Third Party Candidates and Wasting Your Vote

Doug Mataconis rejects the idea that Bob Barr and other third party candidates should defer to the major party candidate most closely aligned with them ideologically.

If McCain loses, it won’t be Bob Barr’s fault anymore than Al Gore losing Florida in 2000 was Ralph Nader’s fault. It will be because he didn’t convince enough people to vote for him.

Well, “fault” is certainly the wrong word. These oddball candidates have a right to put themselves up for a vote, after all. But their vanity runs have foreseeable consequences and they have some responsibility for helping bring them about.

Splitting the vote results in skewed allocation of preferences. Presumably, most Nader voters would have preferred Gore to Bush in 2000 even though they preferred Nader to Gore. By voting for Nader, though, they got their distant third choice instead of their relatively close second choice. That’s not an ideal outcome, I’d say. (For them, anyway. Those of us who preferred Bush to Gore and Nader were quite pleased.)

Clearly, some sizable portion of the Republican base is less than thrilled with McCain as their nominee. Ironically, in this context, they face this choice partly because the social conservative vote was split among many candidates, most prominently Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, allowing the “moderate” McCain to win.

Regardless, however, only McCain and Obama are plausible winners in November. Barring tragic circumstances, one of them will be our next president. It’s therefore irrelevant if one would actually prefer some third alternative.

The only way it makes sense, then, to vote for a Bob Barr or Alan Keyes or Ralph Nader or some other person who will not be our next president is if you honestly have no preference whatsoever as to whether McCain or Obama prevails. Otherwise, even if it’s a 1 percent, hold-your-nose difference, you should vote for that guy.

(In reality of course, it’s a bit more complicated because most states will be uncompetitive in the Fall, with all its electors preordained for either the Democrat or the Republican. If you vote in one of those states, a “protest vote” is perfectly reasonable. And, of course, this all presumes that thinking your one vote will matter is rational, anyway.)

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that analyzing the effects of third party candidates requires a little more subtlety than its usually given. First, third parties are really only important in the 3% races, not the in the 30% races. Second, the specific direction of the third party’s ideology matters in those 3% races. That’s why Green-type candidates affect Democrats more than Libertarian candidates affect Republicans.

    Are there any states that Bush carried narrowly in 2004 in which libertarian voters as opposed to, say, social conservatives who are willing to split off and vote for a third party candidate can mean the margin of victory? I’m asking this as a real question. I actually have no idea.

  2. RHM says:

    People have the right to vote for whoever they wish to vote for (votes are not predestined for a particular candidate). It’s arrogant to imply otherwise. Also, it’s a bit redundant to point out that “your” candidate lost because people voted for “someone else”. Duh.

  3. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Regardless, however, only McCain and Obama are plausible winners in November.

    I remember being told at this venue back in January that the candidates for both parties would be all wrapped up on Super Tuesday. Back then, it was going to be Hillary Clinton and some unknown Republican with nobody betting on it going to McCain. Funny how conventional wisdom ain’t what it used to be.

    One undisputed fact is that the Republican party is currently in a “crash and burn” mode as evidenced by yesterday’s special election in Mississippi. Boehner and Cole see the hand writing on the wall and it’s not pretty.

    So the voters who previously looked towards the Republicans to represent their interests are suddenly looking for another alternative.

    Are you going to tell me now that they won’t or shouldn’t consider a third party simply because of historical precedents???

  4. James Joyner says:

    Are you going to tell me now that they won’t or shouldn’t consider a third party simply because of historical precedents???

    I doubt they well be have insufficient basis to make that judgment at this time. The post, though, is about the “should.” I merely note that if you have two Republican candidates drawing a sizable percentage of the vote and only one Democrat, you’re liable to wind up with the Democrat.

  5. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I merely note that if you have two Republican candidates drawing a sizable percentage of the vote and only one Democrat, you’re liable to wind up with the Democrat.

    This reminds me of a recent letter to the editor of our local paper, written by a woman. It was a simple two-sentence letter that, as far as I can remember, said the following:

    “In the current election, we have a choice between a female Democrat, a black Democrat and a Republican Democrat. Can someone please explain who I should vote for?”

  6. James Joyner says:

    “In the current election, we have a choice between a female Democrat, a black Democrat and a Republican Democrat. Can someone please explain who I should vote for?”

    Except, of course, that it’s not true. Compare the ACU ratings for McCain, Obama, and Clinton. They ain’t even close.

    The war? Judges? Social spending? Just not close, at least rhetorically. (I think Obama and Clinton are less knee jerk on the war than their rhetoric, most notably.)

    You might not have your ideal choice in November but, certainly, you have a real one.

  7. yetanotherjohn says:

    Two elections where the third party candidate probably did determine the winner were 1968 with Wallace and 1992 with Perot. You could make a good argument that a Wallace voter would have had a democrat as their second choice and a Perot voter would have preferred a republican as their second choice. In both cases the “third choice’ was the winner.

    The real question is can Barr replicate the Wallace/Perot type response where the candidate gets 13 to 18% of the popular vote. We shall have to see to believe that.

    And if he does start to show any such capabilities (or the green party equivalent), then expect the major party getting hurt to make exactly the argument that James makes.

    Of course people aren’t always (often) rationale about politics. I suspect there will be people on both sides who will gladly cut off their nose to spite their face.

  8. DL says:

    I too have a dream: that 100 also rans would run in this year’s election dragging all the vote away from the top three, 1% each. Then we can trash the entire election and run a lottery for the top spots and congress -Couldn’t be any worse!