Spoiler Power


Gene Healy links to an article from Sunday's Washington Post arguing that small-government third parties could tip the 2004 election in the Democrats' favor.


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  1. I knew Derbyshire couldn’t have come up with the idea all on his own today.

  2. I knew Derbyshire couldn’t have come up with the idea all on his own today.

  3. dammit!

  4. There are 2 very good ways that Libertarians could use their “spoiler power”, and these tactics could work in partisan races at any level.

    1) Run a campaign that appeals to swing voters and perhaps even Democrat-leaning voters as well as the traditional Libertarian core constituency of GOP-leaning voters. If the candidate is polling more than the margin between the 2 candidates he makes an announcement: He’ll endorse whichever of the 2 major candidates first endorses a handful of policies. Probably not the whole Libertarian platform all at once, but some significant improvements (e.g. significant tax cuts, albeit not abolition of taxes; or roll back some particularly significant gun control laws, even if some remain; or end some particularly bad subsidies and regulations, even if some remain).

    Maybe the candidates have to endorse all of the items on the list. Maybe just a majority of the items. Whatever. The details depend on the situation and need not be thrashed out in this post.

    The important thing is that the demands should be such that there’s at least a small chance that a Democrat might endorse them (e.g. include civil liberty issues, or regulations that specifically make life more expensive for middle income families). Why am I emphasizing Democrats? Because if the LP only poses a threat to Republicans it will be hard to win over GOP-leaning voters. Voting for the LP only helps the Democrats (at least in the short run), the party that they consider the “greater evil.” By posing a threat to the Democrats you can build a bigger tent with more voters, and assuage the fears of people who think the LP is nothing more than a way of electing Democrats.

    2) Make the demand before the elections. For instance, a state party might make a handful of demands, and promise that any incumbent who votes contrary to those demands will face a spoiler. And put these demands to the Dems as well, or come up with a separate list for the Dems (e.g. GOP gets tax and gun issues, Dems get civil liberties and economic regulations that make life more expensive for middle income families). Whatever. Point is, pose a threat to both parties, since that’s the best way to persuade GOP-leaning voters that the LP is not part of the Dems’ re-election strategy.

    Then follow through. If a Democrat incumbent doesn’t measure up then run a spoiler who talks about civil liberties, pot, privacy, and the regulations and subsidies that help big corporations while making life difficult for small businesses and middle income families. If a GOP incumbent doesn’t measure up then run a spoiler who talks about taxes, guns, and deregulation.

    Once again, I emphasize that threatening the Dems is crucial. Drawing in voters who lean Dem as well as voters who lean GOP means more votes, and by threatening both parties you assuage the fears of people who think “All the LP ever does is help Dems win.”

  5. Thoreau:

    Very interesting idea and more realistic that some of the fanciful scenarios you hear in the these parts.

    A version of this scenario played out, as I recall, in the Georgia Senate race that first elected the late Paul Coverdell. In the runoff, he was able to get the LPs to endorse him, and it likely made the difference in a close election there. There are similar examples at the local level where Republicans absolutely know that the presence of a Libertarian on the ballot imperils their chances. Democrats, at least in the states with which I’m familiar, don’t follow up on this and try to liberalize ballot access further, perhaps because they are worried about Greens sapping their strength in other districts. It’s a silly worry, though. Greens would primarily pick up votes in college-town districts where GOP candidates usually can’t win no matter what.

    Actually, I think I wrote about the Coverdell episode for Reason when it happened, about a decade ago. . .

  6. Internal pre-election polling data in Wisconsin showed that Thompson pulled more votes from the Democrat candidate — but most Ed’s voters were people who wouldn’t have gone to the polls had he not run — so the spoiler effect is always dubious, the inside the belt way boys always just assume LP pulls from the Rs but its not always true — the Wisconsin race polling shows that Gov. McCallum would have lost by a higher margin than had Thompson not run.

    Perot also pulled a lot of would be non-voters, same can be said of Nader.

    Also one thing these articles fail to mention is the quality of the canddiates that are supposedly spoiled by third parties — McCallum in Wisconsin was a highly unpopular governor with a personality on par with Grey Davis and one of the worst campaigners I have ever seen.

    In most these races there is nothing to spoil —

  7. Follow-up: The piece I originally wrote on the Coverdell example isn’t online, but this 1997 article by former Reasoner Rick Henderson lays out two Georgia scenarios:


  8. Wow, thoreau, got a lot of time on your hands? That is way too complicated to work, for a couple of reasons.

    One, you won’t know whether a spoiler is even possible in any given race until way after the filing deadline, because most races don’t gel until then.

    Two, you won’t be able to come up with two good candidates for the same office, one to run against a Republican leader and the other against the Dem, both of whom are willing to drop out at the last minute if called for so the other can fulfill your tactical scheme. Most of the time, the LP can’t even come up with one good candidate to run against anyone.

    Three, the LP is too utterly hopeless at dealing with political reality to ever manage such a scheme.

    SPUR is correct – when third party candidates post real numbers, they are generally “new” voters who were not pulled from either major candidate and thus do not represent a spoiler effect.

  9. R.C. Dean-

    I was thinking of one candidate per race, just that in some races you target the Dem, others the Republican, others you try to get swing voters and act as “king maker”, and still others you sit out because during the last term that elected official adhered to a list of policy requests.

    I got the idea when I read in LP News about a state LP affiliate (Washington? not sure) that threatened to run spoilers against any Republican legislator who voted for a tax hike. I thought it might be nice to do that every session, picking some issue, or set of issues, or different issues for each party, or whatever (let the people who know the local politics figure out what works best) and threaten all incumbents who vote the wrong way.

  10. LP or other 3rd party vote tallies in statewide elections for offices other than President are often a higher percentage for a few reasons:

    1.) In “off-year” elections there is lower turnout, and the same raw vote total yields a higher percentage. Party loyalists for all parties are more likely to vote, while the marginal voter may only turn out in a presidential year.

    2.) Many people don’t vote in every race on the ballot. This is why ballot status is often earned by the vote total for State Treasurer,
    or some other constitutional office.

    3.) Local issues can trump party ID. Here in WI, besides his experience as a small town mayor, Ed Thompson was the champion of small taverns and other small businesses trying to compete with Indian Casinos. AG Doyle, now governor, was feeding at the trough of tribal campaign spending, while Gov. McCallum was dead-set against any expansion of gambling, even as he was powerless to do anything to restrain the Tribes, who had received favorable federal court and federal administrative rulings. Ed took the libertarian position of wanting to allow tavern owners to run games to compete with the casinos, which were luring customers away, Vegas-style, with cheap eats.

    “Thompson’s front door to politics was opened when the Tee Pee* was one of 40 Monroe County bars raided in 1997 by police who confiscated illegal video gambling machines. The charges against Thompson were later dropped after the prosecutors could not find enough unbiased jurors to hear the case.”

    *Ed’s restaurant. See:


    You didn’t have to be an LP member to want to support Ed, just a North Woods resident who had been laid off or had your hours cut or lost half your trade to the Oneida or the Ho Chunk. Now, if that was your introduction to libertarianism, and it made sense to you, that was great. But if it had been a dissident Democrat or Republican bucking the status quo, they would have garnered similar numbers.

    As for spoiler candidacies and policy ultimatums, local LP officers will still want to obtain enough of a vote to guarantee placement on the ballot in the next election, where state law allows for that method of qualification. Endorsing another party’s pick, outside of the exceptions such as New York that have allowed cross-endorsement, endangers that strategy. Short of proportional representation, or requiring run-offs, cross-endorsement is a dream situation. Candidates that pass LP muster can run on their own line, and on the LP’s also.


  11. In 1994, Joe Jacobs, a law student, got 10% of the vote in a three-way Congressional where he, a Libertarian, opposed a democrat and republican. That year there were about 50 (out of 454) three-way races with a Libertarian, dem and rep. Joe Jacobs’ 10% vote was the highest of all 50 of those Libertarians; the more typical Libertarian vote being 2 1/2%.

    The punch line of this story is that the Libertarian Party, to this day,after 10 years have past, has never reached Joe Jacobs to find out why he did so well an how his success might be replicated.

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