WASHINGTON – As someone who would sooner "vote for Scooby-Doo" than George W. Bush or John Kerry (search), Cathy Allen is not the kind of voter the two parties would spend much time courting.
But at the moment, the 38-year-old Baltimore woman is supporting another character for president, the very real Ralph Nader (search), and people like her will loom large if the coming election is a squeaker like the last one.
By most measures, Nader is a marginal player who gets less than 10 percent in the polls and faces a daunting task in getting his name on the ballot in all 50 states. But if the election is won and lost on the margins as it was in 2000, people like Allen will count.
"Right now I'll vote for Nader," she says, "just to throw my vote away."
As a registered Democrat, she plays to the party's worst fears — that Nader will draw away just enough Democrats to tip the balance in Bush's favor.
Democrats contend that's what happened in 2000, when Al Gore would have gone over the top by winning one more state. They say Gore almost certainly would have won Florida or New Hampshire or both if Nader hadn't been a factor. That's why liberal groups have been begging the liberal Nader to get out.
Nader scoffs at the argument and insists he will draw his support this time from Republicans or conservative independents who can't stand Bush. Most analysts dismiss that scenario. But such voters exist.
Pat Lister, 44, of Des Plains, Ill., recently lost her job as a data-entry clerk and her husband has been unemployed for two years. "Dan and I very much are far worse off than four years ago," she said. "We need a change and it better come quick."
But she's been a Republican since the cradle.
"Republicans, good, and Democrats are bad, is the way I grew up thinking," she said. "That darn upbringing is what haunts me."
She said she would feel disloyal abandoning the GOP for the Democrats, "but if I voted for Nader I won't feel so bad about it."
A poll conducted this week for The Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs put Nader's support at 7 percent, compared with 46 percent for Bush and 43 percent for Kerry. Nader was at that level or higher during 2000, but his numbers dropped as the election approached. He won 2.7 percent of the vote as the Green Party candidate.
Scott Keeter, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, wouldn't be surprised if that kind of fade happens again.
"Right now every poll I've seen shows him taking votes away from John Kerry," he said. "The question is whether people who like Nader can flirt with him at no cost right now and whether they'll change their mind come Election Day."
Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Nader is bound to finish lower than his current poll numbers because of his difficulty getting on many state ballots. And Bowman doesn't think much of Nader's theory that he will draw from anti-Bush Republicans.
"If he's counting on conservatives, I think he will be out of luck," she said. "Bush has extraordinary support with conservatives and Republicans at this point and I don't see much evidence that they'll be inclined to switch and give support to Nader."
In Wakefield, R.I., engineer Doug Bower says there's a 50 percent chance he'll vote for Nader, as he did in 2000. Kerry is the other possibility. He's a bit worried about "throwing the election" to Bush.
"I think Bush is way too far right and religious and scary," Bower said. "I don't really trust Kerry."
Greg Ryan, 41, a Venice, N.Y., farmworker, figures his vote is wasted anyway because his state is certain to go for Kerry. But he plans to support Nader, with Bush being his second choice.
"I don't see Kerry doing anything for us," Ryan said. "I see his liberal record. I see him taking more money out of our pockets." Because he sees his vote as a protest, it does not matter that Nader is more liberal than the Democrat.
In Halletsville, Texas, Frank Eckert, 76, says he'll probably throw his vote away on Nader, too.
"I like Nader's honesty, his simplicity," Eckert said. "Some ideas I don't like. We have bad choices this time, though.
"It's a wasted vote," he went on, "but I like to vote."