First Party Spoilers
by Dwayne Holmes
With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump placed as front runners to be the next president of the United States (POTUS), voters are being warned against voting for third party candidates. Exploiting fear of “third party spoilers” is routine in any close election and is meant largely to keep party members from straying. That both major parties chose divisive figures for their standard bearers makes such fear mongering as necessary as it is ironic.  While not advocating that people should vote third party, much less for any specific party, I want to challenge some common arguments made against voting third party, as well as point out how hypocritical they are.
For those not familiar with the term ‘third party spoilers’, it’s a pretty simple concept. In an election where two political factions represent the most common, opposing positions on public policy, minor differences between members of the same and otherwise dominant faction can result in an electoral split into sub-parties, allowing a unified opposition (of otherwise minority standing) to gain temporary power over factual majority interests. In short, choosing to vote third party is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Although there are a number of problems with the “third party spoilers” concept , a pretty important one is that the sort of “vote-splitting” dilemma caused by third parties is largely a product of our current voting system. While the system is simple to understand (if we ignore the electoral college for POTUS), it does a poor job of assessing voter interest. Other voting systems, such as ranked preference, avoid outcomes where a representative or policy could be chosen against majority interests. 
Though unlikely, one positive outcome of this year’s election process could be election reform. If improved voting systems were adopted at party levels during primaries and/or state levels for the general election, we could avoid reruns of the current situation. For example, if they had been in place this year Trump (and possibly Clinton) might never have beat party rivals, and a Trump victory by a minority of voters in the national election would be impossible no matter how many splinter-Left factions popped up.
Of course, none of this changes the current situation in the US, where we operate with a flawed voting system that allows for such vote-splitting dilemmas. The common argument is that within this system — which is what we have and may be stuck with for a while — voting third party is at the very least a waste of one’s vote and at worst, a vote for one’s political opposition, and thus, a danger to society (since anything your opposition wants is patently dangerous). This position was “argued” by Dan Savage on his talk show, in a profanity laden rant against third parties in general and the Green Party specifically.  A transcript of the rant was picked up and endorsed by many anti-Trump advocates. Surprisingly, this included Massimo Pigliucci, who gave it a plug on Twitter and defended it against critics. I say surprising, because it was so emotion-heavy and reason-light — it was the opposite of what I’d take to be Stoic position on voting third party. (Pigliucci is a self-described practicing Stoic.) Could fear of Trump rattle Stoics, while fear of death finds no purchase?
One mistake with the “wasted vote” claim is that it involves an unwarranted sense of entitlement by a major party to votes not cast for its major rival. That is, if a particular vote hadn’t gone to a third party it is simply assumed the vote would have gone to their party instead (based on some shared interests) and so allowed it to win. But this is to ignore that votes for all other parties are by definition opposition votes. While some might have come its way, it is also possible a vote for a “similar” third party might have gone to another third party, the opposing major party (based on shared interests not recognized as “important” by the whiners), or not been cast at all. If a vote was never going to go to them in the first place it couldn’t possibly have been “wasted” (which you will note is defined as failing to help them win).
Another mistake is that it ignores the fact that many people vote third party with the consequences firmly in mind and believe that doing so is worthwhile all the same. For example, that it is worthwhile to have their actual opinion counted, especially if required to lay the groundwork for a new opposition political movement, whether or not it is likely to win in this particular election. This is particularly true for registered members of a major party who decide to break ranks, a move that is not usually made frivolously, since it comes at a personal cost. Sometimes a vote is a message (a protest), designed to send a signal that a party has moved away from important principles or concerns. Many voters do this in a such a way as to not affect general election results, for example, by only voting third party in solid, single-party states where there is no chance for the major opposition to win, or “trading votes” with voters in areas where it would not have an adverse impact. But that is not always the case. The idea may be that the major party deserves a lesson, a lost election, a wake-up call, in order to improve for the future. After all a lost election is not a permanent situation. And even if it were, for some people standing up for their principles, even in the face of defeat, is not a “waste.” Whereas compromising to choose the “lesser of two evils” always is.
The “vote for the opposition” claim is flawed for the same reasons of it being wasted. Only here it openly begs the question how a vote for a third party (C) counts as a vote for major party (B) against major party (A), when B would have equal rights claiming voting for C counts as a vote for A against B. As a matter of fact, a vote for C doesn’t help either A or B. Perhaps it bears repeating, voting third party is by definition voting for the opposition, but it is a vote for one particular opposition party and not any other opposition party (except to self-entitled “first party” losers).
“But … but … but … think of the danger!” says each major party, with no sense of irony.
The Democrats in particular are blessed with a recent example of third party voting, which they like to brandish at people. That example, of course, is Ralph Nader and the 2000 election. As the campfire tale goes, Ralph Nader (who ran as a Green Party candidate) “stole” enough votes from Gore (the Democrat) to allow Bush (the Republican) to win, which naturally led to all of the horrors that followed and for which we are still paying. What were those stupid Nader voters thinking? The question is rhetorical of course, because no one wants you to actually consider why they voted the way they did, why Gore lost, or what happened post-election. Just remember … Nader voters elected Bush, which destroyed the United States!
Like any campfire tale, this may contain bits of truth, but most of it is easily dismissed. One interesting truth missing from that story is that Gore actually won the popular vote! The reasons he lost the election were: (1) a flaw in the electoral system that we use for POTUS, which can actually deny victory to winners of the popular vote (the Electoral College); (2) irregularities in the voting process of one state where Bush’s own brother was Governor; and (3) a controversial Supreme Court ruling that was decided along partisan lines (and ironically against longstanding party principles regarding states’ rights).  Even had it come down to a simple vote count disparity issue — which it didn’t — if Nader hadn’t run, the votes cast for him were in no way guaranteed for Gore. As it is (and commonly goes unmentioned), the Republicans that year had more than one splinter-Right party to contend with, draining votes and energy away from Bush. If third party voting hadn’t existed at all that year, things might have gone even worse for Gore.
But those are, you know, facts, which tend to get in the way of a good story. Kind of like the fact that we have no idea how Gore would have handled the issues Bush had to face if he were elected, and that no one could have predicted in 2000 that Bush would have reversed his own campaign platform (and longstanding party principles) to engage in the responses he did (which is why he is now anathema to some conservatives).
And finally there is the really “inconvenient truth” about how Bush’s election did not inherently lead to the disastrous policies that followed. The Democrats have a lot of chutzpah blaming Nader voters for what Bush did, when Bush couldn’t have done what he did without the support of most Democrats!  That includes Hillary Clinton who, despite being such a great listener , voted to support Bush’s most absurd policies and who, consequently, is much more responsible for the “horrors” that came after than any Nader voter could be.  If Nader voters made an error, which accidentally put Bush in power, her role (as well as other Dems) should have been to block his ability to make bad decisions. Instead, she invested Bush with even greater power than he naturally held as POTUS. Clinton (like many Dems post 9/11) abdicated the power they had to stop him and/or supported the very worst of his decisions.
This is part of the hypocrisy when major parties damn third party voters for the results of what their opponents do in office. They deliberately ignore the power and responsibility they hold within the remaining branches of government, in order to smear the electorate for what the party itself fails to provide (a bulwark against bad policy), following an election they lost.
But … but .. but … Trump! Ah yes, that brings us to the Democrats’ current (damn the pun) trump card: Donald Trump. If Nader is the ghost of elections past, Trump is the ghost of elections future. Unlike Bush, where one really had no way of foreseeing the train wreck to come , Trump does look like a (bigger) buffoon and has absolutely zero experience with governance. How could he not go wrong?
Well, you’ve got me there. I openly admit that I do not want Trump as president. I don’t even like thinking about Trump as president. What an embarrassment. But let’s think about it anyway. Seriously. Let’s say third party voters split votes in such a way that Trump gets into office. What are the Democrats going to do this time? What they did last time, when Bush won? Or will they have learned the lesson that they need to act as an opposition party and not cater to those in power?
One positive outcome of a Trump presidency could be a general disillusionment with the common but errant concept of POTUS as a “leader” who ought to be “followed” (the position, while important, is supposed to be a “representative” who enacts laws and policies established by the will of the people through their legislature), as well as a reality check on what powers we want to invest a single human being with (or the executive branch as a whole). A Trump presidency might be the first time in history that POTUS would face near unified opposition of both Dems and Reps, across legislative and judicial branches, keeping a tight rein on presidential policy decisions and halting the ever-expanding powers of the Executive branch. 
This possibility of providing checks to a rogue POTUS raises another problem for the false idea that third party voters inherently empower their opposition. Did anyone bother to ask who else they voted for besides POTUS? There are other levels and branches of government than POTUS. Someone who voted for Nader may have made sure to put Greens or Independents (where they had a chance) or liberal Dems (where not) in crucial positions to check policy decisions by a potential Republican POTUS. Whereas someone that blindly punched a straight Dem ticket that year in NY arguably “wasted” their vote by installing a hawkish centrist into the Senate who raised no credible opposition to POTUS. In contrast to the caricature, third party voters can be smarter and more strategic in advancing or protecting their interests than people who vote along strict party lines.
But with Trump in line for POTUS, we can’t count on that! Think of his finger poised over the nuclear button! We must do everything possible to stop Trump from simply being in that office! It’s everyone’s moral duty!
Really? So where were Hillary and the Democratic party this year? If it is all of our moral duty to make sure Trump does not win, why didn’t Hillary (a known divisive figure) renounce her candidacy as soon as Trump became the Republican candidate? Why couldn’t she bring herself to do her part to ensure his loss? She could have thrown her weight toward a less divisive figure, including another woman if preserving that aspect was important, or — more obviously – to Bernie Sanders. It’s funny listening to Dems complain that many Bernie supporters might not vote for Hillary. Well, if Hillary voters were willing to vote for Bernie (if he had won the nomination) and know that many Bernie supporters would not vote for Hillary (if she did), the obvious political (and moral) calculation would have been to place Bernie as the Democratic candidate, as he would have the best shot. But instead of duty we got whine.
And surprisingly — okay not so surprisingly — when Hillary was anointed, she didn’t bother trying to appeal to more liberal voters or offer olive branches to Bernie supporters to keep them. Indeed Dems ignored the fact that Bernie had brought voters from outside the Democratic party, who might not have voted for them otherwise (or at least for Hillary) and needed to be courted to keep them in house. Instead she pivoted right (which after all is her natural political stance), and has been virtue-signaling to Republicans ever since. Yes … demand liberals do their duty and “hold their nose” for Hillary, while making the Democratic party as warm and inviting to moderate Reps as possible.
As a practical matter, that strategy seems to be paying off, at least while Trump is busy alienating the moderate Republican base, many of whom are openly going third party, not voting, or shifting to Hillary.  But it should not come as a surprise then, given what is happening with Trump, that such moves by Clinton (making her platform appealing to Republicans) would alienate people on the Left from the Democratic party and who would then go third party (at least on POTUS), just like the Republicans who are alienated by Trump.
It is important to note another hypocrisy in play here. Criticism of people voting third party is usually not made against those splitting from their major opposition. Those kinds of third party voters are encouraged. Those kinds of third party voters are treated as if they are taking a principled stand that the rest in that party should take. Those kinds of third party voters are sometimes even targeted to bring them over to “our side.” Whereas those who split from “our side” are ill-considered, unprincipled — even immoral — vote splitters, who are not worth the time and effort to attract. If they fail in their moral duty to vote our way, then no use compromising with them, as clearly they are the ones unwilling to compromise.
While popular, the “third party spoiler” canard is merely a conceptual fig leaf to (1) hide the hypocrisies and failures of major parties, both to attract enough voters through an open, honest search for the best candidate (and thoughtful compromise) during an election, as well as to act as an effective opposition party when they lose, and (2) disguise the underlying cause of vote-splitting dilemmas, which is a flawed first voting system that does not accurately assess or protect majority interests (since the solution is something that might break long standing two-party rule).
This is not to argue anyone should vote third party or that voting third party can’t be a waste. It can be a waste as much as voting for a flawed “first party” candidate. But that is for you to call and not someone else. A good way to avoid feeling like you wasted your vote is to consider what you want to get out of an election. Will this candidate or party actually represent your interests, if not across the board (and realistically which can?), then at least on some vital issue that would certainly fail without them. And regardless of how you feel about POTUS, is there a way to advance your interests at other levels? Elections are not usually a one-issue, one-office affair. Voting wisely across levels and branches is like spreading your bets in gambling. One particular vote may not come through, but you can cover yourself with elsewhere.
(1) If anything, Democrats and Republicans made this one of the most attractive years to vote third party. I can’t remember another election where so many party members spoke so openly about having to hold their noses, or overlook obvious mistakes and gaffes (in past years considered catastrophic), to vote for POTUS candidates on both sides.
(2) One problem with this simple concept is that for any specific topic there are usually more than two policy options. And when we start considering many different topics, no single party, or two parties, can capture all the relevant ways individuals might want them handled. This gets more complicated where people might want different types of representation, depending on the level (local, state, federal) or branch (legislative, executive, judicial) of government being considered. For example someone might want a very hands off libertarian approach at the federal level and hands-on social progressive approach at the local level.
While most people in the US have come to view politics as a binary Left-Right, Democrat-Republican game, this conceals the complexities of each party. As dominant political powerhouses, which have put in rules intended systemically to perpetuate that dominance, the Democratic and Republican parties have effectively absorbed many of the smaller parties that you will still find in nations where multi-party governance (by faction-building within parliaments) is the rule. So in the lead up to US presidential elections, a circus of internal faction-building is conducted under the “big tents” of the two parties, followed by a straightforward duke ’em out between the two (now consolidated parties), during the election. Despite their power, smaller parties still show up on the ballot (sometimes due to failed faction-building within the big two) as very real, even if unlikely, alternatives. Although dismissed as vanity projects by supporters of the main parties they normally represent platforms or approaches not supported by the main parties.
(3) US elections (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_the_United_States) and their underlying system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-past-the-post_voting), are arguably less suited to determining majority interest, compared with other election systems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_system), especially the ranked preference systems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranked_voting_system).
(4) To be fair to Dan Savage, I actually agree with his point that within our current system third parties are better off building a power base at lower levels and different branches of government, before seriously attempting to offer candidates for president. But his rant ignores that it is sometimes necessary to run someone just to get parties into debates, on ballots, and to acquire funding in order to shift election dynamics (get issues taken seriously) and to lay groundwork at that level for future elections. Not to mention his totally missing the point on what might motivate third party voters or what they might expect from their vote. http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2016/07/19/24362128/dan-savage-on-jill-stein-just-no
(6) Using as a primary example of Democratic support for Bush policies, the tragic resolution to allow Bush the power to invade Iraq:
http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=107&session=2&vote=00237 … With the notable exception of my own Democratic representative (Senator Richard Durbin) at the federal level.
(8) While a comparison between Sanders and Clinton, this link provides a short and easy break down of Hillary’s support for some of the more controversial Bush policies (and some into Obama’s presidency):
http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2015/sep/02/11-examples-hillary-clinton-and-bernie-sanders-hol/. In a more pro-Hillary piece (to be fair) this breakdown explains that while hawkish her voting record in bucking Bush policies was generally in line with or better than many Democrats.
(http://www.rollcall.com/news/hawkings/8-years-senate-votes-reveal-clinton). That only seems positive, as far as I can tell, if one accepts the level of support Bush received from mainstream Democrats as a measure of having provided an adequate “opposition” to Bush. To me, most Dems failed in general, she may have failed slightly less than them, but consistently managed to fail on some key policy fiascos Bush had to offer.
(9) Before replying how obviously flawed Bush was that Nader voters should have known, remember Hillary and her supporters are using that same excuse for her at a point in time post-election when his inabilities (and poor policy decisions) were pretty obvious.
(10) In all honesty, one of the things I fear most from a Clinton presidency is that once in office so many will think “we won!” and then relax their guard (forgetting that they held their nose) and not question her decisions (or block her policies) as much as they would Trump, or any other Republican, when her track record has been terrible. About the only thing I can say would be a positive aspect of her victory would be that (a) we can get finally get over the novelty of having a “first female president” (other countries are well past this) and subsequently judge candidates on merit rather than sex, and (b) it might be easier to fight for some rights under a Democrat-led administration than under a Trump-brand Republican administration.
Certainly, under a Clinton presidency, I expect a status quo preserving expansion of executive power that likely would be fought tooth and nail (something I favor) under a Trump presidency.
11) From my perspective, conservatives in general and the Republicans in specific have already won the 2016 election (for POTUS) in all but name. Certainly the actions of long term conservative Republicans suggests this is the case.
We are down to haggling over whether it is a moderate pro-business southern Democrat (aka conservative) or extreme right wing (slash reality TV star) pro-business conservative who sits in the office. Both are hawks (with Trump more blustery but less hawkish) and neither that great for minority rights (Clinton by past precedent and current policy statements and Trump by policy statements). By bringing on Kaine as VP, Clinton has even signaled a potential weakening in abortion rights issues (yeah he might say a woman has the right, but has supported financial impediments… here is a to-be-fair pro-Kaine article that is negative from my political spectrum:
Strong pro-choice signaling should have been a given for a Democrat this year, given that a Supreme Court seat is on the line, but not with Hillary.