By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Let’s start with an apology: I’m sorry for using the word “poll” in this first paragraph. There have been many polls in this year’s U.S. Senate race, and there will be many more. In one poll released this week, however, two numbers stood out.
It’s not the 44 percent of likely voters picking Tom Cotton or the 42 percent supporting Mark Pryor in the latest Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll. Those two candidates consistently poll at about those levels. Their focus henceforth will be on ensuring those base levels show up on Election Day – mostly by scaring them – and on fighting over the other 14 percent.
The question is, how much of that 14 percent is available, and to whom? And that’s why the other poll numbers might matter: 4 and 3.
Unlike many polls, this one also included the minor party candidates. Mark Swaney of the Green Party polled at 4 percent, while Libertarian Nathan LaFrance attracted 3 percent.
I’m a word guy, not a math whiz, but 4+3=7, and in an election this close, that’s a factor.
Granted, many of those respondents are just sick of all the negative ads and picked one of the other two names, despite there also being an “undecided” option. But let’s spend a few paragraphs focusing on those respondents who purposely chose Swaney and LaFrance. They might have an effect on the election, maybe an important one, because they are probably taking a bigger bite out of Pryor’s support than Cotton’s.
The Green Party’s main issues are climate change and nationalized health care. They are unapologetically liberal. It’s safe to assume that most of the informed respondents who said they were voting for Swaney would be Pryor voters if there were only two choices. Few are playing “eenie meenie miney moe” between the Green Party and Cotton.
Libertarians, on the other hand, are for smaller government in every way. They would cut taxes and government spending significantly, so on economic issues, they are to the right of Republicans. However, on social issues, they generally support gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, and keeping abortion legal. They’d slash defense spending, too. In many ways, they’re to the left of Democrats.
So the 4 percent (the informed ones, anyway) who said they would vote for Swaney would have picked Pryor if there were only two choices. But the informed portion of LaFrance’s 3 percent would have gone either way – probably more for Cotton, but not exclusively.
I’m not saying this necessarily will change the outcome, but Pryor is being hurt more than Cotton.
The numbers won’t stay this way. Swaney and LaFrance are poorly funded candidates who don’t have money to advertise and probably have reached their ceilings of support. A percentage of those who do vote will gravitate toward Pryor or Cotton because of the so-called “spoiler effect.” In our winner-take-all system, voters have an incentive to choose the least objectionable of only two parties, lest the more objectionable candidate win.
Here’s where you might say this is why we need just two parties, and that people shouldn’t “waste their votes” on candidates who can’t win. You might say those liberal Green Party supporters should just choose Pryor, the less conservative of the two major party candidates.
Green Party voters don’t see it that way. They would say both Pryor and Cotton are the conservative candidates, and that Swaney is the only one who represents their values. If you really believe both Republicans and Democrats are ruining the planet, must you vote for the one you think is less ruinous? Libertarians say Democrats and Republicans both are the parties of big government – the same party, in fact, just two sides of the same coin.
This is the land of many choices, except in elections. But there are ways our democracy could be more open but still efficient. One is instant runoff voting, where voters rank their candidates top to bottom, and a numerical process determines the winner. Green Party voters could make their statement by picking Swaney first and then Pryor (or LaFrance) as their number two.
But we don’t have instant runoff voting. We have winner-take-all voting, in a very close race, where a few percentage points matter.
Note: Here’s a link to the Talk Business & Politics-Henderix College poll.
Above is an excellent video by C.G.P. Grey explaining why the spoiler effect makes it so hard for third parties and independents to break through. Below, C.G.P. Grey explains instant runoff voting, or what he calls the alternative vote.