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Monday, August 1, 2016

Yes, 3rd party candidates can win elections...if they did it right.

So lately I've been seeing a lot of posts about how voting 3rd party is a viable option and that the only reason 3rd party candidates don't win is because no one votes for them because they don't think they can win.  And if everyone who actually voted for their 3rd party candidate instead of the "lesser of two evils" as it's put, then they could actually win.  I'm here to tell you that this simply isn't true.

But first, let's start with pointing out how the current deck is stacked against parties that are not the Republican and or the Democrat party.  There are two significant factors that play against these other parties.  One, the presidential election does not do run offs.   Without going into too much detail, a run off occurs when one candidate does not receive at least 50% of the votes.   The idea is that while one candidate did indeed get more votes than any other candidate, most of the people did NOT vote for them.  My favorite example is how Bill Clinton won in 1992.  He only received 43% of the vote.  Bush Sr received 38% and Perot 19%.   So while Clinton received the most, there were still 57% of Americans that did not vote for him.  Had there been a run off system in place, there would have been a 2nd round of votes (either automatic using preference style voting or another full manual round of voting) where only Bush and Clinton were on the ballot.  And naturally, in a two candidate race, one will get at least 50%.  This is why a 3rd party candidate is a problem.  More Americans did not want Clinton than did, but still he was elected.   Without runoffs, more than 2 parties in the presidential election make it so it's highly likely we'll have a president that most Americans did NOT want.  In these cases, the vote for the 3rd party candidate is a waste since it could have given a candidate that a voter is somewhat ok with a better chance at winning and also reaching 50%.

And two, most people use their vote defensively, especially because there's no runoffs.  In many elections with multiple candidates, a voter will be faced with these choices

  • A candidate they most ideologically align with
  • A candidate they somewhat ideologically align with
  • A candidate they most ideologically disagree with
Given that for the past 3 decades there's been this feeling the country has been heading in the wrong direction, people see their vote as one of the only ways they can put a stop to this decline.  And in their mind, it's better to keep out the one who's going to do the most damage to the country and have someone somewhat ideologically aligned than to risk the opposition candidate winning because they threw their support behind their preferred candidate who was highly unlikely to win.  The justification is usually "Well ok, let's keep that person out and maybe next cycle our party will have a stronger standing to actually win".  In other words, the lesser of two evils.  

That's really only one factor I guess.  But it's probably the biggest reason why people will vote how they vote.  I know a few voters older than myself (I was only a freshman in high school for the 92 election) that regret voting for Perot.  They truly believe by doing that, they let Clinton into the White House.   And while there's so much focus on the damage the Obama administration has done to this country, the Clinton administration during the 90's wasn't all that great either.  In fact, they set the stage for a lot of the problems we faced in the 2000's and today.  

Now this doesn't make a truly viable 3rd party candidate impossible.  It just means their battle is an uphill battle in which there's a lot to overcome.  And this leads me to my next point.  There's a reason why people don't think 3rd party candidates can win...and it's not because "no one votes for them".  It's because these parties themselves don't think they can win or just don't have the political power and don't want to take the time to cultivate that power.  

Here's a question for you:  Why is it the only time we hear about the Libertarian party or any other 3rd party is during the presidential election?  How come we don't hear about them during the mid term elections?  Or Governor's races?   When looking at a list of Libertarian elected officials, I searched for the words "house", "senate" and "governor".  I found one state house elected official and one state senate elected official.  Nothing at the federal level and no governors.  

So the question must be asked:  If the idea is that if everyone voted 3rd party (or Libertarian since they're the most popular "other" party) instead of "the lesser of two evils", they could win the presidency, then how come there aren't any lower federal offices held by Libertarian, let alone other 3rd party politicians?  I mean if there's really that much popular support for the Libertarian platform, surely there'd be a sizable representation in the House and Senate.  Maybe even a governor or two in the more "libertarian" states.  But there isn't.

This doesn't necessarily mean 3rd parties don't have large support, because they might - at least on an ideological scale.  But then again, these parties aren't winning.  So when it comes to answering the question of why I think a 3rd party candidate can't win, the answer really is this:  Why would I think a 3rd party candidate can win in a presidential election, the biggest election in the country and arguably the world, when they can't even win lesser offices?  And if they're not even trying to win lesser offices, it shows a party that isn't really serious about building its political power.

Because when it comes down to it, presidential elections cannot be won on ideology alone.  Presidential elections will never be won by banking on the unfavorable ratings of the Republican and Democrat candidates.  Presidential elections will never be won by only coming around every four years pretending to be the "sane" candidate.

Instead, presidential elections are won by a political movement that stays in the public's eye.  A constant, ideological reminder that keeps pointing out that "hey, our ideology is the best, yo".  Despite many people's personal distaste for political theater, what they may not realize is that this drama actually keeps each party's antics, actions, ideals and values, for better or worse, fresh in people's minds.  People are bombarded with Democrat this, Republican that.  But in the last 4 years since Johnson ran last time, how much have you heard from him or the Libertarian party?  Where were they when it came time to weigh in on the myriad of scandals and controversies that have come up?   Why wasn't their presence felt during the mid terms?  As far I know, they were nowhere to be heard.  Even media bias isn't enough to explain away the lack of Libertarian presence during a very politically turbulent last 4 years.

So let's look back at the last time a 3rd party actually was successful:  the Republican party.  The Republican party was born in the 1850's primarily as an abolitionist movement.  Most of them came from an ideological fracture in the Whig party, the Democrat's opposition at the time, in response to legislation that was going to expand slavery.  During the 1850's while being unsuccessful in winning the presidency in 1856, they were gaining seats in congress the entire time.  And while it's difficult to know what kind of political theater was around during that time, it can be reasonably assumed that the Republican party was fresh in the public's eye seeing as 6 states had already seceded and formed the Confederacy between the time Lincoln was elected and the time he was inaugurated fearing the Republican's abolitionist platform.

So, in other words, the Republican party formed from the Whig party, along with some Free Soil Democrats.  Their platform, the abolition of slavery, was front and center in the public eye that decade.  Using that issue, they were able to gain seats in congress years before they won the presidency in 1860.   This would be the gold standard example to how a 3rd party emerges as a political power.  This took 6 years.

On the contrary, the libertarian party has been around for over 40 years.  Yet, despite this, there hasn't been much to show except for them playing the spoiler.  Looking at their history page, it seems they are actually proud of getting a noticeable chunk of the votes, like 5 or 15 percent, despite suffering an overwhelming loss.  This, to me, shows they aren't really serious about winning.  They expect to lose, but consider it a victory if they just make it on the board even it is a small amount.  With that attitude, it isn't surprising at all that there's no Libertarians holding congressional seats as a true member of the party and not a Republican that has Libertarian values.  If you're ok with just getting noticed, you'll never win.  While people may vote defensively, they're still voting for whom they expect to win.

So bottom line is, the Libertarian party, and just about every other 3rd party today, are doing it wrong.  They celebrate losing badly.  They only seem to get noticed every 4 years.  They don't seem to be trying very hard to go after lower offices.  It's no wonder they haven't gained much ground since 1971.  They're still ranked spoiler status to me.  There have been articles over the years predicting the rise of the libertarian party, but I guess I'm still waiting for them to start taking congressional seats from Democrats and Republicans.

While today's political climate is vastly different from that of the 1850's, the model for success should remain largely the same.  Get in the public's eye often.  Win lesser offices that builds momentum, exposure and a foundation of success. Build upon that foundation enough and you'll have the White House and/or plenty of success that champions Libertarian values.  Become a political force to be reckoned with.  Until then, they and all other 3rd parties will never be taken seriously.  Yes, you can create "clever" memes that blame 3rd party lack of success on some inane bewildering voting logic.  But all that does is give someone a reason to not face the truth.

I say all this to not persuade you to vote for Republicans or Democrats.  I say it simply to point out what I see to be the truth about why 3rd party candidates aren't winning.  Is it a wasted vote?  It just depends on your outlook of the Republican and Democrat candidates.  If you truly believe both candidates to be equally bad or you don't really care if either one sits in the Oval office, then at least functionally speaking, your vote is not wasted since it isn't really much of a vote at all.  It's like watching a football game between two teams, then rooting for a completely different team altogether to win the game. It just isn't going to happen.  It's not wasted because wasting a vote would indicate that the voter had some intent for direct impact.  In this case, the voter doesn't care who wins so voting for their candidate, even if it's a potted plant, has no direct impact - but they're ok with that.   However, if you feel strongly that one candidate would be far far worse and a real, terrible danger to the country, then yes, your vote is wasted on the 3rd party candidate.  They won't win and now that vote is one less vote the terrible candidate has to overcome to win.  By actually caring about someone other than the 3rd party candidate inhabiting the Oval office, there's at least some need to want to prevent a disastrous administration, which is going to have a bigger impact than voting 3rd party.  In this case, the vote is wasted since it won't have a direct impact even though the voter wanted to make one.

There is a very good reason why people disagree with 3rd party voting as I hope I've outlined.  People might not be able to articulate it well (me being one of them, though I try), but it doesn't mean there isn't some valid reasoning behind it.  Don't kid yourself.  Johnson may indeed become the most successful 3rd party candidate in history and eclipse Perot.  But he'll still lose by a margin that would be considered a landslide in a two candidate election.  Then the Libertarian party will disappear from the public conscience for another 4 years while Democrats and Republicans duke it out in political theater.  Libertarians will tout their "victory" and claim a movement is rising, then reappear 4 years later only to lose again.

I guess at the end of the day, all I'm saying is if you're going to vote 3rd party, just own it.  Own up to the reality that your candidate is going to lose.   Own up to being aware the impact of your vote is only to indirectly make it easier for one candidate to win. Proudly point out that you've taken a principled stand despite knowing you won't win.  Face reality.  But please, stop the whining when someone expresses a notion of futility toward today's 3rd party candidates.