Could a Third Party 'Spoil' This Election?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a followup from Gary, the Green Party guy who started this reader thread:

I find Jon’s objections less than convincing. His statement here is perplexing: “While I certainly understand the frustration of having to express one’s political views through only one of two choices…I don’t really see how increasing that number to three or four choices really improves on that.” If you’re dissatisfied with the election platforms of both Democrats and Republicans, denying them a vote and electing some other party is a clear and obvious improvement.

As for how many people out there support 100% of the Green Party platform, why not ask the same of Democrat and Republican voters? How many of you support 100% of their policies? Anyone who says yes probably hasn’t done much research, but I invite you to take the survey to see how you do.

This next reader, John, questions Gary’s leading premise—that the left’s priority is identity politics, not labor—and then criticizes voting for a third party:

I think it’s misguided to accuse Democratic politicians of opting for “identity politics” over jobs, wages and benefits for the poor and middle class. First of all, these are not mutually exclusive; they are equally important. Labeling it “identity politics” makes support for gay rights, civil rights for minorities, and equal rights for women seem shallow and “buzz-wordy”—mere campaign gimmicks. Let’s not forget that these are vitally important issues that Democrats for decades have fought hard for.

Secondly, who has fought harder for higher wages, workers’ rights, job training programs, job creation through infrastructure spending, social security, and health care benefits more than the Democrats? Have we forgotten that Republicans have worked diligently to cut wages, benefits and health care spending, while fighting against infrastructure spending and job training?

I get that many of us want Democrats to accomplish more, and that progress on economic issues has been a hard slog. But turning to the Green Party is hardly an answer. It’s just reacting exactly the way Karl Rove hopes we will; Republicans want nothing better than to have a faction of liberals go off on a quixotic Green Party crusade and hand Trump the election.

But this next reader, Joseph, makes a really good point how third parties should focus their firepower on state and local elections, not national ones:

This is an interesting thread, but I’m somewhat skeptical of what would happen if Jill Stein was actually elected. (I say this as a guy who voted for Ron Paul in 2008, so I’m sympathetic to third parties.) The Green Party has no governing power at any level of government, so it’s hard to imagine what a Stein administration could actually accomplish. If the Green Party wants to become a force, it would make more sense to get after local offices like the Tea Party did in the early 2010s. (I disagree with just about everything the Tea Party movement stands for, but that’s the model of electoral change that appears to be working.) [CB note: Molly this morning asks the question, “Is the Tea Party Responsible for Donald Trump?”] For all the talk about how the country is becoming more liberal, you’d never know it from looking at state houses, governors, school boards, etc.

Pat, on the other hand, points to an example where even a tiny representation by a third party can heavily influence national politics:

Since I vote in California, a winner-take-all state, voting for a minority party would be a waste of my vote. However, it is worth reflecting on Australia under the Labor Party (now unseated) where Labor had to hold a regular election, and the result was a split with both major parties having almost the same number of seats. But there were two Green Party candidates elected, as well as an independent, so they agreed to vote as a bloc. And in doing so, they terrified the Labor Government, since these three minority senators could force an election and probably see Labor dismissed.

I had never seen a government dominated by three radical elected individuals, and while I dislike the winner-take-all system, at least it prevents a few from dominating the many.

But why should voting locally and voting nationally for different parties be mutually exclusive? Andy in Kentucky doesn’t see it that way:

Does my Green vote matter? It does to me. I don’t care about the two-party system. I care about whether or not my beliefs and values are represented. Within my state, I can vote Green for president and then vote Republican or Democrat for other offices. I know who to vote for down ticket; I contact those running and pay attention to what they do and say.

Andy’s voting would infuriate this next reader, Doug:

It is incredibly disappointing that everyone doesn’t learn this in high school civics class, but we have a majoritarian, winner-take-all political system, not proportional representation. That means that third parties by their inherent nature split voters with the major party that is ideologically closer, while allowing the “further” more ideologically opposed camp to vote as a unanimous block. What happened with Gore and Nader wasn’t bad luck; it was the predictable outcome of the structure of our electoral system, in exactly the same way that running an establishment Republican third party candidate alongside Trump would guarantee Hillary’s election.

Want to elect someone with a Green platform? You have two options: One, a constitutional amendment to change our system to proportional representation. Then you will have more, smaller parties and can vote for one more closely matching the details of your preferences. Maybe it will get enough votes to join a coalition government. But guess what, even when it does, politics is always about compromise. Take a look at the experience of the Green party in Germany.

Or, more realistically, compete and win in the primary process of one of the two major parties. Bernie wasn’t even a registered Democrat and came remarkably close to doing so. He and Trump offer pretty compelling evidence that the system is open if you can get enough popular support behind you.

But as Bernie also shows, it isn’t enough to have fervent support; you still need to win majorities; that is the operative principle of democracy. If you can’t win a majority of those most ideologically sympathetic to your positions, why should anyone believe you’re going to do better among those more opposed?

Ultimately, the name of the game isn’t even about winning elections; it is moving the ideological center. The right wing (falsely labelled “conservatives”) have since 1980 had 30 years of success at this, such that Nixon and even Reagan would never be nominated in today’s Republican party.

But that demographic and ideological wave has long since crested and is quite obviously receding, and it is entirely possible that the Bernie-vs-Hillary primary may be the template for many elections to come, with Republicans an angry and increasingly irrelevant sideshow.

One more reader, S. Olson in Maine, warns against a third party preference:

You want something better than the Democrats? I sympathize, but voting for a third party is likely to help the Republicans win. As long as we have first-past-the-post voting, a third party increases the chances that one’s least preferred candidate will win. It would be far more effective to work within the Democratic party, as Bernie did.

Nader helped elect Bush; Perot helped elect Clinton. In 2010, in Maine, an independent split the Democratic vote, with the result that the the Tea-Party candidate, LePage, won with 38% of the vote.   

Anyone thinking about voting Green should study the 2000 election and think about the fact that Gore only needed a few more votes to win Florida, and thus, the election. Instead, we got Bush, the financial crisis and a decade of war in the Middle East. Think long and hard about that before voting Green and handing the presidency to Trump.