How to Protest the Major Parties Without Throwing Away Your Vote

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are counting on disaffected voters to stay home this election day. There's a better way to signal dissatisfaction.
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Writing at the New York Times' Campaign Stops blog, veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall recently compared President Obama's rhetorical strategy during his meteoric rise to the contradictory approach he's taken this year. "There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes," he once said. "Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." On so many occasions, Obama asserted that we're "one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes," adding the question, "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?"

But now?

"Faced with a tough re-election fight, President Obama has, in fundamental respects, adopted the strategy he denounced," Edsall says. "He is running a two-track campaign. One track of his re-election drive seeks to boost turnout among core liberal groups; the other aims to suppress turnout and minimize his margin of defeat in the most hostile segment of the electorate, whites without college degrees. This approach assumes a highly polarized electorate and tries to make the best of it .... A central goal of the anti-Romney commercials is to cross-pressure these whites. Persuading more than 28 percent of them to vote for Obama is a tough sell, but the Obama campaign can try to make the alternative, voting for Romney, equally unacceptable. Conflicted voters, especially those holding negative views of both candidates, are likely to skip voting altogether."

This is hardly a novel strategy -- negative advertising aimed at depressing turnout is a pervasive feature of U.S. politics. Doesn't knowing about it make you more averse to staying home on election day? Folks who do go to the polls, even the ones who are dissatisfied with "both choices," nevertheless tend to avoid voting for third parties because they have no chance of winning.

But what if third-party-curious Americans who stop themselves because they're averse to "throwing away their vote" took a more strategic approach to their role as voters? If you aren't crazy about the Republican or Democrat, but think of your vote from a utilitarian perspective and are uninterested in purely symbolic gestures, here's how to impact presidential elections in two easy steps:

1) Postpone your calculated support for someone you don't like until you're standing in the election booth. Before then, support the third-party nominee you'd like to see win. If a pollster asks who you support give their name, not the major-party candidate you may wind up voting for in the end. Doing so doesn't squander your vote on someone who won't win, but could be the difference between a Libertarian or Green Party candidate being included or excluded from TV debates.

2) Think about whether or not you live in a swing state. If so, maybe it makes more sense to vote Republican or Democrat. But if you live in a state like California, where the Democrat will obviously win, or a state like Utah where the Republican is obviously going to win, your vote is going to have a lot more impact if you're part of a third-party surge that signals disaffection to others.

These two strategies make sense partly because a third-party needn't win or even swing an election to make a difference. Neither the Green nor the Libertarian parties are likely to ever win the presidency. But that needn't be the goal. If Republicans or Democrats notice a third party getting traction -- that is to say, 8 or 10 or 15 percent of the vote -- they'll start co-opting its issues.

That's worth something.