Third-party candidates often draw higher poll numbers in summer poll than they do in the fall (as undecided voters who have yet to pay much attention to the race fall back on candidates they will not actually vote for) and some Republicans and Democrats have been worried that Bob Barr and Ralph Nader could draw votes away from John McCain and Barack Obama. Yet, neither Barr nor Nader have yet to make much of a splash. Polls have found them hovering around the 2% mark, and even in his home state of Georgia, Barr looks far from assured of crossing 5%.
In fact, it is difficult for candidates like Barr and Nader to build a campaign when they have to spend the spring and summer worrying about whether they will qualify even in their strongest states. Democrats have been much less active this year than they were in 2004 in putting hurdles in Nader’s path - perhaps because of his disappointing performance four years ago - and Nader appears to be having less problems than he did then, but both him and Barr have been focusing their attention on ballot access.
As of today, Ballot Access News reports that Barr has qualified in 34 states, whereas Nader has qualified for 17. The Green Party’s candidate Cynthia McKinney is already certain to be on the ballot in 24 states. A number of deadlines are coming up in the next few weeks, and all these candidates are working to collect signatures. It appears, for instance, that Nader submitted enough signatures last week to qualify for the Connecticut, Iowa and Kansas ballots. Barr, whose stated goal was to be on the ballot in 48 states, appears to have fallen short in West Virginia, though he is challenging his exclusion.
Among the major battlegrounds, the situation varies form state to state: Barr is on the ballot in Ohio, but Nader is still struggling; Nader is on the ballot in Pennsylvania, but Barr is waiting to see whether his petition is approved; in Florida, Barr is on the ballot but Nader has to get the nomination of a party that has a place on the ballot to do so; in Virginia, candidates are still collecting signatures and have a few more weeks to do so; in the 3 Western battlegrounds (Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada), Nader, Barr and McKinney will all be on the ballot.
But even though the election is likely to be the closest in those states, it is not necessarily in major battlegrounds like Ohio and Virginia that Nader and Barr could have the most impact. Both candidates have different states in which they are most likely to pull in respectable showings, and it is here that Obama or McCain could potentially bleed support. Barr’s strongest states will be in the South (he will be the only third-party candidate in the ballot in both Georgia and North Carolina), as well as Alaska and the libertarian West - none of these states were competitive in 2000 or 2004 but Obama is contesting them aggressively.
On the other hand, Nader has yet to qualify in all the states in which he ought to be strongest: he is on the ballot in Washington and California, but is still working on Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Oregon and Minnesota. Of these, Oregon, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are likely to be competitive, though California and Washington should be safe for the Democratic nominee.
An important reason for small candidates to run is to secure ballot access for third parties - access that would allow the party to build upon its prior successes. But that Nader is running as an independent, not as a party’s candidate, has served as confirmation to many that he is pursuing a personal quest, irrespective of whether his candidacies can build an alterative to the major parties. At least in Iowa, Nader will not be running as an independent: he collected signatures with the help of the Peace and Freedom Party and he will appear on the ballot with that party’s label. That means that if Nader gets 2% of the vote in Iowa, the Peace and Freedom Party will have a guaranteed line on the ballot in 2010.