Third Parties and the Spoiler Effect In the 2012 Election

by The Non-Majority Rule Desk, Joe Witte // Published March 1, 2012

As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it's clear that while many American voters are ready for a third party, America's election system is not.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 52% of Americans, including a majority of independents and for the first time a majority of Republicans, believe America needs a third major party.’s election analyst Nate Silver recently detailed   reasons to expect a serious third-party run in 2012: low approval for both major parties, lack of strong support for either party's positions on debt and economic issues, and congressional deadlock lowering public opinions about the Inside-the-Beltway establishment. Silver analyzed post-WWII races, finding that ones with similar conditions to 2012 often featured strong third-party activity. Silver's predictions may already be vindicated - between President Obama, the GOP nominee, Virgil Goode (the Constitution Party nominee), Gary Johnson (the likely Libertarian nominee), and an as-yet undecided Americans Elect nominee, we could easily see five current or former governors or Members of Congress on the November ballot - the most in US history.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is among those calling for a third voice in the election, writing in support of a candidate to represent the “radical center” with a focus on economic and fiscal issues. This candidate, Friedman believes, might follow in the footsteps of Ross Perot who, despite losing the election, in 1992 succeeded in making a balanced budget a major issue for Clinton’s presidency. Friedman suggests former comptroller general and current Comeback America Initiative CEO David Walker be a third-party candidate.

Friedman wants Walker in this fall’s debates, but it’s revealing that Friedman ends his glowing discussion of Walker with the caveat that he might not actually vote for his most preferred candidate because of the spoiler effect – as seen in the 2000 election when Ralph Nader drew away voters from Al Gore and the 1992 election when many believe Ross Perot hurt George Bush’s re-election changes. This showcases the current problem with third parties: even if they occasionally affect debates, third parties are not serious contenders in elections even in their strongest years because the spoiler effect scares away potential supporters.

The spoiler effect is one of the most bizarre and undemocratic consequences of our winner-take-all electoral system. For instance, voting for a conservative candidate should not make a liberal candidate more likely to win – but that is exactly what has happened in a series of key U.S. Senate elections where Libertarian Party candidates have earned significantly more votes than the winning margin for Democrats. Liberal Democrats frustrated with relative centrism of Bill Clinton and Al Gore suffered similar unintended consequences for supporting Ralph Nader in 2000.

The spoiler problem is a product of state statutes that allow a candidate to win all of its electoral votes even when falling short of half the popular votes – a rule that meant that in 1992, 49 states awarded all their electoral votes to candidates who won less than 50% of the vote in their states.

One traditional approach is runoff elections, which states could establish even for presidential elections by statute. FairVote’s preferred solution is instant runoff voting (IRV), a ranked choice voting (RCV) system designed to uphold majority rule. With IRV, voters indicate both their first choice and their backup choices by ranking candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns more than 50% of the vote in the first round, the election count simulates a series of runoffs elections.



If you are a third-party supporter in an IRV election, you can vote for a third-party candidate without losing the chance to help defeat the major party candidate you like the least. For instance, if your third-party candidate loses a round of runoff voting and you selected a major party candidate as your second choice, your ballot will then be added to the total of your preferred major party candidate. Elections across America use IRV, including mayoral elections in San Francisco; St. Paul; Oakland; Telluride; Portland, Maine; and Minneapolis, as well as overseas voters in runoff elections in Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Internationally, it’s used to elect the mayor of London, president of Ireland and members of the House of Representatives in Australia.

In the short-term, states can adopt IRV for more elections, including races for U.S. Senate and governor. In 2010, 14 general elections for Senate or governor were won with less than 50% of the vote, underscoring the value of adopting IRV for these elections. In the long-term, the success of IRV in individual states will speak for itself, building momentum for a constitutional amendment combined with a national popular vote  for president.

The American hunger for more choices is likely only to increase in the modern era.  Presidential elections should never hinge on “spoiler” candidates and aggressive partisanship – they should depend on the will of the people. Instant runoff voting is a critically important step towards helping America’s political process catch up with the rich political diversity of America’s voters.