The recent flap over the threat of some Christian conservatives to vote for a third party candidate should Rudy Giuliani gain the GOP presidential nomination has given rise to discussion of an old but interesting dilemma. Does voting for a third party candidate achieve the desired results?
Michael Medved regularly says on his radio show that third party candidates always draw most of their votes from the major party with which they are most closely ideologically identified; thereby, giving the opposing party an advantage. The effect in the current race would presumably be that in their distrust of Giuliani, Christian conservatives could end up throwing the election to Hillary Clinton, whom they purportedly detest. Bill Bennett has echoed this sentiment, as have many others.
Supporters of this theory point to relatively recent history where Gore would have gained sufficient votes to win decisively had he received the votes that went to Nader in 2000. And Bush I would have beat Clinton I had he received the votes that went to Perot in 1992. While what they say is true, there is also the possibility that enough Nader voters in ’00 and Perot voters in ’92 would have declined to vote at all, would have voted for another third party candidate, or would have voted for the winner, that the ultimate outcomes of the races would not have been different. Researchers have tried to answer these questions, but there is, in truth, no way of knowing for sure.
Of course, there are less recent examples that can be considered of third party presidential candidates, as well as a much larger number of non-presidential races where third party candidates have run. Looking at these races certainly gives the impression that Medved’s contention is correct in most races; that most votes that go to a third party candidate would otherwise go to the candidate representing the party with which the third party candidate is most closely aligned ideologically.
But I have heard several interesting debates about this view lately. Some have claimed that even allowing a candidate from the opposing party to win can be more productive in the long run. When one caller suggested this to Medved, he incredulously asked whether the caller thought eight years of Bill Clinton was better than four more years of George H.W. Bush. While the answer to that question might seem obvious from the viewpoint of a conservative, I heard someone else articulate an answer that might seem counterintuitive.
This man claimed that Bill Clinton’s presidency actually produced some very desirable conservative outcomes, despite the level of vitriol conservatives regularly leveled at Clinton. A fully GOP congress was achieved, as was welfare reform. An unfriendly congress regularly passed spending bills that allowed far less spending and government growth than the White House requested. And a number of advances were achieved on issues important to social conservatives.
Another man presented an opposing view, saying that while all of that was good, much more could have been achieved with a Republican president. This fellow also retorted that all of these gains together would not compensate for the court appointments made during the Clinton years.
The first man replied that while Democrats almost always get judges and justices that turn out to be to their liking, Republican appointments have been much more of a mixed bag. There are the Roberts and Alitos, of course, but there are also the John Paul Stevens types. Besides, he countered, we should look what a GOP White House and congress actually delivered on conservative issues from 2001 through 2006. There have been some gains on social conservative issues (see this NRO article), but social conservatives are mostly disappointed with the results. (They likely had their sights set too high.) And, of course, there has been runaway spending, substantial growth of the federal leviathan, and scandals of all types.
This it-took-Nixon-to-go-to-China viewpoint is interesting. Perhaps this says more about the value of divided government than it does about election losses. But let’s put the shoe on the other foot. While Democrats today harbor even more hatred for Bush II than Republicans did for Clinton I, I wonder what an objective look at the Bush years will seem like a decade from now. Very few Democrats would suggest today that anything good has come out of these years from a liberal-progressive viewpoint, but what will it look like when the fires of acrimony have cooled for a season?
Another guy argued that a loss due to the intervention of a third party candidate is actually good for a party’s soul. He said that it helps refocus the party on its core values so that they can regroup and come back stronger in the next round. I’m not sure I buy that argument. The Kerry candidacy in ‘04 did not resemble anything like refocusing on core party principles. Neither did the Dole candidacy in ’96. The Democrats’ congressional gains in ’06 resulted more from organization and voter dissatisfaction with the GOP than from a refocus on core principles.
The two opposing views on the issue of voting for a third party candidate when you are unhappy with the main parties and their candidates, then, are: 1) that it is bad because it gives those you definitely oppose an advantage in the election, and 2) that it is good because it produces more desirable results in the long run.
Proponents of notion #1 say that you can’t ever get everything you want from politics, so you might as well settle for the best you can get, because you will otherwise give power to those whose ideas you oppose. Proponents of notion #2 say that it makes no sense to vote for someone you can’t support, even if someone you detest more wins the election. They say it makes more sense to vote your conscience and to be more ideologically pure, as this will be better in the long run. It is a way of getting a major party to hear your voice.
The question at present is whether enough traditional GOP voters will bolt to a third party candidate to produce an outcome-changing sway in the 2008 presidential election. That remains to be seen. Who would they field as their candidate? Who would they put forward as the face of their movement? It will be interesting to see how this develops.
But I am still interested in the broader question behind this conflict. Reality dictates that while a fair number of people may wish to vote for ideological purity, the vast majority of voters are far more pragmatic. They actually take into account a candidate’s chance of winning when deciding who to support. They are willing to compromise to enhance their chances of being on the winning side. Hey, our whole system of government is based in compromise. It’s the American way.
Still, I appreciate the concept that there comes a time when enough is enough, and that you may even have to influence the debate by supporting a candidate that has no chance of winning. I can see both sides of this issue.