Who's Spoiling Whom?

Sooner or later, independent and third-party candidates – and those of us who support them – have to come to grips with the so-called Spoiler Effect. The theory is that because they have no chance of winning, independent and third-party candidates (for the sake of simplicity I’ll just call them “Indies”) do nothing more than take votes away from the “real” candidates, potentially costing one of them the election. For example, many have said that Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by siphoning off votes, especially in Florida, that would otherwise have gone to Gore. The implication is that Nader spoiled the election – and not only for Gore, but also for himself and his supporters since Gore was presumably more likely than Bush to be sympathetic to Nader’s agenda.    

There are numerous flaws in this theory. First, it assumes that if Indies were not in the race, all of their voters would have cast their ballots for one of the major candidates. This is extremely dubious. It is just as likely that many of these voters, had their preferred Indie not been in the race, would not have voted at all.

Secondly, the Spoiler Effect theory assumes that we can accurately divine which of the major candidates a particular Indie’s voters would have supported. Granted, it is not implausible that if someone had put a gun to the head of all the Nader supporters and forced them to vote for someone else, many – perhaps most – would have backed Gore. But at least some of their votes would have surely gone to Bush or to another Indy on the ballot in Florida. If making this kind of prediction is dicey in a presidential race, it is even more so in down-ballot races where issues may be more localized, positions of individual candidates less well known, and polling less robust.

It is worth noting that, in spite of the notoriety of the 2000 incident, genuine instances of the Spoiler Effect are exceedingly rare. In a study of more than 1,800 federal election races between 2006 and 2012, Indies received more votes than the winner’s margin of victory in only 3.3 percent of the races (and in more than half of those races, the major party candidate that was presumably more sympathetic to the “spoiler’s” views won anyway).  In short, when major party candidates campaigning against Indies accuse them of being “nothing but spoilers,” they are warning of a phenomenon that almost never occurs.

Even so, it is important to be able to address the spectre of the Spoiler Effect when it arises. Here are some thoughts:

  1. It’s a red herring (see above).
  2. It assumes the existence, and the propriety, of a two-party monopoly in which any independent or third-party candidate is, almost by definition, an interloper. That assumption is precisely what needs to change.
  3. The Spoiler Effect should occur even less with centrist candidates than with most Indies, who typically arise because they and their supporters find the major parties insufficiently extreme on one or more issues. A truly centrist candidate would draw more or less equally from both parties and “spoil” neither of them.
  4. The two major parties continue to race headlong toward the fringes of their respective constituencies, cynically betting that moderates will have no choice but to follow them off the cliff. In doing so, they pervert our politics, shatter our civic norms, and undermine our democratic values. Frankly, they deserve to be spoiled.
  5. Recent history suggests – it practically screams – that settling for the lesser of two evils isn’t a particularly effective strategy. Why should anyone feel obliged to betray their conscience and accept the unacceptable? In 2016, I voted for an Indie presidential candidate whose prospects for victory I knew were slim. But that candidate stood for values that I cherish and held positions on issues that I support, so I was glad to have been able to take a stand and send a message with my vote. I went to sleep on election night profoundly disappointed, even frightened, by the outcome. But I also went to sleep at peace with myself. I didn’t feel like a “spoiler.” I felt like a responsible citizen – a good American. If I were a candidate, I would be proud to offer voters an opportunity to feel that way and as a voter, I am proud to support such candidates.  


Views and opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Unite America.