The presidential race is going to be closer than you think. Forget about the polls that show George W. Bush leading Al Gore by ten or twelve points -- the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which uses the largest sample, shows Bush ahead of Gore by only eight points in a two-way race. But with Ralph Nader officially nominated by the Green Party and Pat Buchanan closing in on the Reform Party nomination, it's not going to be a two-way race. And when the same poll factors in Buchanan and Nader, Bush's lead drops to only five points. That's in a poll with a 2.4-point margin of error.
That's also before the debates. Right now, the Presidential Debate Commission is requiring debate participants to be polling at least 15 percent of the vote, meaning Buchanan (with four points) and Nader (with seven) would be excluded. But both are trying to sue their way in. Buchanan has a better shot, since he'll likely be a federally funded candidate of a national party on the ballot in all 50 states. "If taxpayers are financing your campaign," says Buchanan's sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, "they sure as heck have a right to hear what you have to say."
All along, Buchanan's strategy has hinged on the debates simply because he thinks he can steal the show. Without third-party candidates, Gore will shine -- he's a much better debater than Bush. But he's never had to share a stage with Buchanan, the best TV debater working today. Buchanan comes prepared, thinks quicker than anyone who has ever participated in a televised presidential debate, and would make Gore -- and everyone else -- look like Bill Bradley. He may know less about governing than Bush or Gore, but it won't look that way on TV. He'd get a bump after the debates, and with as little as two and a half points separating the front-runners, any bump at all is cause for panic in the Bush camp. Nader's participation and performance in the debates is harder to predict, but Bush's ability to keep conservatives from straying to Buchanan and Gore's ability to keep liberals away from Nader could be the deciding factor in this election.
Bush has it easier -- he can count on help from the most powerful political voice in American media. Rush Limbaugh loves to point out that he's "the most-listened-to radio-talk-show host in the country," and his election-year audiences run as high as 20 million people. (By comparison, Tim Russert, the neutral host of Meet the Press, has the next-biggest audience -- 3.5 million -- and the opinionated hosts of political cable shows measure their audiences in the hundreds of thousands.) What's more, Limbaugh's fans don't just listen to him, they love him. After he welcomes new callers to his "Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies," most of them finish the lecture ready to follow his advice. And no one has benefited from Limbaugh's teachings as much as George W. Bush. At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when the right was wondering if Bush was conservative enough, Limbaugh said he was and effectively settled the question. Then, when John McCain began to threaten Bush's lead, Limbaugh convinced conservatives that the McCain surge was really the "McCain Mutiny." Because McCain broke ranks with his party on one issue -- campaign-finance reform -- Limbaugh said he "fits right in with the Clinton-Gore crowd." McCain's staff couldn't measure Limbaugh's effect, but they grumbled privately about hearing echoes of Limbaugh's arguments in every conservative audience they faced.
"If Limbaugh can persuade his audience to hold the party line, Buchanan won't carry more than 5 percent of the vote and Limbaugh could end up with a good seat at a Bush inauguration."
Last year, when Buchanan was bringing up the rear of the Republican primary race, Limbaugh paid him little attention, but as soon as he bolted to the Reform Party, he went after him with a vengeance. It's not always easy. "He gets into trouble when he does it with us," says Bay Buchanan. "His base is very strong for Buchanan." Indeed, Limbaugh says he likes and admires Buchanan, credits him as an influence on his political thinking, and then proceeds to trash his campaign. Politically, he says, Buchanan is wrong on free trade and immigration (Limbaugh favors more of both). Strategically -- and perhaps more damningly -- he says voting for Buchanan is the equivalent of voting for Gore.
The results? "He's very effective," admits Bay Buchanan, who plans to have her brother do at least two hours a day on other conservative and Christian radio shows to try to fight back. Still, if Limbaugh can persuade his audience to hold the party line, Buchanan won't carry more than 5 percent of the vote and Limbaugh could end up with a good seat at a Bush inauguration.
Unfortunately for Gore, the Democrats don't have their own Rush Limbaugh to inoculate him against Nader. Which isn't to say they haven't tried to create one: Mario Cuomo and a few less eloquent liberals have tried and failed to become radio's leftist Limbaugh. That leaves professional politicians, but Cuomo can no longer get himself booked on the Today show as easily as he once did, no one watches Jesse Jackson's Sunday-afternoon show on CNN, and Ted Kennedy has his own re-election campaign to run. Of course, Bill Clinton has an even bigger megaphone than Limbaugh, but he's not likely to sway Nader's fans, who burst into applause whenever their candidate refers to Clinton and Gore as "corporate paymasters."
Nader can't be made part of a vast right-wing conspiracy or portrayed as a threat to Social Security and Medicare, so the tried-and-true Clinton-Gore method of demonizing opponents won't work, either. Of course, Gore can still depend on the mainstream media to dutifully deliver the message that a vote outside the major parties is a wasted one, and liberal-leaning pundits will scream to the high heavens that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. Both will help, but neither will have the impact of Limbaugh's perfectly targeted anti-Buchanan message. And if Nader's numbers don't collapse by October, don't be surprised if Gore has to come right out and beg Nader's supporters to come back to the Democratic ticket. Too bad James Carville doesn't have his own radio show. Of course, if he did, Limbaugh would probably crush him too.