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From the "Non-Majority Rule" Desk: Independent Presidential Candidates, the Spoiler Effect, and Party Betrayal

by Chris Marchsteiner, The Non-Majority Rule Desk // Published October 5, 2010

It was another notable week here at the non-majority desk, including nationally prominent ruminations about third parties and independents, including Thomas Friedman of the New York Times predicting an independent presidential bid in 2012 and FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver suggesting such a campaign could succeed. Instant runoff voting as a means to accommodate such an increase also received publicity, including in news articles in the New Republic, In These Times, and the Carolina  Journal.

In this year’s races, some telling news emerged from Florida this week regarding the vitriolic U.S. Senate race among Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist, and Kendrick Meek. Polls keep fluctuating in this volatile race, but one has Republican Rubio holding a 20-point lead over independent Crist and a 21-point lead over Democrat Meek, suggesting the race appears is all but finished. Despite the support, however, Rubio has the highest unfavorable rating in the race, according to a Miami-Dade College poll. The seemingly contradictory state of affairs is the result of a plurality voting system that skews voter preference when more than two candidates enter a race. While Rubio has 46.3% of the vote, some Republicans, independents and Democrats are split on the choice between Crist and Meek. Moreover, according to the local report, “distributed evenly along party lines,” Crist is the second choice of 53% of voters. Will the division brought about by competition between Crist and Meek “spoil” the race? It is looking increasingly likely as the three-way race indicates that the least liked candidate is garnering the most support.

Although the situation in Maine’s gubernatorial race is less dramatic, the third party candidates still possess the same potential to change the outcome of the race. Democrat Libby Mitchell and Republican Paul LePage are virtually tied: Mitchell with 30% of the vote and LePage with 29%. Although the three independent candidates combined do not capture more than 15% of the vote, in the tight race it will almost certainly determine the outcome of the election depending on which voters support the third party candidates instead of the main candidates. Third party candidates do not have to be as high-profile as Charlie Crist to affect elections; in fact, their low-profile status in many races frequently makes their impact an untold story in the election.    

The governor’s race in Colorado tells a now-familiar story of a three-way race causing the “spoiler” effect with a twist – the Republican is now in the “spoiler” role. Democrat John Hickenlooper leads with 44% of the vote, but American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo currently holds 34%.  In an unusual twist, the Republican candidate is now being called a spoiler—by his own party.  Republican Dan Maes has suffered setback after setback after a series of incidents including “questions about his inexperience, finance problems and a story, driven by the Denver Post, that he fabricated part of his resume about his work as a police officer in Liberal, Kan. during the 1980s,” according to a report from Denver. The strategic pragmatism underlying the Republican Party’s decision highlights just how much can change when more than two candidates participate in a plurality race; in this case strategic concerns over who is capable of winning supercede even party loyalty and primary results.

To make this point even clearer, consider the unexpected turn the Massachusetts governor’s race took when the running mate of independent Tim Cahill, Paul Loscocco, dropped off his ticket to endorse the Republican candidate, Charlie Baker. Concerned about the spoiler effect Cahill’s campaign was having on the race, Loscocco threw his support behind the Republican campaign because he felt that both campaigns wanted the same thing and needed to beat Democratic Gov. Patrick. Green Party candidate Jill Stein used this development as a reason to showcase instant runoff voting.

A third party candidate also withdrew in New York’s 23rd congressional district race, where the Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman reversed course and withdrew, although his name will be on the ballot. As a Conservative nominee in a special election in the 23rd in 2009, Hoffman narrowly lost after the Republican dropped out. This time, Hoffman saw he was in the “spoiler” role, and is calling on his backers to support the Republican nominee.