Votes For Third Party Candidates Are Wasted
Yesterday, a few websites reported the rumor (since debunked) that John McCain would support the “Gang of 20” drilling compromise, which would open up a tiny portion of space on the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling—while increasing taxes on oil companies by thirty billion dollars. It is, from a conservative perspective, a bad idea.
Many conservatives exploded with anger. Ace’s reaction was typical:
Do it. A lot of us are simply angry and want a goddamned shock to the system. And here's the thing you can take to bed with you tonight -- a clearing out of all of you deadweight RINO Senators and a genuine Republican bloodbath is also a perfectly serviceable shock to the system as far as we're concerned.
This sort of attitude isn’t as common as it was before McCain picked Palin, but for a brief time after McCain’s nomination, it was the prevailing outlook in the conservative blogosphere, and really, within the entire conservative movement. People seemed to think (and some still think) that withholding their vote for McCain and letting the Republican party go down in flames would be worth it. And judging from the reaction to the Gang of 20 rumors, many conservatives are still very open to the idea.
It doesn’t work. Voting for a third party candidate (or not voting at all) always sounds daring and audacious, a nice we’re-not-taking-it-anymore message to the offending party. But the party never actually listens to its angry base—it just goes and nominates the same kind of candidates the next year. After all, where else is the base going to go?
In 1992, Ross Perot actually managed to take the election from George H. W. Bush. (Perot isn’t easy to classify—personally, I think “crackpot” works best—but most observers think that he took many more votes away from Bush than he took from Clinton). Perot’s success was a clear sign that Bush’s policies weren’t resonating with voters—so did the GOP nominate a more conservative candidate the next election cycle? No, they nominated Bob Dole, a candidate who was remarkably similar to Bush.
Perot helped defeat him too. (Although in fairness, Perot’s impact was smaller in 1996, and I’m not sure that Dole needed any help losing). Clearly, many voters weren’t happy with the two mainstream party choices, and further, most of those voters were Republicans. They had helped rob the Republican party of victory for two consecutive election cycles. And the Republicans did not learn their lesson—they nominated George W. Bush, reasoning that all those Perot voters would come home to the Republican party, which they did. It worked—Bush won.
The Perot saga shows that even though a third party actually managed to affect the general election, and lost at least one and possibly two contests for the Republicans, the party didn’t change its philosophy. It simply kept nominating similar candidates till the third party voters gave up and came back to the party. It is what would happen if conservatives abandoned McCain now.
If the Perot story isn’t convincing, consider the Ralph Nader effect. In 2000, Nader clearly, without a shadow of a doubt, lost the election for Al Gore. Gore lost in the key state of Florida by under six hundred votes. Nader got almost one hundred thousand voters. If just one percent of Nader’s voters had voted for Gore, he would have been president of the United States. But they didn’t, because many liberals felt that Gore was not fully committed to the Left.
In 2004, the Democrats nominated John Kerry, who was, if anything, farther right than Gore. Sensing a pattern here? Voting for a third party is literally a wasted vote—the two major parties pay no attention to the concerns of third party voters.
Why not? Because they know that the sort of far-left or right voters who would go for a third party candidate are eventually going to come back anyway, after seeing the effects of their wasted vote. But the moderate, independent voters want a candidate somewhere near the middle of the political spectrum, and candidates who propose a single-payer healthcare system or a return to the gold standard don’t qualify, which explains why people like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul never get nominated, no matter how many times they run.
There are a many more moderates than ideologues. Therefore, neither party will ever nominate a candidate who is either wholly conservative or totally liberal. Conservatives (and liberals too, really) should adjust to that fact, and attempt to start pushing the center right. (They can do this by joining grassroots organizations, running for office, or supporting conservative candidates). But throwing away votes on quixotic but doomed third party candidacies isn’t the way to do it.
I have always felt the conservatism, in large part, is about accepting reality. Many conservatives should start doing that.