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Why Independent Candidates Are Not ‘Spoilers’

Is a vote for an independent or third-party candidate a wasted vote? Is it fair to accuse a candidate not running with major party backing of being a “spoiler”? Is the potential for vote-splitting a compelling reason to adopt major reforms to our electoral system?

These issues have been debated in America since the Founding Fathers cautioned against the two-party system. Some notable presidential elections in which third-party candidates have been criticized as spoilers include Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000.

The subject is invariably brought up in any close race, and may be at least partially responsible for the fact that there are no independents currently sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The premise behind the argument that a “minor” candidate can have an unintended consequence on the outcome of an election is simple and, at face-value, seems to have merit. A candidate with limited support, who aligns more with another candidate, can split the ballot results among voters of that ideology.

This phenomenon can result in a victory for an ideologically different candidate with less than a majority of the overall vote.

It doesn’t take much, as some would argue that just several hundred of the votes cast for Ralph Nader for president in 2000 might have swung Florida, and thus the election, to Al Gore.

Whether Nader and other candidates altered the outcome of their races depends on at least two circumstances holding true:

  1. That a clear majority of voters for the minor candidate would align with one of the other candidates.
  2. That those who voted for the minor candidate would still go to the polls if their first choice was not on the ballot.

It is easier to make this argument when considering a candidate who is ideologically to the left of the Democratic candidate or to the right of the Republican candidate.

However, the effect of a candidate who campaigns as a centrist is much less obvious. Given the high levels of voter discontent in today’s political environment, it seems likely that supporters of a centrist candidate would not draw solely from a single major-party candidate.

It can also be argued that these candidates may increase voter turnout, bringing voters to the polls who are not satisfied with the “lesser-of-two-evils” choices otherwise offered.

Barry Burden, professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses his research on U.S. elections. According to Burden, the presence of minor-party candidates on the ballot can sometimes change the outcome of an election, especially in presidential and Senate races.

However, he claims that independent candidates are often different.

“They tend to adopt an unorthodox set of policy positions that do not as consistently place them to the right or the left of the major-party candidates.” Burden said in an interview for IVN. “They can certainly affect the outcome, but they are less likely to do so than candidates representing minor parties, such as the Greens or Libertarians.”

Chris Stockwell is an independent, centrist candidate for Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District, a closely contested race in 2014. When asked about his potential as a vote-splitter in the race, Stockwell emphatically stated: “Spoil what? The system is already spoiled!”

Stockwell is seeking the appeal of the 55 percent of voters in his district who are unaffiliated with a major party. He is confident that he will actually win the contest, and views his potential victory as the beginning of a new wave of strong candidates representing the moderate majority in America.

The idea that the minor party closest to the major party in ideas always hurts that major party is not true.
Richard Winger, Ballot Access News
According to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, “the idea that the minor party closest to the major party in ideas always hurts that major party is not true.”

Winger cited experimental evidence presented in the book, Predictably Irrational, showing that when people must choose among three alternatives, the preferred of two similar options will be more frequently chosen, relative to the third alternative which is less similar.

Winger also claims that “the absolute best way to avoid the ‘spoiler effect’ is for the United States to implement proportional representation, which all countries in western and central Europe use, except for Britain and France.”

There are a variety of proposed opportunities for electoral reform, which have merit extending far beyond just those situations including a centrist candidate.

But putting arguments for systemic change aside, on Election Day this November, voters must make their choices within the current system. Does this mean we should vote according to polling results, or which candidate the media tells us has the best chance of defeating the candidate we least desire?

I contend that a moderate, centrist candidate in many races is the best choice. A vote for such a candidate is not wasted. Instead, it is a courageous choice, rewarding the candidates looking to change the system, and encouraging others to follow this path.

Photo Credit: Joe Belanger / shutterstock.com