Does the ‘Safe Protest Vote’ Syndrome Negate the ‘Wasted Vote’ Syndrome?

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.

I wonder how much the Wasted Vote Syndrome hurts third parties — and I also wonder how much the Safe Protest Vote Syndrome helps third parties?

19 thoughts on “Does the ‘Safe Protest Vote’ Syndrome Negate the ‘Wasted Vote’ Syndrome?

  1. NewFederalist

    I agree with much of what is stated above. My point of departure is that I never vote for a “protest” candidate whose ideology I oppose. To wit: I vote Libertarian a lot and even Constitutionalist on occasion but never Socialist for example.

  2. Be Rational

    There’s also the Why Bother They Won’t Win Anyway Syndrome that hurts third parties – voters don’t bother to vote at all, even though they support a particular third party.

    Such voters may prefer the third party or its candidate, may consider themselves as a follower of the ideology, may be a registered voter in the party, may even be an active member, donate, go to conventions … but they still don’t vote at all, not because they don’t believe in voting, but because it just won’t make any difference in the outcome of the election.

  3. Tom Blanton

    The last time I voted was for Badnarik on 2004. I didn’t consider it to be a wasted vote even though I had no illusion that he would win.

    In the context of the available choices given for candidates that could possibly win, it isn’t votes that are wasted so much as the time and energy of voters that is wasted. As for safe protest votes, there is no such thing. No vote is safe.

    I am seriously considering voting again in 2012. At present, I am undecided on how I will cast my vote. I will either write in “Nobody” or “None of the Above”.

    Another alternative is to vote for myself as I believe the best person to govern me is me, despite all the lies I have told myself.

    Other topics which deserve discussion include the Wasted Voter Syndrome and the Dangerous Protest Vote.

  4. Ted Brown

    Good premise on this article. I spoke to a service club about a year after I ran for Congress. One of the audience members said that he voted for me as a protest vote, but now that he heard what I believe in, he was sorry he did so!

  5. Robert Capozzi

    Yes, Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” McMillan played the safe protest vote angle to the hilt. NOTA is a SPV.

    I suspect that SPVs are a smaller universe than either non-voters or defensive voters. Why go through the trouble of voting for someone whom you, say, partly agree with to “send a message”?

    Virtually all L votes should be assumed to be L leaners. On the margin of our margin, there are SPVs and jokesters.

    I’m not getting the implication of the SPVs…how is it actionable, if at all?

  6. not mark

    I think this article points to the reality of third party choice. I think the people that are now running third (tancredo or Crist) went third because of the sour grapes feeling (they weren’t picked for top 2 or opposed the top 2 candidates.
    Anti-establishment 3rd party people, like the feeling of being a rebel. They probably know they couldn’t compete in the bigger pool, but can safely see how things go, by sitting in the rear, and looking out over the drivers shoulder. I think most third partiers would love to be accepted into main party politics, but, don’t what to be lumped in with (the same) they wear their 3rd party status as a badge of honor, of course till election day, when they once again lose and they can blame..the media (no support) being an unknown…giving it a good try blah blah blah….they probably run there whole life on…ALMOST MADE IT… Some people like playing victim it suits them. If they can’t play victim they lose their identity.

  7. paulie Post author

    Anti-establishment 3rd party people, like the feeling of being a rebel.

    That’s a very American feeling. This country was founded and built on it.

    The colonists rebelled against the English crown. The whiskey rebels rebelled against Washington.

    The confederates rebelled against the yankees. The slaves rebelled against their masters.

    The aboriginal Americans rebelled against being conquered by the European settlers.

    Immigrants from all over the world rebelled against their native rulers and voted with their feet by coming to America. Once here, they rebelled against those at the top of the social structure to claw their way to a share of the American dream.

    Women rebelled against patriarchy, gay people rebelled against restrictive social mores that kept them in the closet, hippies and punks and numerous others rebelled against social conventions.

    Fighters for civil rights rebelled against Jim Crow.

    Rebellion is what we do. A little rebellion is a good thing. Sometimes, a lot of rebellion is a good thing.

  8. paulie Post author

    I think most third partiers would love to be accepted into main party politics,

    Some perhaps, but many would not. Why? Because big box D/R-oid politics is corrosive and goes against our ideals.

  9. not mark

    at what time do stop being a rebel without a real cause. Being a rebel can be like a hangnail, it just irritates, and not much more. I have known some of the sorriest ass people, sour and bitter and they die being a rebel, and not like much at all. But they felt they had to fight, they were fighting windmills in the end. Well, for the most part the D’s and the R’s seem to represent the majority.

  10. not mark

    Trust me, being at ease, and not finding fault with everything, can create a lovely world. If your vision is so skewed, as to come across bizarre, or other religious, you do become just a footnote,.YOU want to change the world to your VIEW. Those type of people, usually become cult followers. Not mainstream. I am not slamming all third parties, just some of the people, that take the party to another level, due to their own distorted view. How may tea party people, have so many differing views on what they want. Some are far right some are racist some, anyway you get my drift, when third parties want to do radical things, like close all borders or Open all borders stuff that doesn’t make sense, they get the bad rap of being unviable, or by trying to change the constituion to fit their own beliefs. People get elected who most represent ALL THE PEOPLE! those that don’t don’t win. We can’t have dictatorships.

  11. paulie Post author

    Well, for the most part the D’s and the R’s seem to represent the majority.

    No, they don’t. They represent a majority of votes, but not a majority of voters, much less non-voters. In survey after survey most people say they would prefer another party or multiple parties.

    When it comes time to vote, most get scared into believing there is a real difference between Democrats and Republicans and vote for one to keep the other one out.

    On many issues, there is a large percentage of people that disagree with the concensus that both Democrats and Republicans agree to on those issues.

  12. paulie Post author

    Not mainstream.

    What’s wrong with not being mainstream, especially if the main stream is heading off a cliff?

    Sometimes the road less travelled is the right one to take.

    And sometimes it ends up becoming the new mainstream, but it sure doesn’t start out that way.

  13. paulie Post author

    trying to change the constituion to fit their own beliefs.

    Yep, that’s been done before. For examples, see the 13th, 18th, 19th, and 21st amendments, among others.

  14. paulie Post author

    People get elected who most represent ALL THE PEOPLE!

    Or the most money or the most power or the best ability to deceive…take your pick.

  15. Thomas M. Sipos

    “Well, for the most part the D’s and the R’s seem to represent the majority.”

    “No, they don’t. They represent a majority of votes, but not a majority of voters, much less non-voters.”

    Me: There can probably never be a party that represents a majority of Americans. Too many diverse views.

    Ironically, the Rs and Ds win and are disliked for the same reason — they compromise.

    They win because they compromise — everyone in the coalition gets something. They are disliked because they compromise — nobody gets everything they want.

    Perot was popular because he was a blank slate. People projected their fantasies onto him. They imagined he represented everything they wanted. The more he spoke specifics, the less popular he became.

    The most successful politicians, like Obama, speak in vague terms while appearing charismatic — this allows people to fantasize that his vague terms mean whatever they want, not what a fellow supporter wants.

    Third parties are too ideologically specific to ever win. I suppose this is why the Reform types, and Root, want to make the LP’s message more vague — “less government, lower taxes, more freedom,” without getting into the specifics of how that applies to social security, medicare, public education, border control, gay marriage, foreign military bases, etc.

    The LP’s current strategy seems to be to fool the voters; keep it vague so voters don’t know what we mean. The LP wants to bait & switch its way to success.

    Apart from being dishonest, there’s the danger that some LP candidates, if elected, might not switch their vague talking points with libertarian specific policy. Like the GOP, they’ll continue talking vaguely of freedom, while failing to advance freedom.

  16. Robert Capozzi

    ts: The LP’s current strategy seems to be to fool the voters; keep it vague so voters don’t know what we mean. The LP wants to bait & switch its way to success.

    me: First, I think you’re correct that votes project what they want to onto vague pols. Consumers do this with products, too. People in general are projecting machines, inferring values based on a penumbra of concepts. That, Thomas, is the human condition. Deal with it.

    I don’t think the LP HAS a strategy; individual Ls have strategies. Constitutionalist Ls generally use the Constitution as a benchmark to measure the current government against, and advocate strict adherence to their interpretation of the Constitution. Abolitionist Ls generally advocate rapid and extreme reductions in government, often without concern for the viability and full implications of their views. My sense is they want to shock (macho flash) as a means to “wake” the “sheeple” up.

    As a moderate L, I prefer to engage the center with a message of incremental steps to reduce government across the board — to minimize government and maximize freedom. This is not — I assure you — a bait and switch. While I do, for ex., believe that Social Security was a mistake, I don’t believe it’d be peaceful to abolish it.

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