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Iowa Researcher Finds Nader Likely Helped Gore in 2000 Election

Nine years have passed, but many Democrats are still sore at Ralph Nader for his maverick candidacy in the 2000 election that many believe was the reason George W. Bush beat Al Gore.

But new research from a marketing professor in The University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business suggests that while that claim is true, it also suggests that Nader's candidacy actually helped Gore.

"Many people would have come in supporting Nader but eventually voted for Gore, and that might not have happened if Nader had never entered the race," said William Hedgcock, assistant professor of marketing.

Hedgcock's findings were recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research. His paper, "Could Ralph Nader's Entrance and Exit Have Helped Al Gore?" was coauthored with Akshay Rao of the University of Minnesota and Haipeng Chen of Texas A&M University.

In an experiment, Hedgock showed one group of test subjects two hypothetical candidates—A and B, standing in for Bush and Gore—and asked them to select one after providing a sample of political attributes of each. In the two-way race, Bush's stand-in won 81 percent of the vote while Gore's received 19 percent.

Another test group was shown three candidates, with a third candidate, C, to represent Nader. In the three-way race, Nader's proxy won 72 percent, Bush 28 percent, and Gore didn't get a single vote.

Finally, the subjects in the second group were told that the Nader candidate was no longer available and were asked to select from the Bush or Gore stand-ins. This time, Gore received 39 percent and Bush received 61 percent.

How did Gore's share of the vote go from zero to 39 percent in the second group, even though nothing happened beyond a third candidate dropping out? Hedgcock said it's called the principle of self-identification. That's when undecided people make a decision about something, whether it's a political candidate or a brand of soda, and identify with that decision. When their original choice becomes unavailable, they select an alternative option with the most similar attributes.

"Selecting Nader defines a person. It makes those people think of themselves as that kind of a person, so when you can't make that choice anymore, you go to the next closest Nader type," Hedgcock said. "In the 2000 election, that was Gore."

As a result, the Gore proxy went from 19 percent in a two-way race to 39 percent after Nader joined and then dropped out, or a 20-percentage point increase in vote count.

He said the experiment showed that in 2000, there was no guarantee that Gore would have won the votes of Nader's supporters had Nader never entered the race. He said many people who voted for Gore or Nader might have voted for Bush without a Nader candidacy. In that case, he said Nader's presence on the ballot might have helped make the election closer than it would have otherwise been.

During the 2000 campaign, many Democratic leaders actively wooed Nader voters and asked him to quit the race so as not hurt Gore's chances in what was shaping up to be a close race. Hedgcock's experiment suggests the party leaders were right, and Gore would have received the votes of most of Nader's supporters.

Hedgcock said the self-identification results were confirmed when he and Rao ran the same experiment using consumer goods, such as beer and vacations, rather than political candidates.

Hedgcock said his research applies to undecided voters who claimed no party or ideological affiliation and who could have voted for either Bush or Gore in a two-man race. Most political scientists put that number at only about 20 percent, but in a close race like the 2000 election, only a few votes made the difference.


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