In presidential elections, third parties spread themselves thin in order to conduct a national campaign. What if, instead, a third party focused as much as possible on one small state? What if the third party won that state?
In 2012, Green Party candidate Jill Stein spent a bit less than $1 million (numbers are from FEC data up to October 17th). Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson spent over $2M. The Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode spent close to $200K. By comparison the Romney campaign spent roughly $400M, and that doesn’t count Super PACs and party spending. We’ve seen estimates that the two major party campaigns spent close to $5 billion.
Spreading Johnson’s $2M or Stein’s $1M over 50 states means spending an average of $20-40,000 per state. Even without competition that’s not enough money to make a dent. In a sea of spending from the major parties it’s awfully hard to break through.
Now consider the One-State Strategy. The third party makes a decision early to focus on one small state. It focuses all of its money on that one state. Instead of spreading $1M over 50 states you spend $1M in just one state. Not only that, but the candidate is able to spend much more time in the one state, thus saving money on travel expenses. This idea works even better if the candidate is a resident of the chosen state.
Which state should a third party choose? For the Libertarian Party New Hampshire might be the natural choice. It is home to the Free State Project and has four electoral votes. The Greens could choose Rhode Island, also with four electoral votes.
In the 2012 presidential election, there were approximately 700,000 votes in New Hampshire, and 430,000 votes in Rhode Island. The LP could win NH with 250,000 votes. The Greens could win RI with less than 200,000.
There is a substantial difference between the two states. New Hampshire is a swing state, while Rhode Island is considered solidly in the Democratic column. It is not clear how this difference would impact the strategy.
On the one hand, it is harder for a third-party candidate to get their message heard in a swing state because of all the major party spending. It may also drive up the cost of advertising and reduce available ad inventory. On the other hand, most of the major party spending is focused on negative advertising, attacking each other. This leaves independent voters desperate for a clean choice. It can also be hoped that the Libertarian candidate would draw from both parties equally, as the LP message pulls from both parties depending on the issue. Thus, for New Hampshire, if the two major party candidates get about 230,000 votes each and the LP candidate gets 250,000, the LP would win NH.
Rhode Island present the other side of this for the Greens. It voted heavily for Obama in 2012. The major party candidates will spend little or nothing in a non-swing state. This reduces competition for ad inventory and hopefully reduces the price the Greens would have to pay for TV and radio spots. The Greens are more likely to draw their votes from the Democrat side, which lines up well with the goal of winning the state by pulling votes from the strongest competitor in that state.
Of course it’s not so simple as to say: “Poof, we’re doing a one-state strategy this time.” Despite their small size, the third parties have their own establishments and parochialism to deal with. Party leadership in states other than the chosen one may resent the focus on that state and the lack of attention to their own state. One would hope that these leaders could see the value in the strategy and “take one for the team.” But that may be an optimistic view of state and local third party leadership.
Why the one-state strategy? First, concentrating resources and effort in a smaller area does work. In 2010 I was the Libertarian candidate for Governor of New York. We spent about $10,000 on a relatively small burst of TV and radio advertising in the Albany area. Statewide we got 1% of the vote. We got our best results where we advertised, with over 3% of the vote in the four largest and most central counties there: Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady. We had more votes on our line in all four than Andrew Cuomo got on the Democrat-controlled Working Families line. In Bronx County, our worst, we had about 0.2% of the vote. So we did 15 times better in our strongest county than our weakest, and triple our statewide average.
By comparison, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is Too Damn High party fell just short of our total statewide with 0.9% of the vote. He got votes due to the celebrity he attained from our one statewide debate which vaulted him to a brief moment of fame.
He was even mocked on Saturday Night Live.
While third parties seem to think celebrity candidates are the answer to getting votes, we did get more votes than McMillan. But the results show that the celebrity vote spreads more evenly than targeted advertising.
In his strongest county, New York (Manhattan), he had 1.1%, and in his weakest (Yates) he had 0.5%. This is in stark contrast to our results. His strongest was only double his weakest where our strongest-weakest ratio was 15-1. And his strongest county to statewide average ratio was 1.2-1 where ours was 3-1.
We spent less than $10K on advertising to get 3% of the vote for a third party in an area with a population slightly smaller than Rhode Island and half the size of New Hampshire. Now imagine what a third-party candidate could do by spending $1 million in advertising in one of those states.