Democrats should abandon the third-party “spoiler” argument

  • History and polling data show third-party candidates have rarely spoiled presidential elections for Democrats.

By Matthew M. Heidtmann
November 9, 2019

With the 2020 presidential primaries in full swing, a common narrative in U.S. politics has resurfaced. Recently, former Secretary of State and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested on the podcast Campaign HQ” that current Democratic candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is part of Russian efforts to influence the 2020 presidential election.

While Clinton did not directly mention Gabbard by name, she insinuated that the congresswoman is “the favorite of the Russians,” and that Russian operatives are “grooming her to be a third-party candidate.” On the same podcast, Clinton made similar remarks about Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, to whom she referred as a “Russian asset.” These allegations constitute the latest incarnation of long-standing concerted efforts by neoliberal Democratic partisans to construct and perpetuate a narrative in which third-party candidates represent “spoilers” in presidential elections.

In modern U.S. history, only a handful of third-party candidates had a strong showing at the ballot box, and only very few of them could be accurately characterized as spoilers. The most successful third-party run in U.S. history occurred in the election of 1912, when former Republican Theodore Roosevelt ran as the Bull Moose Party candidate. Roosevelt came in second, winning 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 Electoral College votes, and it can be argued that he effectively spoiled the re-election of Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, who came in third with only 23 percent of the popular vote.

Another notable third-party challenger was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran as the American Independent candidate in 1968. Wallace won about 13 percent of the popular vote and 46 Electoral College votes. As a staunch segregationist, Wallace did not detract from Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey but actually siphoned votes away from Republican Richard Nixon, who still managed to win the election by harnessing Wallace’s “Southern strategy” and co-opting much of his racial dog-whistle rhetoric.

A more recent example of a considerable third-party challenge is Ross Perot’s run as a centrist independent candidate in the 1992 election. But again, rather than being a spoiler for the Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, who won the election, it could be argued that Perot’s 18.9 percent of the popular vote actually detracted from Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush, and thus helped the Democrats, even though Perot did not receive any votes at all in the Electoral College.

Yet, in recent decades, establishment Democrats in particular have time and time again invoked the third-party spoiler argument as a means to justify their electoral shortcomings. Many Democratic voters still believe that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election against George W. Bush in 2000, and Democratic pundits, operatives and media strategists continue to feed this narrative to this day. Likewise, Green Party candidate Stein is often vilified for having siphoned votes away from Hillary Clinton in 2016, and thus “spoiling” what many had believed to be a shoo-in for the Democratic candidate against celebrity billionaire Donald Trump.

While the third-party spoiler argument is highly persistent in U.S. political culture, the data do not support this argument. Studies compiled at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University show that in recent presidential elections, between 7 to 11 percent of registered Democrats abandoned their party allegiance and voted for the GOP candidate instead. In 2016, around 8 percent of Democrats nationwide actually voted for Trump, while the third-party candidates Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Independent Evan McMullin combined received merely 4.93 percent of the popular vote.

Democratic-leaning corporate media outlets quickly argued that in the key battleground states Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Trump only beat Clinton by tiny margins, and that “Stein’s votes would have covered her loss.” But this is a highly presumptuous argument, which assumes that Green Party voters would support Clinton by default, when in actuality, these voters were highly unlikely to vote for Clinton in the first place. The average Green Party voter, who is generally much more ideological than the average Democratic voter, rarely crosses party lines in presidential elections. By the same token, it is actually more likely that Libertarian candidate Johnson, who received 3.3 percent of the popular vote — three times as many votes as Stein — plucked away more conservative or Republican-leaning voters, and thus actually detracted from Trump rather than “spoiling” the election for Clinton.

And while it may be enticing for Clinton supporters to believe that those 8 percent of Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 could be largely attributed to so-called “Berniecrats” (i.e. voters who registered as Democrats solely to support Sen. Bernie Sanders), this argument is rather unsustainable. If the assumption is that, after Sanders failed to secure the Democratic nomination, Berniecrats swung their vote to Trump in 2016, common sense would suggest that the proportion of Democratic voters who cast their ballots for Republican candidates in previous elections would be much lower.

But that is not the case, as the three presidential elections prior to 2016 indicate. In 2004, 11 percent of Democrats voted for incumbent president George W. Bush over Democratic challenger John Kerry. In 2008, 10 percent of Democrats voted for Republican Sen. John McCain over then Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, and in 2012, around 7 percent of Democrats nationwide voted for Republican Mitt Romney over Democratic incumbent Obama.

But perhaps the most convincing argument against the third-party spoiler narrative is reflected in the infamous presidential election of 2000. Some Democrats still blame Nader for “costing” Gore the election, but they disregard the fact that a whopping 11 percent of Democrats voted for George W. Bush nationwide, while Nader only received 2.76 percent of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes at all. Simple arithmetic shows that the numbers of rogue Democratic voters who backed Bush over Gore outrank Nader’s total tally fourfold.

Moreover, the pivotal voter dynamic in Florida provides further evidence. In Florida alone, over 200,000 Democrats voted for Bush over Gore, while Nader won just over 97,000 votes. Again, the number of Democrats who crossed party lines outflanks the Nader votes by more than twofold. Nader was hardly the spoiler in the election of 2000.

Another fundamental argument that runs counter to the spoiler myth is evidenced by the fact that the president of the United States is not elected by popular vote but by the Electoral College. While Roosevelt in 1912 and Wallace in 1968 both managed to win Electoral College votes, Perot in 1992, Nader in 2000, and Stein and Johnson in 2016 all received exactly 0 Electoral College votes.

There are indeed spoilers in U.S. presidential elections, but in most cases, they are not third-party candidates but rather Democrats themselves. Not only does the Democratic National Committee put its thumbs on the scales to determine the party’s nominee, as they did infamously in the 2016 Democratic primary, but nearly a tenth of Democratic voters themselves regularly ditch their party affinity and cast their ballots for the Republican candidate, as they have done in recent elections.

Given these numbers of rogue Democratic voters and considering the fact that third-party candidates have rarely received any Electoral College votes, it is time for Democrats in particular to abandon the third-party spoiler argument once and for all.

{Photo Credits: Gore, Tom Rafferty; Kerry, Srikar; Clinton, Gage Skidmore}
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