Who’s The Spoiler, Now?

From the Thursday night Democratic Debate:

MADDOW: Senator Sanders, as a Vermonter, you have almost a home state advantage here in New Hampshire. But back home across the border, you also have a long history of running against Democrats as a third-party candidate, for governor, Senate, for Congress.

In 1988 your candidacy as a third-party candidate arguably cost the Democrats a congressional seat and sent a Republican instead.

How can you lead the Democratic Party nationally when you have not been a member of the Democratic Party until very recently?

SANDERS: Well, Rachel, actually, that wasn’t accurate. In 1988 the Republican did win, I believe, by 3 points. I came in second. It was 34-31, I think, 19 for the Democrat. In that race the Democrat was the spoiler, not me. And it is true…

Well, if I were in a class I would prefer a response more along the lines of “Show your work.” So here goes…

There is no doubt that we have two main parties. This is not by design, however, as it was not intended by the people who created the system. But it’s not random, because Duverger’s Law ordains that a system in which elections are determined in single-member districts with a First Past The Post System (FPTP) will gravitate towards two parties. This law isn’t ironclad, as the UK and Canada have FPTP elections and persistently have more than two relevant parties, but even they have only had two parties exchanging power over the last decades (counting direct predecessor/successor parties together). The two-party system in the US is further assisted by other factors, such as the independent executive and Electoral College, which make things especially daunting for outsider parties. There have been stretches of time wherein we have not had two relevant parties. We’ve had one party and we’ve had three or more. At some point, either could happen again. Even so, the gravitational force of Duverger, along with custom, will likely pull things back to two parties.

And that’s a good thing, for the most part. Our system works most efficiently when there are two parties. When there are more than two parties, you can get skewed results as seem to have happened in both the UK and Canada in recent elections. And while Americans often look longingly at multiparty systems, I genuinely prefer a two-party system as the best way that voters can make a choice between clear alternatives. In that sense, I am sympathetic to Albertson’s apparent argument. Where I believe that argument falls short is treating the placement of the two parties, and their identities, over the actual preference of the voters. Three-way races in two-party systems do lead to inefficient outcomes, but the two main parties do not have a special right to be the two slots in the two-party system. Ideally we might have a system that allows voters to directly decide which candidates belong in the two-way race (ie runoffs). But short of that, the role of spoiler belongs to the person or party that is least in a position to win.

Which brings us to Sanders’ 1988 election, described by Wikipedia thusly:

In 1988, incumbent Republican Congressman Jim Jeffords decided to run for the U.S. Senate, vacating the House seat representing Vermont’s at-large congressional district. Republican Lieutenant Governor Peter P. Smith won the House election with a plurality, securing 41% of the vote. Sanders, who ran as an independent, placed second with 38% of the vote, while Democratic State Representative Paul N. Poirier placed third with 19% of the vote. Two years later, Sanders ran for the seat again and defeated the incumbent Smith by a margin of 56% to 40%.

By a greater-than 4-to-1 margin, voters prefered either Sanders or Smith to Poirier. More voters supported a Sanders-Smith contest (79%) than a Poirier-Smith (60%) contest. And, of course, voters supported Sanders over Poirier by a 2-to-1 margin. No matter how much we talk about Duverger’s Law, the preference of the people here is clear. When a major political party cannot muster more support than that, it has no divine nor democratic right to a position in the race. If there had been a runoff (as there might be in other states), it would have been Republican vs Independent. The Democrat simply lost. The two-person race that perhaps should have occurred wouldn’t have included him, and there is no particular reason that it should have. More recently in Kansas, the Democrats actually pulled somebody from the race to prevent his presence from tilting the election away from a sympathetic independent with a chance of winning (which didn’t happen).

There is not always a spoiler in a three-way race, of course. The winner may get a majority of the vote (Lieberman ’06, King ’12) in which case it doesn’t matter how their opposition splinters. The third-place finisher may not have siphoned enough votes disproportionately to affect the outcome (possibly LePage ’14, Perot ’92). But if there is a spoiler, that title goes to the candidate of the three who was most rejected by the voters. More often than not, that’s going to be the independent candidate. When an independent candidate actually wins, though, it’s hard to argue that they spoiled anything democratically. The same applies when they get second place. Which, by extension, means that if there is a spoiler, it is not definitionally the independent candidate. When the independent candidate gets more votes than one of the alternatives, the people have spoken in favor of his candidacy and against the party candidate.

The deck is stacked pretty heavily in favor of parties and party candidates. They have the organization and the money. If, despite all of these advantages, they’re running behind someone without them, they don’t deserve to be deferred to. The inefficient outcome, if there is one, is on them. They are the spoiler.

Image by DonkeyHotey Who's The Spoiler, Now?


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19 thoughts on “Who’s The Spoiler, Now?

  1. I think it’s interesting that, observing that in FPTP systems without two clear dominant parties, the outcomes tend to be inefficient, you express a preference for a two-party system rather than non-FPTP electoral mechanisms.

    I tend to take the opposite view – I think two-party systems are one of the several classes of inefficient outcomes tending to arise from FPTP systems.

    Yes, it’s probably the lesser evil when the alternative is the (frequent Canadian) outcome where a majority of voters have broadly similar policy preferences, split their votes among two or more parties with broadly similar platforms, and end up being represented by a candidate whose platform diverges sharply from the wishes of the majority, but is playing a part of the field that is not split and so gets a plurality of votes. But it’s still one of the several evils frequently arising from FPTP systems.

    Right now we have a Liberal majority government (despite their candidates on the whole having gotten a minority of votes, as usual), but a majority of voters voted for parties whose platforms included ditching FPTP elections – the Conservatives being basically the only party in favour of keeping FPTP, and the only such party with any MPs.

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    • I prefer a two-party system, but FPTP is not a good way of doing it. I personally favor IRV or, failing that, simple runoffs. That would end most of the inefficiency (at least, the inefficiency that bugs me the most).

      I’d hold on to single-member districts, which would prevent a true (and durable) multiparty system from arising.

      I wouldn’t oppose states having multi-member districts for one of their two houses, though that would not likely move the needle much as far as number of relevant parties go. We might get more parties, though mostly under a two-umbrella system.

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      • Why do you prefer two-party to true multi-party systems?

        Do you feel that shutting out smaller interest groups (greens, socialists, libertarians, non-majority religious voters) altogether from the legislative process is preferable to including them? Do you feel that steering them into one of two big tents would ultimately strengthen the two dominant parties and bring more nuance to their platforms?

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      • There is some fear among those working hardest for electoral reform in Canada (who by a wide margin favour PR) that the Liberals will try to steer the electoral reform process toward IRV – the Liberals know that they’re everyone’s second choice, so that system would favour them, the same way FPTP tends to favour the Conservatives and PR would favour the third-and-beyond parties.

        To some extent this is probably in reaction to the demonstrated cynicism of the Conservatives, particularly in the latter half of their last period in government. Personally I’m holding out hope that, in this initiative at least, the Liberals will recognize that this will extend far beyond all current party identifications, and so mostly avoid cynical manipulations of the process. Time will tell.

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        • Multiparty systems rest a lot of power and influence, including the leadership of the nation in the hands of factional leaders. I prefer a system where I know I am voting for Brown or Cameron and not voting for Clegg assuming that he’s going to coalition one way and watching him coalition another based on pluralities and the like.

          I do like Australia’s National/Liberal coalition, which provides some flexibility and reliability. I’m also okay with New Zealand’s, where coalition intentions are announced ahead of time. But the features I like about those also exist in the two-party system.

          I do considering the muting-the-fringes to be a feature more than a bug. Pariah parties are becoming a bigger issue in Europe, and while Trumpism is worrying here it’s still preferable to me than an official National Front banner. You might want to check back with me on that in a few months, though.

          The last thing matters in the US far more than Canada, which is that our districts are already too large as it is. Our House size would have to increase considerably simply to maintain the current (already too large) district ratios.

          For the Western States of America project (drafting constitutional guidelines for a nation comprising of our western eleven states), I am a bit more open to multi-member districts. The population is smaller and so there is more breathing room. There is also the possibility of having multimember districts in our senate, if we expanded it. But that still wouldn’t be a multi-party system because party-coalitions would default to the House and the Presidency. (Which would work for me! But would defeat the purpose for some.)

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  2. To me, common sense supports Will’s position.

    On a separate note, would being the Democratic nominee… or elected to the Presidency as a Democrat… make Sanders the national leader of the Democratic party? That isn’t how I’d define the position or its relationship to the party. But what do I know?

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  3. I think this misses Maddow’s point though, which is that instead of working *with* Democrats to either change the agenda or become the Democratic nominee himself, Sanders ran against the Democrats which resulted in a Republican win. I don’t see anything controversial about challenging Sanders on not being a team player – his whole campaign is about proudly not being a team player. Practically speaking, this is a softball question because Sanders went on to win the next election handily and moved the state strongly left, so the long-term win for Democrats is obvious.

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    • I don’t really object to the question being asked. I just don’t think “spoiled” is the right framing.

      Or rather, I think his response was sufficient. Implication that he was pursuing the right policies and it was the party in his way. When the party got out of his way, he won.

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  4. I think the term “spoiler” is appropriate only in the case where candidate A would have won without candidate B’s presence but candidate B had no shot even without candidate A in the race. If A could win without B and B could win without A, “spoiler” doesn’t seem like the right word anymore, regardless of how many votes each one gets.

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  5. I don’t believe “spoiler” has some intricate meaning that the discipline of political “science” can claim special knowledge. The context here is pejorative, and if that is the case, then the condemnation would apply just as well to the emergence of an anti-slavery party in the 1850s. Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, various third-parties emerged and began winning elections and siphoning support away from the Whigs, becoming the new second party. Was John C. Fremont a spoiler?

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  6. Bethany Albertson
    ok, not a good answer in my class though.

    First off, we ain’t in YOUR class so that requirement is irrelevant.

    The two party system is designed to keep outliers, the status quo rockers, isolated and controlled, and it’s worked well for quite some time now. Only when one of the two party candidates sucks to no end are there upsets. This also applies to one party states like DC and MD.

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  7. Does the concept to some extent depend on the idea that the third candidate takes votes preferentially from one of the other two? I’d assume Sanders voters were more likely to come from the Democrats than the Republicans but it isn’t that hard to imagine a scenario with a candidate who is distinct from both and takes their voters equally*. Who would we then say that candidate spoiled the election for?

    *Maybe harder in a US context since the example that came to mind is a nationalist candidate in somewhere seeking independence.

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    • Yeah. Whether there is a spoiler to begin with depends on the proportionately the third candidate’s voters would have voted for the second candidate.

      In 1992 and 1996, there is a pretty strong argument that Perot had no effect on the outcome because his voters were sufficiently divided between Bush and Clinton and Bush and Dole. Best estimate I’ve seen is that Perot’s voters went 4-3-3 for Bush, Clinton, and staying home. So… probably a democratically efficient outcome.

      In 2000, the argument is pretty overwhelming that Nader did throw the election to GWB because his voters were much more predisposed to vote for Gore (6-1-3) and had Nader not run it wouldn’t have been up to the Supreme Court to decide. So… not a good outcome.

      In 2010 in Maine, the Democrat got third so the independent (Cutler) wasn’t really the spoiler, but the Democrat probably was because they would have supported Anyone But LePage (R) in a runoff. But in 2014, LePage got close enough to 50% that I am inclined to believe that it wasn’t an election spoiled by the third candidate (Cutler, in this case).

      In the UK, I’d always assumed that the LDP was had played spoiler in 2010, but some of the polls from 2015 have made me rethink that. On account of LDP voters preferring Cameron over Milliband, and while it may be the case that Labour-sympathetic voters just went with Milliband after the Tory-LDP coalition, Milliband’s vote share didn’t improve enough to convince me that LDP 2010 voters would have supported Brown by a really strong margin. So I’m not sure either way. And there is an argument that the LDP has been around long enough that anyone who voted for them was sufficiently indifferent to a Tory *or* Labour government that everyone knew what they were doing. Combine that with the fact that voters rejected an alternative to plurality-rule, and the argument that 2010 was an efficient outcome is actually reasonably strong.

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  8. “ok, not a good answer in my class though.”

    Now that is a weird statement.

    If it’s not good in the world for the same reasons it’s not good in your class, why fall back to that space? If it is okay in the world but not in your class, what are you doing in your class?
    If it’s not good in the world, but for different reasons than it’s not good in your class, why do we care that it’s not good in your class?

    Basically, why do we care whether it’s a good answer in your class?

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