Split-Ticket Voting: Fear vs. Reality

It has been said that third-party candidates steal votes from mainstream candidates, even splitting tickets and costing presidential elections. Let’s think about this assumption for a moment.

Average voter turnout is generally little more than half of those who are eligible to vote. And while those who calculate voter turnout statistics claim that voter turnout, overall, has not diminished since 1972, that figure, whether it is 40 percent or 60 percent of legal, voting-age US citizens, leaves much to be desired — particularly when compared to our European counterparts.

Enter a third-party presidential candidate. For the purpose of this illustration, Ralph Nader will do.

Who votes for the likes of Ralph Nader? And do third-party candidates such as Nader, who typically garner far less than 5 percent of the popular vote, really have the power to sway elections?


Ross Perot is often cited as an example of a third-party candidate who garnered enough popular support to pose a real threat to mainstream party candidates. But most of the time, the idea that a third-party candidate can alter the outcome of an election comes off like a trumped up scare tactic to persuade voters to tow traditional party lines.

The truth lies in the numbers. Generally speaking, if a given race isn’t closer than the percentage of votes a given third-party candidate attracts, the split-ticket argument amounts to little more than a red herring. Nevertheless, the popularity of browbeating long-shot and third-party candidates and their supporters as ticket-splitting spoilers has become so widespread that it borders on what one might call “political fundamentalism”. A July 2004 Salon.com article titled “The dark side of Ralph Nader” had this to say:

“Nader’s share of the votes was the margin that threw New Hampshire into Bush’s column and accounted for the difference in Florida that cast the state into the post-election turmoil that ended only with the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. Nader nearly cost Gore other states as well, especially New Mexico. Every study after the election determined that almost all of Nader’s votes would have gone to Gore if Nader hadn’t run, but Nader continues to insist that he bore no responsibility.”

Notice that the author does not cite a source upon claiming that “every study after the election determined that almost all of Nader’s votes would have gone to Gore”.

Though I am aware of no statistics to back my intuition, I would venture to say that there is no way to accurately predict whether or not a vote for the likes of Ralph Nader — or any other ancillary candidate who attracts conscience-driven voters, for that matter — is likely to translate into a vote for a mainstream candidate if only such-and-such would step out of the way. The real question is ideological and sociological. On that criteria, a seemingly safer assumption holds that those who vote conscience over party are not beholden to conventional party rhetoric.

If we accept that third-party supporters are more independent-minded than they are party driven, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to assume that such individuals are less likely to cave to the pressure to vote for the “lesser-of-two-evils” out of fear that an opposing party candidate shall win. A willingness to compromise on the merits and qualifications of a particular candidate for the sake of a party win are hallmarks of traditional Democrat and Republican concerns. As such, this line of logic is more likely to sway undecided voters. But undecided voters are not the type of third-party supporters who repeatedly back the likes of Ralph Nader. Votes cast for third party candidates are likely to come from two sources: Those who are disgruntled with mainstream party choices on the one hand, and those who are genuinely motivated by personal affinity toward the third-party candidate and his or her particular views, on the other.

None of this is to say that given fewer electoral choices, mainstream candidates would lose out entirely on those extra votes. Some third-party votes, indeed, may translate into minuscule gains for mainstream candidates. However, any examination of the issue cannot overlook the reality that those who are unwilling to compromise in the voting booth are equally, if not more likely, to fade into the ranks of those who do not show up on Election Day at all. Rather than vote for a mainstream candidate, third-party supporters may be just as inclined to stay home when the choices they are offered don’t match their convictions.

Ralph Nader and the likes of Rep. Ron Paul, also a former third-party presidential candidate, have in common a form of loyalty that is not a party loyalty as much as it is an ideological or personal loyalty. To claim, therefore, that that their supporters might otherwise vote for a mainstream party candidate appears to be a leap of logic at best, and a dumbing down of U.S. political dialog at worst.

Worst-case scenarios advanced by campaign strategists and media pundits that encourage voters to second-guess their better instincts are a form of manipulation, if not outright propaganda. As voters, fear should play no part in our decisions. It is not a valid reason to abandon one’s deeply held convictions in order to line up behind the foregone conclusion. The idea that Democrats will mail terrorists formal invitations to attack us is not a legitimate reason to lose sleep at night. And fear that Republicans, if given a chance, will establish a theocracy are similarly alarmist and nonproductive.

As voters, each of us are Americans who want the best for our children and, by extension, our nation. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it during the height of the Great Depression: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


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