Voices & Choices

Spoiler candidates can sway toss-up Senate races

Spoiler candidates can sway toss-up Senate races

Results in nine out of the 17 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs this election are projected to be decided by a few percentage points. Of those nine senate seats, six may be affected by “spoiler” candidates.

The word “spoiler” is pejorative. A spoiler candidate is typically an independent or third-party representative who does not have enough support to win, but can draw some support from those who would otherwise vote for a major party candidate. Spoiler candidates often share similar platforms with one of the major party candidates, presenting a dilemma for voters who now must choose between two candidates with similar ideologies.

In some cases, a spoiler candidate can win enough votes to prevent the most popular major party candidate from reaching a majority, which makes it possible for the opposite party candidate to win with a mere plurality. In this way, a Republican may win in a state that favors Democrats or vice-versa, because the more popular major party candidate lost some support to the spoiler.

It may seem like an isolated problem that only arises in the specific scenario of a close race between two major party candidates with at least one other independent or third party candidate. However, spoiler scenarios are not as rare as one might expect, as evidenced by several senate races in the upcoming election.


Recent polling projects the Indiana senate race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly, and Republican challenger Mike Braun as a near even toss-up. Braun led Donnelly by two percentage points (45 percent to 43 percent), according to a Fox News poll in September, while an an NBC poll gave Donnelly a three percentage-point lead.

The undeniably close nature of the race makes it one susceptible to spoilers. Both polls projected Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton will receive what could be a meaningful share of the vote: 3 percent, according to Fox, or 8 percent per the NBC poll.


This battleground state was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, but has been represented by Republican Sen. Dean Heller since 2012. Heller faces a slew of challengers on the November ballot for the Senate seat. In addition to Democrat Jacky Rosen, the race features three third party and independent candidates: American Independent candidate Kamau Bakari, Libertarian candidate Tim Hagan, and independent candidate Barry Michaels. A CNN poll predicted Hagan winning 5 percent of the vote, while the most recent Fox News/Marist poll predicted he will receive 8 percent. Given that polls predict a one percentage point difference between Heller and Rosen (41 to 42, respectively) even a small portion of votes for Hagan could significantly affect the outcome.


The senate race in this politically divided state is one of the more overlooked toss-up races this election cycle.  A Garvis poll from mid-September projected Sen. Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent with a 4 percent lead, while a CBS poll from the same time put Republican challenger, Matthew Rosendale ahead by 2 percent. However, Libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge, who secured 2 percent of votes according to recent polls, could complicate things, especially when considering that in 2012, the Libertarian secured 6.6 percent of votes.

Maine’s system to stop spoilers

Ranked choice voting, the system proposed in the Fair Representation Act, offers a solution to the spoiler problem. When no candidate receives a majority of the votes the elimination process that occurs under ranked choice voting helps to ensure that candidates can participate without being shamed as “spoilers.” Candidates who receive a small percentage of the vote are eliminated in early rounds, with their supporters’ votes transferred to a second or third pick - likely one of the major party candidates who shares a similar ideology. The results ensure the candidate with the most popular viewpoint wins.

Maine will make history as the first state to use this system for federal elections in November, and in doing so removes the spoiler problem from its Senate and House races.

Maine has a unique political history and polarized demographics, exhibited by its senate representation: often one Republican and one Democrat, and now by Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King. King is favored to win the three-way race for the seat in November. A Suffolk University poll projects King will win 51 percent of the vote, which would give him the victory in a single round, Due to the margin of error, a second round might be needed for a candidate to secure majority support.

The candidate polling third, Democrat Zak Ringelstein, is running on a platform similar to King, which means Ringelstein voters would likely rank King second. RCV lets Democrats still vote for Ringelstein without fear of giving the win to the candidate with a opposing ideology, Republican Erik Brakey.

Spoiler candidates can facilitate elections that give victories to those who do not represent the opinions of the majority, which breeds further contempt and polarization of our system of representation. In elections with spoilers, the candidate with the less popular ideology takes the seat. This presents a real danger to fair representation. Ranked choice voting changes the game, empowering voters to voice their opinions and choose the candidates who best represent them without fear of a spoiler.

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