The two-party system in the United States is a strange beast. Clearly limiting viable and rational options is not in the interest of a democracy. Given this situation, with each election cycle the question of voting for a third party candidate arises in one section of the population. Unfortunately the debate surrounding the validity of third party candidates has been minimized to simplistic sound bites, which belittles the issues behind the nature of third party candidacy.
Proponents for third party candidates use the chief point that both the Democratic and Republican parties are, for all intensive purposes, the same; therefore, when a voter goes to the polls third party proponents commonly attribute the motivating factor in the process as voting for the ‘lesser of two evils’. To these proponents only a third party candidate will be able to break the power exchange cycle shared by this two-party system where one is elected and if performance is unsatisfactory the other is elected and so on and so forth. A second point stems from the ‘protest’ vote mindset in effort to demonstrate to either a Democratic or Republican party candidate that he/she needs to work for the individual’s vote, not just expect it because he/she is not a member of the ‘other’ party. The lingering question with this point though is whether it is more effective to vote for a third party candidate or simply not vote at all?
Opponents of third party candidates generally only use the point that casting a vote for a third party candidate is akin to not voting at all or ‘throwing your vote away’ because the third-party candidate could never garner enough votes to win the election. Interestingly enough the very mindset of the second point above regardless of whether or not the individual refrains from voting or votes for a third party candidate does seem to exemplify ‘throwing a vote away’. The reason this characterization makes sense is because there is no confirmation process that leads the candidate to the realization that voters are dissatisfied; the ‘protest’ voters need to rely on the candidate drawing that conclusion from low voter turnouts or a higher than normal vote count for a third party candidate. However, the candidate can attribute a number of elements to a low voter turnout or higher than normal third party candidate vote, thus it is unclear if the candidate will get the message.
Of course with most arguments there is a counter-argument. Third party proponents argue that if voters voted in a bubble without a presumption of how others would vote third-party candidates would receive many more votes than detractors believe. It is this ‘artificial’ psychological limitation that voters place on society which dissuades them from voting for a third-party candidate, not the candidate him/herself. Therefore, the ‘throw your vote away’ line is not absolute reality, but a perception that becomes reality, a perception that can be overcome. Opponents counter that the general character of third-party candidates typically exists on the more extreme fringes of the standard political spectrum. Opponents seem to believe that the reason most of these individuals draw support is that most of their supporters either occupy that same fringe area or are single issue voters who ignore the more extreme elements of the platform focusing only on the particular issue of interest.
The issue of single issue voting is one of importance when considering the validity of a third party candidate. The concern in the mindset of some third party candidate proponents is that the only element they use to distinguish between one ‘major’ party candidate and the third party candidate is that single issue. Such mindsets are dangerous because while certain candidates may agree with individuals on one particular issue, their opinions, ideas or even lack of experience regarding other issues could make them a much more destructive legislator than a main-stream candidate. It is difficult to take the claim ‘I’m exactly like that guy except for this one issue.’ seriously. Unfortunately for third party candidate supporters most of the time it is this single issue that draws their support to a non-Democrat or Republican candidate.
Even in the realm of single issues there are historical winners and historical losers which seem to define the typical success parameters for third party candidates. Basically not all single issues in politics are created equal. For example some single issues like abortion/right to choose, guns, terrorism or taxes strike a much stronger emotional cord with potential voters than issues like environment, infrastructure development, technology evolution or education whether it is justified or not (oddly enough the last four are more important than the first four in most circumstances). In society today run on one of the issues in the first group and the candidate may have a chance, run on one of the issues in the second group and good luck next election.
Returning to the statement that voting for a third party candidate is akin to ‘throwing your vote away’ clearly such a statement is not accurate in an absolute sense for third party candidates have won statewide elections before (Bernie Sanders in Vermont and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota spring to mind). Note that this premise does not include individuals that were once major party candidates, but simply ran as independents after losing a primary. However, as a general trend regarding the extraordinary low victory probability for third party candidates, especially in national elections, the statement holds true.
In addition the feasibility of the psychological constraint some proponents ascribe to is unlikely, possibly just a product of their own psychological bias and the general nature of voting in the United States. For example the emotional element which ties to the single issue of support frequently creates a mindset of ‘this is important to me so it should be important to a lot of people.’ Unfortunately history has demonstrated that this mindset rarely translates to third party candidate votes.
One reason for the lack of success for third party candidates involves the issue of how many individuals vote with an informed understanding about a given candidate’s platform beyond the very basic sound bite material. It is reasonable to presume that a significant number of voters vote with the mindset of ‘well that particular individual has a R/D by his/her name and I’m a R/D so I’ll vote for that individual.’ Basically the prevalence of straight ticket voters largely eliminates the realistic expectation of third-party candidates winning with any level of consistency no matter how frustrated a certain group may be with a particular candidate/party.
Of course third party proponents also appear to forget that other individuals may actually support the Democratic or Republican parties on a wide variety of issues and that is why they vote for them; the potential ‘wooing’ pool of voters may just not be that big regardless of psychological issues. Also there is the historical psychological effect of winning; George C. Scott as Gen. Patton in ‘Patton’ said best, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser…” third parties have no real track record for winning, thus there is an inherent psychological avoidance for many voters which perpetuates the ‘throw your vote away’ mindset because that is generally all a vote for a third party candidate has accomplished in the past.
So how can third party supporters improve the probability that a third party candidate is elected? Based on the above analysis one method appears to be increasing voter awareness of all candidates. One of the more effective ways to accomplish such a task is the suggestion made here. This type of information availability allows voters to genuinely see the differences between candidates which would help them determine how those differences affect their lives. Also in such a system potential platform similarity between the major party candidates will be more prominent allowing third party supporters to demonstrate more legitimacy to the claim of ‘lesser of two evils’.
Another method is to demonstrate a personal similarity between similar individuals and the third party candidate on a myriad of issues. Too many television spots are either too broad (I fought to save jobs, lower taxes, etc.) or not personal enough. Running a television spot with five average looking individuals with one saying, ‘I support candidate x because he wants education reform that supports our children and teachers with a real world learning curriculum not belittles them by demand more tests…’ another one saying, ‘I support candidate x because he wants to increase the funding for the National Science Foundation so the U.S. can continue developing advancements in technology…’ and so on and so forth using small specifics to highlight differences between the candidate and other major party candidates. One of the best things a third party candidate can do is force major party candidate to abandon the broad policy base of their party for a more specific argument.
Finally a passing issue for supporters of the Green Party, it may be time to consider whether or not changing the party name is necessary. It is no surprise that of the two major parties a Democrat is much more likely to vote for a Green Party candidate than a Republican. However, there continues to be an obstacle for potential Democratic converts due to the 2000 Presidential election. Whether justified or not, a vast number of Democrats still hold Ralph Nader responsible for George W. Bush being in the position for a Supreme Court decision to decide the 2000 Presidential election. This continuing animosity, especially when considering the overall quality of the Bush Presidency, very well could prevent a number of Democrats from voting for Green Party candidates despite a desire to do so.
Green Party supporters try to explain away the influence of Ralph Nader by citing that a number of registered Democrats voted for Bush as well, but this argument is silly. Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush had significantly different overall policy platforms; therefore, any Democrat voting for Bush or, for that matter a Republican voting for Gore, would be better characterized as an independent voter over holding true to their ‘party of record’.
Thus it stands to reason that more Democrats view voting for Nader as a greater ‘betrayal’ than voting for Bush. Basically those Democrats that voted for Bush were not real Democrats, but those that voted for Nader still were. So does the Green Party need to change its name in an attempt to cut ties with the Nader legacy once and for all before it can become a legitimate contender with a meaningful win probability percentage in the political arena or would abandoning the Green Party name be too risky because regardless of Nader it is at least a known commodity in the political world?
Overall despite the prevailing sound bites for both proponents and opponents of third party candidates, the future success of third party candidates on a general level depends on third party supporters actively demonstrating the differences between the third party candidate and the major party candidates instead of relying on frustration or single issues. In short third party supporters need to get voters to want to vote for their candidate and their entire platform, not just a single issue, over voters viewing a third party candidate as the ‘lesser of three evils’.