Do Libertarians Cost Republicans Elections?

The 2013 Virginia Gubernatorial election had the makings of a watershed election.  Although third-party or independent candidates often run for the highest office in the Commonwealth, with the exception of 2009 which featured only a Republican and a Democrat, they typically have a minimal impact.  Running through the list from the last twenty years, in 2017, the Libertarian candidate won 1.1% of the vote.  In 2005, a former Republican State Senator left his party and ran as an independent garnering 2.2% of the statewide vote.  In 2001, the Libertarian won .8% and in 1997, the Reform Party candidate picked up 1.5%.  In addition, in all of these other elections the winning candidate received over 50% of the vote so that no one could effectively argue that these third-party or independent candidates impacted the final result.[1]  But 2013 was an unusual affair in Virginia politics.

Although Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate, had enjoyed a lead over his opponent earlier in the year, by mid-July Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, dominated the polls.  In addition, about a week before the November 5th contest, multiple polls had Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, at or above 10%.[2]  He achieved this result despite being excluded from every debate.[3]  Ten percent is a particularly important threshold for if a third-party candidate were to win at least 10% of the vote in a statewide contest, then the state would recognize his or her political party.  This result, in turn, would permit that political party to hold primaries at the expense of the taxpayers and would allow future candidates from that party to receive ballot access without going through the signature collection process.[4]  As a result of Sarvis’ apparent success, coupled with Cuccinelli’s falling numbers, some Republicans began to blame Libertarians for a potential loss in November.[5]  However, the simple fact was that some libertarian voters preferred the Libertarian option to the Republican.  “The 37-year-old former lawyer is proving particularly attractive to a bloc of right-leaning independents uneasy with Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage.”[6]

Even though Sarvis ultimately fell short of the 10% threshold, he captured 6.6% of the vote, the highest percentage for a third-party gubernatorial candidate in the south for over forty years.[7]  In addition, his vote total of about 145,000 votes was greater than 56,000, the margin that separated the Republican and Democratic candidates.[8]  Were the claims of some Republicans correct?  Did Robert Sarvis cost the Republicans a victory in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election?  If he weren’t on the ballot would a sufficient number of his voters still cast their ballots for the Republican candidate to ensure Cuccinelli’s triumph?

As another example of a Libertarian candidate potentially costing Republicans a win, in the 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial election the Democratic candidate defeated the Republican incumbent by a margin of about 5,000 votes.  The Libertarian candidate picked up over 28,000 votes.[9]  After this election, the Libertarian Party claimed that they had indeed snatched victory from the Republicans.  “We are always happy to split the vote in a way that causes delicious tears.  Tonight there are plenty of tears from Bevin supporters.”[10]

But in the absence of Libertarian candidates, would most Libertarian voters cast a ballot for the Republican option?  Do Libertarian candidates take a larger percentage of what would otherwise be Republican votes?  To answer these questions, we first have to understand what ideology drives libertarians.  According to a 2012 psychology study, Libertarianism was not widely studied prior to that time.  Furthermore, as compared to liberals and conservatives, libertarians have a “stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles.”[11]  Along these same lines, libertarian ideology “rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be impartially exercised for the common good.”[12]

But libertarians have voted Republican in the past, often in overwhelming numbers.  For example, in the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections libertarians preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore by a margin of 72% to 20%.  However, as the Bush presidency continued policies which resulted in ballooning federal deficits, the curtailing of civil liberties, along with the expansion of government power, positions which libertarians by-in-large oppose, libertarian support for the Republican Party waned considerably.[13]  After the Bush Presidency ended, libertarians once again largely shifted into the Republican column “supporting John McCain over Barack Obama by 71 to 27 percent.”[14]  However, the Libertarian Party has been active during this time, running candidates for president in every election since 1972.  In the two aforementioned elections, it would be difficult or impossible to claim that the presence of a Libertarian candidate cost the Republican Party the election given that the Republican candidate won the election in 2000; in 2008 the Libertarian candidate won a little over half a million votes or .4% of the nationwide vote, while the Republican and Democratic candidates were separated by a margin of about 9.5 million votes.[15]  Clearly then one cannot argue that the mere presence of a Libertarian candidate spells automatic doom for the Republicans.

Even though there is scant research done on the supposed Libertarian spoiler effect, others have asked similar questions.  For example, what about candidates from other political parties in the United States?  The 1992 Presidential election was a particularly historic election where the independent Ross Perot won 18.91% of the vote, the best showing for a third-party or independent candidate in terms of overall vote total since the election of 1912.[16]  Given that Perot’s percentage of the vote was greater than the disparity between the totals of the Republican and Democratic candidates, it comes as no surprise that some Bush supporters lamented that Perot had cost them the election.[17] [18]  However, later research shows that rather than denying Bush reelection, Perot’s candidacy had the opposite effect, drawing more votes from Clinton than Bush.  In addition, many of Perot’s voters went to the polls specifically to vote for Perot; about 20% of Perot voters would not have cast a ballot if Perot were not listed as a choice, thus his candidacy substantially increased turnout.[19]

Perhaps the most widely considered spoiler in the modern era was the candidacy of Ralph Nader under the banner of the Green Party in the 2000 presidential election.  The election came down to Florida where Bush defeated Gore by a margin of about 500 votes.[20]  Although some research argues that Gore actually won the state due to the improper rejection of 50,000 overvotes, most of which would have supposedly gone to Gore[21], others point to Nader’s nearly 100,000 votes, most of which, they assert, would have gone to Gore had Nader not been on the ballot.[22]  One study claims that about 60% of the Nader voters who would have turned out even if their preferred candidate weren’t on the ballot would have voted for Gore thus handing him the presidency.[23]  In that same election, the Libertarian candidate won 16,415 votes in Florida.  If Gore had won the Sunshine State and the Electoral College, would angry Republicans have pointed to Libertarians as spoilers? 

Another aspect to consider is the idea that the two-major party candidates in essence steal votes from a third-party candidate and not the other way around.  If a voter were to cast his or her vote sincerely, then he or she would select the candidate who most aligns with his or her values.  However, given the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, where any vote that goes to a losing candidate is, according to some, wasted, then voters will cast their votes strategically instead, choosing between the lesser of two evils.[24]

Returning to the idea of third-party candidates in gubernatorial contests, the 1998 Minnesota Governor election featured three candidates, a Republican, a Democrat, and the Reform Party’s Jesse Ventura.  Although Ventura won the election, researchers have determined that if he were not in the race then the Republican candidate would have been elected.  Ventura was the Condorcet winner and the Democratic candidate was the Condorcet loser.  It is estimated that approximately 7% of voters would not have cast a ballot were Ventura not an option.[25] Although one could make a rather tepid argument that Ventura “stole” the election, doing so would also require one to make the claim that no one other than Republicans and Democrats ought to be allowed to run for office, an undemocratic notion antithetical to the idea of liberty which undermines the principle of the right to self-determination.

Third-party candidates can make an impact in politics outside of running for office through the mere threat of their candidacy.  Lee shows that

while two-party politics is essentially one-dimensional in that a dominant cleavage defines political conflict, third parties are often concerned with issues that are ignored by the major parties…US House members from districts under high third-party threat vote beyond the dominant dimension of major-party conflict, which is an attempt preemptively to co-opt potential third-party supporters.[26]

In addition, we do have data from third parties in other western democracies.  For example, there is the typically largest third party in the UK since the 1922 election, the Liberal Democrats, formally known as the Liberals.  Running for office has the effect of promoting policies which Liberal Democratic voters oppose.  “By contesting elections they motivate the major parties to present more extreme policies” and “by presenting its sincere center-left beliefs, the Liberal Democrats enable the Conservatives to present more extreme positions than they would present if the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves strategically.”[27]  However, these findings may not translate particularly well to the case of American Libertarians given that the party has not yet successfully elected a candidate to Congress.

Later political scientists have found other effects for third-party voters when exploring ballots cast for the New Democratic Party in Canada.  “The share of the vote received by the NDP is not only governed by the individual characteristics of voters, but also by the competitive position of the party in each constituency.”[28]  The party is “a safe repository for the sophisticated vote of dissatisfaction.”[29] But, as is the case with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, although both electoral systems consist of districts which are single-member pluralities, like the United States, both of these parties have won and continue to win seats in the national legislature.  The Libertarians in the United States haven’t won an election at the federal level though this disparity could be, in part, a result of a presidential system as opposed to a parliamentary one, or, as mentioned in my previous work, due to particularly repressive ballot access laws in the United States.

Although some politicos may argue that voting for a third-party candidate in a two-party system is essentially an irrational action, tantamount to throwing one’s vote away or that doing so results in the election of the greater of two evils as Lee (2013) suggests, Anthony Downs identifies two conditions under which voting for a third-party candidate makes sense.

A voter may support a party that today is hopeless in the belief that his support will enable it to grow and someday become a likely winner-thus giving him a wider range of selection in the future.  Also, he may temporarily support a hopeless party as a warning to some other party to change its platform if it wants his support.  Both actions are rational for people who prefer better choice-alternatives in the future to present participation in the selection of government.[30]

Returning to Republicans and Libertarians in the United States, perhaps surprisingly, some Republicans don’t like the idea of Libertarians supporting their party as they are concerned that this ideology will transform the Republican Party.  As Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stated in 2012 while facing a libertarian challenger for the Republican nomination, “These people are not conservatives.  They’re not Republicans.  They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.  I despise these people.”[31]

So, what should libertarians do?  Should they support a Republican Party which is often hostile to their ideology or cast their ballots for Libertarian candidates who are unlikely to win, potentially “spoiling” elections for Republicans?  David Boaz, the executive vice-president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that given present policy trends neither of the two major political parties is a particularly welcoming home for libertarian-minded voters unless they make a concerted effort to change.

Libertarians have yet to find a comfortable home among political parties, particularly younger libertarians. Given the anti-competitive restrictions on third parties imposed by campaign finance and ballot access laws, the two-party system is likely to survive for the foreseeable future. However, if Republicans embrace the libertarian roots of the party, they stand to gain favor among these independent-minded voters. And if Democrats move toward drug policy reform, marriage equality, withdrawal from Iraq, and fiscal responsibility, they also stand to gain. As long as neither major party is committed to liberty and limited government, libertarians will likely continue to be only weakly affiliated with either party.[32]

If the above logic is correct, then neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party ought to consider themselves the rightful owner of libertarians’ votes; they ought to refrain from calling Libertarian candidates spoilers when their candidate loses by a margin smaller than the number of voters the Libertarian candidate earns.  Nevertheless, it is an idea that needs further empirical exploration.

Resources

“2013 – Virginia Gov: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe vs. Sarvis.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2013/governor/va/virginia_governor_cuccinelli_vs_mcauliffe_vs_sarvis-4111.html (November 30, 2019).

Adams, James, and Samuel Merrill. 2006. “Why Small, Centrist Third Parties Motivate Policy Divergence by Major Parties.” American Political Science Review 100(3): 403–17.

Berkes, Howard. 2012. “GOP-on-GOP Attacks Leave Orrin Hatch Fighting Mad,”

National Public Radio, April 12, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsall politics/2012/04/12/150506733/tea-party-againtargets-a-utah-gop-senator-and-orrin-hatch-isfighting-mad.

Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2006. “The Libertarian Vote.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–28.

Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–19.

Bowler, S., and D. J. Lanoue. 1992. “Strategic and Protest Voting for Third Parties: the Case of the Canadian NDP.” Political Research Quarterly 45(2): 485–99.

Collins, Eliza. 2019. “Did Perot Spoil 1992 Election for Bush? It’s Complicated.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/did-perot-spoil-1992-election-for-bush-its-complicated-11562714375 (December 3, 2019).

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Federal Election Commission. 2001. 2000 Presidential General Election Results. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm (December 4, 2019).

FEDERAL ELECTIONS 2008 Election Results for the U.S. President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. 2009. Washington D.C.

Freeman, Samuel. 2001. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View.” Philosophy Public Affairs 30(2): 105–51.

Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12(3): 564–81.

Hamby, Peter. 2013. “Libertarian Threatens to Spoil GOP Hopes in Virginia – CNNPolitics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/politics/virginia-governor-sarvis-spoiler/index.html (December 4, 2019).

Herron, Michael C., and Jeffery B. Lewis. 2006. “Did Ralph Nader Spoil a Gore Presidency? A Ballot-Level Study of Green and Reform Party Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2(3): 205–26.

Hohmann, James. 2013. “3rd Candidate Could Cost Cuccinelli.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-race-robert-sarvis-ken-cuccinelli-097591 (November 30, 2019).

Hohmann, James. 2013. “Libertarian Excluded from Va. Debate.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-debate-robert-sarvis-libertarian-098161 (November 30, 2019).

Iyer, Ravi et al. 2012. “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians.” PLoS ONE 7(8): 1–23.

Jacobs, Ben. 2013. “Libertarian Robert Sarvis Drew Record High Votes in Virginia.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/libertarian-robert-sarvis-drew-record-high-votes-in-virginia (November 30, 2019).

Lacy, Dean, and Barry C. Burden. 1999. “The Vote-Stealing and Turnout Effects of Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election.” American Journal of Political Science 43(1): 233–55.

Lacy, Dean, and Quin Monson. 2002. “The Origins and Impact of Votes for Third-Party Candidates: A Case Study of the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election.” Political Research Quarterly 55(2): 409–37.

Lee, Daniel J. 2013. “Third-Party Threat and the Dimensionality of Major-Party Roll Call Voting.” Public Choice 159(3-4): 515–31.

Leip, David. 1992 Presidential General Election Results. https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1992&f=0&off=0&elect=0 (December 3, 2019).

Mebane, Walter R. 2004. “The Wrong Man Is President! Overvotes in the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida.” Perspectives on Politics 2(03): 525–35.

“Ross Perot: Election Spoiler or Message Shaper?” 2019. Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/ross-perot-election-spoiler-or-message-shaper (December 3, 2019).

Rotemberg, Julio. 2009. “Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting.” Public Choice: 223–44.

Scher, Bill. 2016. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/05/31/nader_elected_bush_why_we_shouldnt_forget_130715.html (December 4, 2019).

Staff, WKYT News. 2019. “Libertarian Party Says It’s Happy to Cause ‘Delicious Tears from Bevin Supporters’.” WKYT. https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Libertarian-Party-happy-to-cause-delicious-tears-from-Bevin-supporters-564541541.html (November 30, 2019).

The New York Times. 2019. “2019 Kentucky Governor General Election Results.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/05/us/elections/results-kentucky-governor-general-election.html (November 30, 2019).

“Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-101. Definitions. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter1/section24.2-101/ (November 30, 2019).

“Virginia Elections Database ” Search Elections.” Virginia Elections Database. https://historical.elections.virginia.gov/elections/search/year_from:1997/year_to:2017/office_id:3/stage:General (November 30, 2019).

“Virginia Governor – 2013 Election Results.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/elections/2013/general/virginia/map.html (November 30, 2019).


[1] “Virginia Elections Database ” Search Elections.” Virginia Elections Database. https://historical.elections.virginia.gov/elections/search/year_from:1997/year_to:2017/office_id:3/stage:General (November 30, 2019).

[2] “2013 – Virginia Gov: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe vs. Sarvis.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2013/governor/va/virginia_governor_cuccinelli_vs_mcauliffe_vs_sarvis-4111.html (November 30, 2019).

[3] Hohmann, James. 2013. “Libertarian Excluded from Va. Debate.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-debate-robert-sarvis-libertarian-098161 (November 30, 2019).

[4] “Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-101. Definitions. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter1/section24.2-101/ (November 30, 2019).

[5] Hamby, Peter. 2013. “Libertarian Threatens to Spoil GOP Hopes in Virginia – CNNPolitics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/politics/virginia-governor-sarvis-spoiler/index.html (December 4, 2019).

[6] Hohmann, James. 2013. “3rd Candidate Could Cost Cuccinelli.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-race-robert-sarvis-ken-cuccinelli-097591 (November 30, 2019).

[7] Jacobs, Ben. 2013. “Libertarian Robert Sarvis Drew Record High Votes in Virginia.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/libertarian-robert-sarvis-drew-record-high-votes-in-virginia (November 30, 2019).

[8] “Virginia Governor – 2013 Election Results.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/elections/2013/general/virginia/map.html (November 30, 2019).

[9] The New York Times. 2019. “2019 Kentucky Governor General Election Results.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/05/us/elections/results-kentucky-governor-general-election.html (November 30, 2019).

[10] Staff, WKYT News. 2019. “Libertarian Party Says It’s Happy to Cause ‘Delicious Tears from Bevin Supporters’.” WKYT. https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Libertarian-Party-happy-to-cause-delicious-tears-from-Bevin-supporters-564541541.html (November 30, 2019).

[11] Iyer, Ravi et al. 2012. “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians.” PLoS ONE 7(8): 1.

[12] Freeman, Samuel. 2001. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View.” Philosophy Public Affairs 30(2): 107.

[13] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2006. “The Libertarian Vote.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–28.

[14] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1.

[15] FEDERAL ELECTIONS 2008 Election Results for the U.S. President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. 2009. Washington D.C. 5.

[16] Leip, David. 1992 Presidential General Election Results. https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1992&f=0&off=0&elect=0 (December 3, 2019).

[17] Collins, Eliza. 2019. “Did Perot Spoil 1992 Election for Bush? It’s Complicated.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/did-perot-spoil-1992-election-for-bush-its-complicated-11562714375 (December 3, 2019).

[18] “Ross Perot: Election Spoiler or Message Shaper?” 2019. Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/ross-perot-election-spoiler-or-message-shaper (December 3, 2019).

[19] Lacy, Dean, and Barry C. Burden. 1999. “The Vote-Stealing and Turnout Effects of Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election.” American Journal of Political Science 43(1): 233–55.

[20] Federal Election Commission. 2001. 2000 Presidential General Election Results. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm (December 4, 2019).

[21] Mebane, Walter R. 2004. “The Wrong Man Is President! Overvotes in the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida.” Perspectives on Politics 2(03): 525–35.

[22] Scher, Bill. 2016. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/05/31/nader_elected_bush_why_we_shouldnt_forget_130715.html (December 4, 2019).

[23] Herron, Michael C., and Jeffery B. Lewis. 2006. “Did Ralph Nader Spoil a Gore

Presidency? A Ballot-Level Study of Green and Reform Party Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2(3): 205–26.

[24] Rotemberg, Julio. 2009. “Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting.” Public Choice: 223–44.

[25] Lacy, Dean, and Quin Monson. 2002. “The Origins and Impact of Votes for Third-Party Candidates: A Case Study of the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election.” Political Research Quarterly 55(2): 409–37.

[26] Lee, Daniel J. 2013. “Third-Party Threat and the Dimensionality of Major-Party Roll Call Voting.” Public Choice 159(3-4): 529.

[27] Adams, James, and Samuel Merrill. 2006. “Why Small, Centrist Third Parties Motivate Policy Divergence by Major Parties.” American Political Science Review 100(3): 403–17.

[28] Bowler, S., and D. J. Lanoue. 1992. “Strategic and Protest Voting for Third Parties: the Case of the Canadian Ndp.” Political Research Quarterly 45(2): 497.

[29] Ibid. 498.

[30] Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 49.

[31] Berkes, Howard. 2012. “GOP-on-GOP Attacks Leave Orrin Hatch Fighting Mad,” National Public Radio, April 12, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsall politics/2012/04/12/150506733/tea-party-againtargets-a-utah-gop-senator-and-orrin-hatch-isfighting-mad.

[32] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 19.

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