The Virginia governor's race is being widely viewed as a bellwether about…something. It pits the ultimate FOB (does anyone still remember what that means?) Terry McAuliffe (D) against the conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), with a suprisingly popular Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, polling near on in double digits (read Reason's inteview with him).
The latest poll, from Emerson College, has McAuliffe at 42 percent, Cuccinelli at 40 percent, and Sarvis at 13 percent. Not long ago, McAuliffe was winning in a total rout. Other polls show the race tightening before the election Tuesday, though nothing as tight as Emerson's. RealClearPolitics' average has McAuliffe up by about 8 points and Sarvis just over 10 percent (important because cracking double digits would guarantee the LP ballot access through 2016).
Depending on who you ask, it's about how awful the GOP is overall and their foolhardiness in shutting down the federal government (which is hugely important to the Old Dominion's economy). Or it's about just how disastrous the Obamacare debacle really is, or how inexperienced and dirty McAuliffe really is; how brave and stand-up Cuccinelli is (he was a leader in bringing legal action against Obamacare) or how insanely socially conservative he is; or how reckless the Libertarian Party is (depending on whom you ask, the LP is either gifting the election to McAuliffe or showing the deepening appetite for a third-party to the Dems and Reps.
I suspect that there's a mix of all of the above at play in the race. But this is certainly worth hammering home: The notion that a third-party candidate, in this case a Libertarian, in any way, shape, or form "costs" a Democrat or Republican an election is a category error.
This type of argument was made most famously to explain the outcome of the 2000 election, which was supposedly thrown to George W. Bush by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. The methodology to prove this is simple: You take the spread between the major party players and then see if a third-party candidate more votes than that, and blame them. Don't you see that Nader obviously tossed the election to Bush, because all of Nader's voters would have turned out even if he wasn't running and would have voted for Gore…?
There's a basic logic that seems persuasive, but it glosses over too many things to really be convincing. In the 2000 election, it skims over the fact that if Al Gore had been a semi-decent candidate, he should have won in a rout. He was the VP of a flawed but effective administration that had overseen a massive and general increase in wealth (even despite the tech bubble bust at the very end of the 1990s). This was a guy who had various scandals of his own on top of Bill Clinton's and then made the bizarre decision to show up in orange-face for a presidential debate and also vaguely physically threaten Bush at the end of one too. However close - and ultimately arbitrary - the final vote tally was, Al Gore lost the election because he was a rotten candidate that voters (and yes, ultimately the Supreme Court) rejected.
The whole "third party are spoilers" presupposes that the two major parties have a prior claim on votes and voters, which is simply wrong. This sort of logic typically get trotted out by conservatives around election time, when they suddenly realize that small-L libertarians exist and vote on issues that go beyond patently unconvincing promises to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government at any given level. Candidates such as Cuccinelli, who is by all accounts extremely socially conservative, are a tough sell to libertarian-minded voters (45 percent of whom say they identify with the Republican Party).
Which is another way of saying: If GOP candidates aren't convincing to libertarians, don't blame libertarians. Don't conservatives believe in personal responsibility? Take a look at the man in the mirror then. Blame a party that has never lived up to its limited government rhetoric or its insistence that government should leave people alone as much as possible (in Virginia, this meant among other things, having Republican legislators vote against a plan to get the government out of the liquor business. Really).
Libertarians are incredibly consistent in what they believe and getting their vote is pretty easy: All you have to do is present a credible plan to cut the role of government across the board. As leading libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has concisely put it, you have to "embrace liberty in both the economic and personal spheres." As I noted in a recent Time.com column, this isn't complicated, but it has often proved a bridge too far for Republicans. That's their problem and it may well spell their doom going forward, as libertarian-minded voters gain numbers and influence:
If the Republicans can't figure out a way to accommodate broadly popular, socially tolerant libertarian policies on gay rights, drug legalization, and more, they will not just lose the race for the White House in 2016, but quite possibly their status as a major party.
Related and highly relevant: Scott Shackford on which candidate is "losing" more votes to Sarvis.