WASHINGTON — Democratic strategists have long fretted that Ralph Nader could draw votes from their presidential candidate. But a new survey suggests that President Bush faces a potential threat of his own from a more obscure spoiler: Michael Badnarik.
In the survey, conducted in three Midwest battleground states, some voters who said they would choose Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry in a two-candidate race also said they would pick Badnarik, the Libertarian Party nominee for president, if he were added to the ballot.
The survey was conducted in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin by the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. It will be made public today.
The numbers for Badnarik were small: He drew 1% to 1.5% of the vote in a four-way race with Bush, Democratic candidate Kerry and Nader, an independent. But analysts said the results suggested that the small-government Libertarians could attract enough conservatives disaffected with Bush's leadership to swing a tight race, just as Nader attracted discontented liberals in 2000.
"This shows us that there is a small, but potentially very significant, number of upper-Midwesterners who are interested in voting for the Libertarian Party, and that they appear to be hailing from the wings of the Republican Party," said Lawrence Jacobs, a Humphrey Institute political scientist, who directed the poll.
The survey suggested that the Libertarian had potential to steal support from Bush where it could hurt most: among much-coveted independents.
In Wisconsin, the survey showed that 8% of independents would back Badnarik. That cut Bush's performance among independent voters in the state from about 50% to 43%.
"Those voters, without even knowing the candidate, are so upset with Bush they are willing to say, 'I'm going to vote for a Libertarian,' " Jacobs said.
The telephone survey, conducted June 21 to July 12, had a margin of error of 4 percentage points. It included 589 registered voters in Minnesota, 575 in Wisconsin and 614 in Iowa.
Of those states, Badnarik has secured a place on the ballot only in Wisconsin. But ballot access is so easy in Minnesota and Iowa that the Libertarians are all but certain of success there, Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said. "Since there have been Libertarians, there has never been a presidential election where the Libertarians were not on the ballot in those two states," he said.
Nader has drawn far more attention than Badnarik, 49, a computer programmer from Austin, Texas. In the Humphrey Institute poll, Nader drew as much as 5% of the vote in a four-way race, and he appeared to draw more support from Kerry than Badnarik took from Bush.
But it is unclear how many state ballots will include Nader. Badnarik is already on the ballot in 30 states, Winger said, and the Libertarian Party says its candidate has made the ballot in all 50 states for the last three elections.
The impact of third-party candidates has received renewed attention since 2000, when Nader ran as the Green Party candidate and won thousands of votes that many analysts thought would have gone to Democrat Al Gore, likely putting Gore in the White House.
Republicans sought to discount a threat from Badnarik, noting that, even in the Humphrey survey, Bush won support from 90% of Republicans.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is advising the Bush campaign, said the impact of the Libertarians would be so minimal that it fit more in the category of what the weather was like on election day.