Courtesy Gage Skidmore/
United States / Election

Spotting the Spoiler

Mention the word “spoiler” in the presence of a Democrat, and you will surely hear about the Al Gore presidency that could have been. “If only Ralph Nader had not played spoiler. If only he had not siphoned off a few of Gore’s votes in Florida to help George W. Bush win the presidency in 2000, then we would have saved ourselves a war in Iraq and massive embarrassment as a nation.” This refrain was certainly one of the most common complaints from exasperated Democrats in the midst of the George W. Bush administration.

Today, although the ire at Bush has subsided, the cautionary narrative of the spoiler endures. In 2016, the two major party candidates both hold higher disapproval ratings than any other presidential candidates in electoral history. The unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leaves many voters looking toward third party candidates, but it also leaves many voices ready to reprimand those voters. Clinton supporters say a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Donald Trump, and Trump supporters say a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Hillary Clinton. Both Democrats and Republicans warn of another spoiler emerging in this election, citing Nader as the first offender. The real spoiler’s identity, however, is much less clear than these popular opinions suggest.

The Nader Myth

Gore won the popular vote for president in 2000, yet Bush won by virtue of the electoral college. If Gore had won Florida, he would have won the electoral college. Instead, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes, according to the final official count, while Ralph Nader of the Green Party collected ninety-seven thousand votes. If these had gone to Gore, he would have won Florida and thus the presidency. But the logic of Nader as a spoiler is flawed for a number of reasons.

  1. CNN’s exit polls showed that Nader took just one percent of votes from Republicans, the same percentage as he did from Democrats. Furthermore, exit polling between just Bush and Gore showed Bush with 49 percent and Gore with 47 percent of the vote.  These figures suggest, contrary to popular belief, that Nader drew pretty much equally from both sides and may have even helped Gore in Florida.
  2. Democrats betrayed the Democratic candidate far more than Nader did, according to counts of actual votes. In Florida, twenty-four thousand Democrats voted for Nader, while about three hundred thousand Democrats voted for Bush.
  3. Ten  presidential candidates received over 537 votes in Florida. Any one of these candidates played “spoiler” just as much as Nader did. Workers World Party candidate Monica Moorehead received fifteen hundred votes in Florida, yet it is doubtful that she is blamed to the same extent as Nader for causing a Bush presidency.

The 2000 presidential election would have still been incredibly close and controversial without the presence of “spoiler” candidates. The only valid blame for Gore’s loss falls on Gore himself. The election probably should not have been so close. Gore famously bungled all three debates. He lost his home state of Tennessee, former President Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, and New Hampshire. Before Gore, the last time a Democratic nominee for president lost New Hampshire was 1988.

In Florida, ten candidates received more than the difference in votes between Gore and Bush in 2000. Should Democrats have considered eight of these candidates to be spoilers and encouraged them to stay silent? A system in which this is the prevailing view is hardly democratic, yet it is the system in which we find ourselves operating. It is also the system in which the Democratic and Republican parties have increasingly constricted the voices of voters in order to maintain a two-party stranglehold on U.S. elections. 

Courtesy US Embassy New Delhi, Pete Souza/

Courtesy US Embassy New Delhi, Pete Souza/

The Two-Party Bind

Nearly two hundred years ago, John Adams warned: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” Unfortunately, Adams’ worst fear has come true. Worse still, the influence of the two great parties seems to have entrenched itself in public opinion by means of a duopoly over voter expression.

In this election cycle, the Commission on Presidential Debates has sponsored debates for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and their respective running mates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. No other candidates will be allowed on the debate stage unless they reach 15 percent in the polls. The current commission is run by the Democratic and Republican parties, but this was not always the case. From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates. The League embodied the desires of the American people rather than just the interests of the two major parties. 

The major parties do not only fail to represent the American people well; they also fail to represent Democrats and Republicans well. In this election, more than any other in history, the two candidates’ main appeal is derived from the lesser of two evils argument. To those voters who would vote their conscience by voting for Stein or Johnson, Clinton makes the appeal that Trump is simply too dangerous for Americans to vote for anyone other the person who can defeat him: Clinton herself. Trump makes the same argument about Clinton.

Yet the major parties in no way embody public consensus. Pew Research Center estimates that only 9 percent of potential general election voters chose Clinton or Trump to be nominated in the primary process. The latest Gallup polling shows that 43 percent of Americans identify as independents while only 30 percent are Democrats and 26 percent are Republicans; but all of these independents are shut out of the debate process. According to a new Gallup, a historically high 60 percent of Americans say that a third major political party is needed because the Democratic and Republican parties do “such a poor job.”

However, lack of faith in the two major parties is not new. Even if our presidential choices were more popular, the limited political discourse  put forth and regulated by the two major parties would be terribly inadequate. So far in the debates, no questions about climate change have been asked. Policies such as the death penalty, drone strikes, and U.S. involvement in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia are supported by the candidates of both major political parties, even though many Americans oppose them.

The Democratic and Republican parties (and by extension, the Commission on Presidential Debates) are indeed private institutions, but they currently have a relative duopoly on the political choices of the public. Republicans and Democrats claim that their candidates embody public opinion to the extent that to vote for a third party would be a waste; yet simultaneously independents, the largest voting block, are left out of closed primaries. Most people want to see more than two choices on the debate stage (the latest Quinnipiac poll shows that 62 percent of likely voters say that Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson should be included in the debates), yet only two candidates will appear in each of the four debates.

Republicans who tried to deny Trump the Republican nomination and Democrats who decry the harmful stupidity of Trump voters miss the point. Democracy has not provided us with candidates who most Americans abhor; a system in which there are insufficient outlets for Americans to freely express their views has. What, then, should be done about it?

Navigating the Spoiler System 

Within the framework of our current election system, there are several organized mechanisms to minimize the spoiler effect that the two-party stranglehold has created. Balanced Rebellion is a website advocating for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson. The site matches people who are voting for Hillary only to stop Trump with people voting for Trump only to stop Hillary. Then it prompts both voters to vote for Johnson. 

In order to further the “Never Trump” movement, some Republicans for Hillary have created another website called “Trump Traders,” meant to encourage Johnson supporters in swing states to trade votes with Clinton supporters in safe states. In this way, voters could presumably both help keep Trump out of office and support Johnson.  

Courtesy Gage Skidmore/

Courtesy Gage Skidmore/

 But a vote for Stein over Clinton in a swing state right now still increases the chances of Trump becoming president. For many prospective voters, this fact alone overshadows the potential benefits of voting third party: helping third parties gain 5 percent of the vote and receive matching federal funds, emboldening a voice critical of viewpoints that Democrats and Republicans agree with and do not address, and increasing the chances for a greater diversity of voices in U.S. politics. Despite being marginally useful, vote trading does not liberate the individual, but rather aims to connect voters in order to fight a flawed system—a system that could be changed with the implementation of ranked choice voting.

Also called instant runoff, this voting system asks voters to rank their choices. If no single candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote after the first count, then the ballots cast for less popular candidates transfer to the second choice of those voters. Under such a system, if Clinton received 45 percent of first choice votes, Trump received 46 percent of first choice votes, and Jill Stein received 9 percent of first choice votes, Clinton would still win if all of Stein’s supporters listed Clinton as a second choice.

Outside of the U.S., Australia and London currently use ranked choice voting. In the U.S., San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other cities have already implemented ranked choice voting. In November, Maine will have a chance to become the first U.S. state to employ ranked choice voting if Mainers vote “yes” on Question 5, the Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative.

Parties play an important role in organizing people’s political beliefs and goals. They do not need to be abolished. But the duopoly that we have now simply does not adequately represent the public, even though its stranglehold on voter expression pervades the entire political landscape. Ranked choice voting is only  one part of a solution that  includes open debates, open primaries, increased voter turnout, and greater public involvement in local elections. Not all of these goals are directly achievable; some require a shift in the mentality and education of the public. The unpopularity of Clinton and Trump, however, has fueled discontent that may bring about some of this positive change. While it may be a hackneyed expression,  it does seem as if American voters are on the cusp of a political awakening.
In April, former Republican presidential candidate and Governor of Ohio John Kasich said, “the Republican Party is my vehicle, not my master.” In America, the two major parties provide not only the vehicles for candidates, but also the roads for democracy to travel on. This system leaves far too much abandoned political terrain. By spotting the real spoilers and working to break the barriers that they keep in place, Americans can become better architects of their own politics and build their own roads of democracy.