Should You Vote Third Party?

The Simpsons , "Treehouse of Horror VII," 1996

The Simpsons, "Treehouse of Horror VII," 1996

When thinking about whether to vote for your preferred third party candidate, or to vote for your second choice, you need to consider: which vote will create the most value for you?

There are two assumptions in this article: 1) the third party does not have a chance to win (different from being able to create value), and 2) it’s a matter of principles (you either really like the third party candidate, or you don’t like either of the major party candidates and want to vote for someone else). 

Note: I'm going to be referring fairly often to the “Should I Vote? chart, from “To Vote or Not to Vote: That Is the Question.” Although you don't need to read that article before reading this one, you might find it to be a helpful primer to the below materials.

So, if you vote third party, are you throwing your vote away? Well, that all depends on how you feel about your other options:

  1. Vote for your candidate, if you dislike every other option.
  2. When you're indifferent about your second choice, only vote for them if it'll make a difference.
  3. Consider voting for your second choice, if you actually like them.

Vote for Your Candidate, If You Dislike Every Other Option

If you gain an immense deal of value from voting for your candidate (some might call you a fanatic, putting you very high in the “I love it!” category), and you dislike every other option, then it makes sense to vote for your third party candidate in two out of three scenarios: when “It’ll create value!” and when “It won’t do anything.” It’s only when your third party vote might actually “do more damage than if [you] hadn’t voted” do you need to hesitate.

Solid lines: vote third party. Dashed lines: what not to vote for.

When You’re Indifferent About Your Second Choice, Only Vote for Them If It’ll Make a Difference

When you have a third party candidate that you like, to vote for someone you are indifferent about would reduce your enthusiasm for voting from an “I love it!” to a “Meh.” If your second choice were to win you’d be at “Vote!” But, if your second choice lost, you’d be at “Maybe, if you don’t have anything better to do.” And, if you thought that second choice would lose, that “anything better to do” would be to vote for your first preference: third party.

Solid line: vote major party if it’ll make a difference. Dashed lines: stick with your third party vote.

Thus, you should only vote for a candidate you are indifferent about when your vote can make a difference (“It’ll create value!”). Otherwise, stick with your third party.

Consider Voting for Your Second Choice, If You Actually Like Them

If you actually like your second (major party) choice, you would still be in the “I love it!” category. In this case, you should consider voting for your secondary candidate because you’d still be in either “Vote! Win-win!” (better than a vote for your third party candidate) or “Vote!” (which is the same outcome your third-party candidate would receive).

Solid lines: possible outcomes for voting major party. Dashed lines: possible outcomes for voting third party.

However, even if you like your second choice, if you are highly devoted to your first choice, then it still might be more valuable for you to vote third party, especially if you don’t believe your vote for either candidate will actually matter (see, “Vote for Your Candidate, If You Dislike Every Other Option,” above).

The Example of Ralph Nader, 2000

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, won a very close race against Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. Running for the Green Party was Ralph Nader, a candidate that got stuck with the title of spoiler after the dust had settled (and lawsuits concluded). The primary reason? The common assumption was that more of his voters would have voted for Al Gore than George W. Bush, a difference that would have pushed Al Gore into the lead and taken the win. (For more on Nader’s impact on the 2000 election, the Wikipedia article “Ralph Nader presidential campaign, 2000: The ‘spoiler’ controversy” is a good starting point.)

The example of Ralph Nader highlights the singular question you must answer when considering a third party vote: will voting third party create the most value for you?

Who Should Have Voted for Nader?

I think there were two types of Nader voters: those that were solid voters (three “Vote!”) and those that were soft voters (three “Maybe…”). There were also Nader supporters that didn’t vote for him (such as soft voters that instead voted for a major party candidate; see below for reasons why that might happen) or just didn’t vote (note: on its own, a vote for Nader was not worse than not having voted at all, but that is where the term “spoiler” comes into play; see, “Was Ralph Nader a Spoiler?” below).

Possible Nader voters.

Based on the criteria above for “Should You Vote Third Party?” the only time it would have made sense for a Nader voter to vote for a major party candidate would have been if they were either indifferent towards Gore/Bush and thought voting for them would make a difference, or if they liked Gore/Bush and were happy voting major party. In these two cases, voting for a major party would have been a good vote. Otherwise, voting for Nader was a good vote. However, a good vote is not necessarily the right vote.

Only Nader’s “I love it!” voters that disliked both Gore and Bush would have been guaranteed to have cast both a good and right vote, regardless of the election’s outcome. Everyone else’s vote was either right or wrong depending upon the election’s outcome.

Because voting for Nader ultimately did not make a difference (if you go by the criteria that Nader fell short of getting 5% nationally), I believe that this means anyone who voted for Nader because they thought “It’ll create value!” would be shifted right on the chart to “It won’t do anything.” Although this would reduce the value of voting for these Nader voters, it doesn’t mean that they cast the wrong vote.

Was Voting for Nader Worth It?

Did the people who voted for Nader feel like they made a mistake (i.e., cast the wrong vote)? Well, that depends on how they felt about the election afterwards: happy or regretful.

Anyone that voted for Nader and felt happy about that vote afterwards probably cast the right vote. Thus, a vote for Nader, who lost, meant more to them than a vote for Gore (even if it had helped him win) or a vote for Bush. This would include Nader’s “I love it!” voters, his voters that disliked Gore, his voters that liked Gore but felt their vote wouldn't make a difference, and his voters that liked Bush.

Those that felt regret at their vote likely made the wrong decision. This includes Nader’s voters that liked Gore and also felt that their votes could have helped him win (“It’ll create value!”). For these voters, a vote for Gore, to help him win, would have been more valuable than their vote for Nader, which didn’t do anything. Furthermore, the act of being labeled a “spoiler” might have further reduced the value they gained from voting.

As for the Nader voters whose second choice would have been Bush, well, good news for them: they got the best of both worlds. Not only did they get to vote for Nader, but their second choice still won. Furthermore, instead of their vote doing nothing, their vote (might have) made a difference by being a “spoiler.” And, this could have increased the value of their vote from a “Vote!” to a “Vote! Win-win!”

So, as you think about whether Nader’s voters made a good decision, keep in mind that a “good” decision isn’t the same as the “right” decision. In this case, Nader supporters that felt regret might have made a good vote at the time, especially if the probability of Gore winning without their help was favorable (i.e., their vote wasn’t going to matter either way). Only after the election was resolved would it be revealed to have possibly been the wrong vote due to the tight race.

Was Ralph Nader a Spoiler?

Does this all mean that Ralph Nader deserved the reputation of being a spoiler? Well, what I will say is this: consider what the reputation of being a “spoiler” actually means. This is a social negative that is imposed in order to drag down the value of voting for a specific candidate, in this case the third party. In other words, part of society is attempting to reduce the value of voting for a third party candidate by either lowering the inherent value of voting, or reducing the possible value it might create (see, “How Can Voting Cause Harm?” in “To Vote or Not to Vote: That Is the Question”). Both of these tactics are designed to repress voting for that candidate.

Ralph Nader provides an excellent example about how society regulates the “value” of voting. Keep this in mind the next time someone says to go vote, and follows it up with criticism, or praise, for whom you want to vote for. Remember that this is an attempt to manipulate the value of your vote for that candidate, either because they agree with your vote and want your help, or because they would rather see you not vote at all if you won’t vote for the “right” candidate.

So, was Nader a spoiler? I think that really depends upon the actual number of Nader’s voters that both liked Gore and felt that a vote for him would have made a difference. These are the Nader voters that would have gained value from voting for Gore. My impression is that Nader was not a statistical spoiler. Rather, I think his title of “spoiler” was largely dependent upon whether it was a convenient rationale for how the 2000 election played out. In other words, the title “spoiler” brings value to those that use it.

Parting Thoughts

“Whom should you vote for?” This isn’t an easy answer, and a lot of factors go into your decision, not only about whom to vote for, but also whether to vote at all. Just remember that your vote does not live in a vacuum. Others around you impact the value of your vote, and your vote impacts the value of others as well.

Deciding whom to vote for is even harder when your preferred candidate’s value is limited by the fact that they can’t “win” the election. But value isn’t only created by winning the election; value is created throughout the entire electoral process. So when election day comes around, go and vote with confidence. Just make sure you cast a good vote: the one that will bring you the greatest probable value amongst all of your options. Hopefully this article will help you do just that.

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