state that the Bush campaign considers close and crucial.)

And, true, each state has different — and often absurdly intricate — rules regarding ballot access, so such a piece would take time and research. But isn’t that part of a reporter’s job?

If we really want to understand the potential for Nader’s candidacy to affect the outcome of the race, we need to know what hurdles he faces in getting on the ballot in the swing states, and how likely he is to overcome those hurdles.

Everything else is superfluous.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.