Spoiler Alert

No Labels, a national political organization, has announced it is seeking ballot access for a bipartisan “unity” ticket for president in the 2024 election. Supporters of the effort point to opinion polls that suggest most Americans would prefer to see neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump return to the White House. 

Critics, however, warn that the existence of a strong third-party campaign is likely to have a “spoiler” effect, splitting the vote and tilting the outcome of the election without having a realistic shot at winning. 

No Labels supporters counter that they will end their campaign if it appears they have no path to victory. The problem is: how would they know? Opinion polls? In June of 1992, Independent Party candidate Ross Perot was leading Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George H.W. Bush in the polls. On Election Day, Perot was down to 19 percent. 

In fact, no third-party candidate has ever come close to winning a presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most popular politicians of his era, ran on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912 and won only 27 percent of the vote. His was the best showing by a third-party candidate in American history. Notably, the winner in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, was the only Democrat to be elected president during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. 

The perverse logic of spoiler campaigns is that they tend to take away votes from the major party candidate who is most like the third-party candidate, so it is very possible for the winner of a three-way race to be actively opposed by a majority of the voters. Hardly a unifying prospect.  

The frustrating thing is that there are ways to change the system so voters have more choices on Election Day, but first, we must do the hard work of political reform. First, the reform, then the unity ticket becomes a realistic possibility. 

Political scientists have a theory known as Duverger’s law. It holds that U.S.-style winner-take-all elections (plurality voting in single-member districts) tend to favor two-party systems. Multi-party systems develop and thrive in countries such as Denmark or Spain where there is some form of proportional representation. With proportionalism, the threshold for winning is lowered so smaller parties can participate. 

In winner-take-all systems, start-up parties are at a disadvantage. Initially, the bar is too high to win seats in national elections, so they can’t gain a foothold, and voters don’t want to throw away their votes on losing candidates. Nor do they want to help the major party they like the least by supporting a spoiler candidate.  

With our system, a new party is unlikely to succeed unless a major party is about to reach its expiration date. The last successful start-up party, the GOP, found its footing in 1860 after the Whig Party collapsed. One reason for its success was the inability of Democrats to unify behind a single candidate. In a four-way race, Abraham Lincoln was able to win with less than 40 percent of the vote.  

But there is a way to avoid the spoiler effect and give the voters more choices. With ranked choice voting (RCV), a system that voters in Maine have adopted for state and national elections, voters are allowed to rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate manages to win more than 50 percent, the votes are tabulated. The poorest performing candidates are eliminated, and their votes are transferred to more viable candidates. The process is repeated until a candidate manages to win a majority of the vote. 

There are two key advantages to RCV. Voters can vote for their favorite candidate without spoiling the chances of their second choice, and unpopular candidates can’t win. For this to work in presidential elections, however, enough states would have to adopt RCV to affect the outcome, no easy lift. But using RCV in Congressional elections and state races could give third-party enthusiasts something to build on. 

It is, unfortunately, a lazy theory of change to imagine a “third way” in presidential politics without laying the groundwork of structural reform, not to mention futile, distorting, and self-defeating. Imagine what would happen if a “unity” campaign managed to throw the election to a candidate that most Americans profoundly dislike. That would end that party’s chances of becoming a unifying force in American politics, and deservedly so. 

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