THE GOP NOMINEE, a former entertainer whose presidential prospects were once ridiculed, gains in the polls with a not-so-subtle pitch to whites in the Rust Belt. His Democratic rival who survived a spirited challenge from the left is criticized as a career politician who doesn’t always connect well with voters. Meanwhile an obscure Republican launches a third party bid, appealing to disaffected Democrats.

Sound familiar? That was the fall of 1980.

While the theater of that campaign was subdued by this year’s standards, many of its dynamics were similar and offer caution to Democratic-leaning voters contemplating a third party candidate.

History tends to view Ronald Reagan’s presidency favorably, but in the run-up to 1980 he was generally considered a risky if not dangerous choice. Sound familiar?

The former actor’s cowboy persona undermined his electability, with the specter of a “Rea-gun” presidency eliciting guffaws on Laugh-In a decade earlier, much like Donald Trump’s prospects were derided until recently.

By the fall of 1980, however, Reagan hit a chord with dissatisfied voters across the country, particularly whites in Democratic proving grounds like Pennsylvania, which Trump is targeting.

I was a volunteer that year for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s primary campaign, and exchanged my Kennedy buttons for buttons promoting independent candidate John Anderson after Kennedy conceded. The example of Kennedy supporters migrating to Anderson should be of concern to Hillary Clinton as she courts Bernie Sanders’s supporters flirting with third party candidates like Gary Johnson.

Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, could cost Clinton several swing states from Nevada to New Hampshire by attracting enough disaffected Democrats.

In 1980, Anderson cost Carter at least nine states, including Democrat-rich Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New York.

In Massachusetts, Anderson received 100 times as many votes as Reagan’s narrow margin of victory over Carter and three times as many as his margin in New York.

Overall, I estimate Anderson cost Carter at least 101 electoral votes, more than double the 49 Carter received.

In two other contests over the past 50 years Democratic defections to a third party candidate arguably prevented the party’s nominee from winning.

In 2000, Ralph Nader, who, like Anderson appealed to progressives, received more votes than George W. Bush’s margin in New Hampshire and Florida, depriving Al Gore of the presidency. In 1968, George Wallace won several Southern states that typically voted Democratic and prevented Hubert Humphrey from winning many others.

In each case, as with Ross Perot in 1992, the third party candidate provided another option for voters to register their dissatisfaction with the incumbent party.

So while many Democrats hoped Johnson and Weld’s campaign would siphon Republican voters away from Trump, recent history suggests it actually helps Trump.

Polling in several swing states bears this out, with Clinton performing better against Trump in head to head match-ups than when third party candidates are included. Given current close Electoral College scenarios akin to 2000 and 2004, Democratic defections to Johnson and Weld in even one state could swing the election.

Thus, the pressure on Bill Weld to drop out of the race and endorse Clinton, and Bernie Sanders’s recent appeal that this is not the year to cast a protest vote.

Support for third party candidates typically wanes as Election Day approaches, but if enough Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters defect to a third party, they may once again deliver the election to Republicans.

Or as Reagan famously scolded Carter during their debate, “there you go again.”

James Davitt Rooney is principal of Rooney Associates LLC and holds an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School and BA in Ethics and Political Philosophy from Brown University. He served on the Obama-Biden Urban and Regional Policy Council in 2008.

7 replies on “Third party defections endanger Democrats”

  1. I prefer facts rather than “argument.” The main facts are: 1) Al Gore won in 2000, and declined to press for the recount that would have shown he won; 2) hundreds of thousands of Democrats in FL voted for G. W. Bush in that election. That’s far more than voted for Nader, who attracted voters from both Republicans and Democrats as well as people who would not have otherwise voted; 3) butterfly ballots and hanging chads, plus FL’s secretary of state = fraudulent election results. Nader’s run is in no way responsible for any other candidate’s win or loss. Nor, in a democracy, is any candidate’s run. I encourage everyone to vote for the candidate they believe represents the values and will implement the policies they want–and they should check the facts there too. Both Republican and Democratic (aka the Corporate Parties) candidates take millions from the 1%, so who do you think they’ll work for? I will again this year vote Green, for Dr. Jill Stein, a candidate who takes no $ from big donors, PACs, superPACs, dark or gray money. I also voted for Anderson in 1980. At least you once believed in democracy, and possibly the facts, Mr. Rooney–I still do. –Charlene DiCalogero, candidate for State Representative, MA and a proud alternative party member (Green-Rainbow Party of MA)

  2. Thanks, Charlene, for commenting on my op-ed. Of course I am making an argument; that’s why it’s called an Opinion piece. But I respectfully challenge the so-called facts you cite. Studies show at least 60% of Nader voters would have otherwise voted for Gore in Florida, enough to make the difference in that election. Also, even though it seems more Florida voters left the polls that year thinking they had voted for Gore, eight media outlets determined it’s not clear Gore would have won a recount due in part to the problems with so many ballots as you note (see on the topic). Thanks again and best of luck in your own campaign! Jim

  3. I find it difficult to understand why anyone at this point would defend either of the two major parties fielding two very unpopular candidates who prevaricate most of the time. I also find it difficult to believe anyone can still spout the myth of third party spoiler to encourage depriving the American people of an opportunity to hear from a candidate who has not been corrupted by massive financial donations from corporations and billionaires and who discusses issues the American people are really concerned about and who speaks truth about real issues, i.e. Dr. Jill Stein. Charlene DiCalogero’s points dispelling the myth of the “spoiler party” are well documented if one takes the time to research the truth. I will address the failing state of the “two party” system and the need to offer more diversity to voters. And third party support is growing.

    In my opinion, the two candidates running for the two “major” parties now fully represent the greater evils we’ve all been voting the lesser of for the last fifty years. And, sadly, this time both candidates are massively and equally unpopular with the American public. Both offer truly frightening scenarios if either is elected. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is seriously addressing the two existential threats to all life on earth – massive climate change and nuclear war. As a result, a majority of U.S. voters today no longer identify with either of the two major parties, primarily because those parties no longer represent the people and they want more candidates. And yet both the RNC and the DNC have refused and continue to refuse: 1) to encourage opening the media to all candidates (“public airwaves”?), 2) to facilitate more open voting (e.g. with emergency IRV), or 3) to open the presidential debates to real discussions of real issues that include ALL the candidates on the ballot for president.

    As just one bit of evidence of how fraudulent the Democratic and Republican parties have become we need look no further than the Commission on Presidential debates, which is in fact a corporation controlled by the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. This “commission” is the very definition of a fraud “commonly understood as dishonesty calculated for advantage,” in this case to “advantage” the dying republican and democratic parties. As informed voters know, this “commission” has not and does not serve the US voting public well. As the League of Women Voters predicted in 1988: “The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

    These corporate debates deliberately do not provide voters with multiple opportunities to see ALL the candidates representing the diversity of political thought discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. They are a tightly controlled charade. Participation with the public is minimal; moderators are chosen (and rejected) by the two parties, and questions are vetted. This “fraud” deprives voters of the honest and open discussion they need and deserve.

    I will be voting for Jill Stein because I truly believe that my life and the lives of all living things on earth depend on it and if the voters could hear what she is saying they would vote for her as well.

    Jean Palmer
    Lincoln, MA

  4. More scare tactics to keep people from voting their conscience. Chicken little says if you vote for Johnson the sky will fall. That’s why little Hillary’s campaign is now spending millions to try and discredit him and the media is helping by giving news coverage to carefully selected Ds spreading the word. Meanwhile Johnson only makes the TV news when he makes an all too human flub.

  5. “Overall, I estimate (Carter) cost Carter at least 101 electoral votes, more than double the 49 Carter received.”

    The author made a boo-boo in one of his paragraphs, I fixed it for him.

  6. Jim Rooney’s reminder that votes for third party candidates have consequences, often not the ones intended, is particularly apt this year. Of course, citizens have the right to protest, and I’m sure Jim encourages free expression. The point is, this year, in this presidential election, your protest should not take the form of a vote that would elect a candidate who would obliterate decades, if not centuries, of American civic progress. Instead, in January, participate in a counter-inaugural procession, but make sure it’s Hillary’s inaugural.

  7. An arresting historic analysis. By examining previous presidential contests that featured relatively strong third-party candidates, Rooney effectively expands our understanding of what it means to vote ones conscience. We must all follow our scruples, and part of doing so is to consider potential consequences of a protest vote. Are my principles served when, by pulling the level for candidate X, I predictably help hand the election to candidate Y?

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