Thomas Sipos writes at Libertarian Peacenik:
Third parties often fantasize that their vote totals are the tip of the iceberg. That for every vote they receive, there’s a large pool of Silent Supporters who would vote for them, but that these Silent Supporters don’t want to waste their vote on a third party that can’t win.
This long-discussed theory is known as the Wasted Vote Syndrome.
It goes like this: A Libertarian Silent Supporter (LSS) prefers the LP candidate, but because the LP can’t win, the LSS votes for the “lesser evil” Republican to prevent the Democrat from winning. Likewise, the Green Silent Supporter prefers the GP candidate, but votes for the “lesser evil” Democrat to keep the Republican from winning.
Caveat: Some libertarians believe the LP has an equal number of supporters among both Republican and Democratic voters. But that doesn’t affect the Wasted Vote Syndrome theory; you still have LSS voters choosing a major party over the LP.
But just how many votes does the Wasted Vote Syndrome cost third parties? I don’t deny that some people vote for a major party, though they prefer a third party, because they don’t want to waste their vote on a third party that can’t win.
Yet there’s a countervailing force at work here. Let’s call it the Safe Protest Vote Syndrome.
I suspect that some people vote for a third party precisely because third parties can’t win. Some voters may feel anger at the system as a whole, or disgust with both major parties, or simply be in a generally nihilistic mood at the time — so they vote for a third party that they also hate, as a form of protest. They may feel that voting for an obnoxious third party is a safe way of “giving the finger” to the system. Safe, because there’s no chance the third party can win.
Third parties like to imagine that while the major parties attract many votes from people who can’t stand them, that every vote for a third party comes from an enthusiastic supporter.
I don’t think that’s true.
Should a third party start to grow, it may attract new voters who previously feared wasting their vote — but I suspect they will also lose votes from people who no longer think it’s safe to vote for that party, because now there’s a danger that they might actually win.