Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Does It Make Sense to Support a Third Party Candidate?

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.


Jason The said...

I think it's also important to recognize that a third party candidate, if he/she maintains enough support to simply stay "in the running", it often implies a transformation happening in within the ranks of the major parties.

In 2000, I remember finding myself torn. I realized immediately that George Bush was an idiot to be avoided, but I was also very disappointed in the campaign Gore was running. I thought he could've (should've) done much better, and that his campaign suffered more from his own poor campaigning than from George Bush's "skill" as a politician. Nader intrigued me for a bit, simply because of this (but in the end, he got too weird, and I went for Gore).

I think that is happening now in the Republican ranks. The GOP seems to have realized the religious right is an albatross around it's electoral neck, and the presidential hopefuls have followed suit (tentatively). But has the Republican base changed? That is the real question for the GOP. The base may have found a third party candidate very appealing, but can that base alone get a conservative elected? Not likely this time around.

Either way, the dynamics evident in the GOP contenders, and the race they are running against each other seems indicative that in four years, you will see a much different GOP, and if not, we will soon see no more of the GOP at all.

Democracy Lover said...

Unfortunately, history shows that third parties are not viable in the US political system. I see that as a weakness rather than a strength because it narrows the spectrum of debate on the issues at best, and a worst (the present) it restricts the electorate to two unqualified candidates who are beholden to the same special interests.

I am not, however, sure that it is "pragmatic" to choose to vote for someone because they have a chance of winning. Certainly there is nothing to be gained from "being on the winning side" when exiting the voting booth.

Elections in today's America are little more than charades played for the entertainment and deception of the citizenry but rigged to insure that the winner, regardless of party, will serve the interests of the corporate elite rather than the ordinary human citizens. It would be truly pragmatic for voters in both parties to reject the candidates proffered to them by the mainstream media as the "winners" and vote their conscience, particularly in the primaries.

Jesse Harris said...

History teaches us a lot about third party presidential candidates. You either get a Lincoln, born from the ashes of another party, or you get a Wallace, a candidate with strong regional support that manages to carry a few states. While third parties are relevant in state and local politics, they don't have the broad sense of appeal required to capture a presidency or even a seat in Congress. In that sense, a vote for a third party candidate for federal office might feel good, but it's usually only effective as a protest vote barring some major electoral changes that encourage third-party voting (i.e. IRV).

States are much more viable for third-party and independent candidates. Witness Nevada where the Independent American party is rapidly closing in on 10% of registered voters, the requirement that needs to be met for the state to consider you a major party. They elected a few folks to offices in 2006 and came very close to getting 3-4 legislators in 2004. Granted, I think most of them are off the deep end, but it shows that third parties aren't all that wacky the more local you get.

As for "values voters", they're an unstable and fickle bunch anyways. Many of them split off to form the Constitution Party only to split again when the party didn't meet their rigid (and, quite frankly, absurd) demands. They need a big reality check that they don't matter as much as they'd like to think they do.

Anonymous said...

Given that most elections are not decided by a single vote, it's rarely true that "your vote counts."

Many think that a vote cast for a candidate who opposes the voter's preferences and values is a wasted vote.

But most of the time the term "wasted vote" is used to describe a vote cast for a candidate that does not win.

Electoral systems that reduce the so-called "wasted vote syndrome" can be found at FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.

Democracy Lover said...

A wasted vote is a vote for someone who doesn't share your views on the issues or who you don't believe is honest or competent.