Monday, October 1, 2012

How to Help the Wrong Candidate: Vote Third Party or Don't Vote!

Two problems can influence the coming elections. Okay, I know there are more than two, but only two that I’ll address in this blog! One is voting for a third-party candidate; the other is not voting at all.

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush for President of the United States. Clinton won 370 electoral votes to Bush’s 168. Interestingly, however, he took only 43% of the popular vote, winning the popular vote by a plurality, not a majority. Bush took 37.5% of the popular vote, and third party candidate H. Ross Perot took 18.9%. Perot, however, did not win a single state and therefore did not carry a single electoral vote.

Electoral vote
States carried
32 + DC
Popular vote

Perot effectively split the conservative vote. I’m not saying Bush would have won if Perot had not been on the ballot because I have no way of knowing how (or if) those 19.7 million voters who voted for Perot would have voted. Nor am I making any moral evaluation of any of these three candidates. I’m simply using this election to illustrate that the problem with third-party candidates is that they rarely have enough support to carry the day and win the office. So, when we vote third party, we effectively vote for the candidate we least want to win. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say the candidates from the two primary parties are Smith and Jones. One is more liberal; one is more conservative. You as the voter tend to be either more liberal or more conservative, so given just these two candidates, you would likely vote for the one that more aligns with your views. But the election is muddled – Candidate Fankhauser is also on the ballot. You are convinced Fankhauser better represents your views. Fankhauser could lean towards either the liberal side or the conservative side – the argument doesn't change. So, rather than use the labels liberal / conservative , right / left, democrat / republican, I will use the labels north / south simply to show that the candidates tend to be opposites in their overall views.

The ballot has Smith (North), Jones (South) and Fankhauser (also South). You are convinced Smith (North) is by far the worst of the three candidates. However, you are also convinced that Jones (South) is not the best candidate. You are convinced that Fankhauser (South) is the best candidate for any number of reasons. Maybe he is more southern than Jones (or less); maybe he alone holds to a particular view important to you. However, no poll shows Fankhauser having even a ghost of a chance of winning. However, he can carry some votes of those with a southern view. Effectively, he takes votes away from Jones, helping Smith (north). If ten people vote, 4 for Smith, 3 for Jones and 3 for Fankhauser, Smith (north) wins, even though the southern view captured more votes. And if I’m Smith, I love the idea of Fankhauser being on the ballot! (By the way, I realize that some of those who voted for Fankhauser might have leaned more to the north, and would vote for Smith and not Jones had Fankhauser not been on the ballot. But usually a third-party candidate negatively impacts one side far more than the other).

I can hear some teeth gnashing, because you may conclude (rightly) that I think it is better to vote for Jones, even though I think Fankhauser is the better candidate. Shouldn't we vote our conscience? Shouldn't we vote for the one we think is the best candidate?

The answer is yes… and no. Support your preferred candidate through the process, but if it is obvious he (or she) has no real chance of winning, it is sometimes the better option to vote against the worst candidate (in this case, Smith) than for my preferred candidate  by voting for the candidate that at least has a shot of carrying the day. No vote is ever wasted (i.e., we should express our opinion in the ballot box), but sometimes a vote can be ineffective. If keeping Smith out of office is a primary goal, then voting for Jones more effectively moves toward that goal. If I am okay with Smith in office, or if I believe Jones is equally bad, then voting for third-party Fankhauser poses no problem. That is rarely the case, however.

My point in all this is to vote effectively. Sadly, sometimes the vote truly does boil down to a lesser of two evils. Neither candidate is ideal. But often splitting a vote by voting for a third-party candidate who has no hope effectively puts the greater of two evils in office.

And that brings me to the second problem: not voting at all. If I really believe that both candidates are bad, and I choose to stay home and not vote, I again am effectively helping the greater of the two evils. In this case, only Smith and Jones are on the ballot. Let’s look at two scenarios: (1) I don’t like either candidate, but I am more concerned about Smith getting into office than Jones. I choose to vote for Jones, effectively cancelling out one vote for Smith, making it just a bit tougher for him (or her) to win. (2) I don’t like either candidate, so I don’t vote. Therefore, the vote that I cancelled in the first scenario stands uncontested, making it easier for Smith to win. Not voting helps the “more evil” candidate.

Here’s the bottom line. We should vote, and we should vote our conscience. However, as part of that “conscience” I need to include thinking about the effect of my vote. By not voting or by voting for a third party candidate who has no chance, I effectively help the candidate I consider “more evil”.

I have carefully avoided specific candidates, parties, or offices. The logic of my position is independent of those issues. If I am more liberal and the third party splits the liberal vote or if I am more conservative and the third party splits the conservative vote, the logical outcome is the same. The split vote helps the other side. Vote wisely!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis, Roger. People in politics are aware of this and can manipulate the process by helping the weakest opposing candidate gain the nomination. Thus we have the very unpopular Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri running ads that helped the weakest Republican primary candidate, Todd Akin, to gain a plurality in the primary. His disastrously careless comments about "legitimate" rape and how victims of rape would almost never get pregnant have made McCaskill the favorite.

    Quite likely this means that the Democrats will retain control of the Senate, so Obamacare will remain the law of the land, with dire effects on both religious freedom and health care. Despite pleas from across the country, Akins has refused to step aside for a more electable candidate.

    Akins was the most conservative, pro-life candidate, but he was also the only candidate that McCaskill had a realistic chance to beat. It's a shame that pro-life voters in Missouri chose to vote ideologically without considering the larger picture.