Recent polls have concluded that 40% of Americans identify as “independents” and 81% are not satisfied with the federal government. Nevertheless, in next month’s presidential election the vast majority of them will vote for one of the two major parties that, combined, are responsible for every action and piece of legislation the federal government has made in our lifetimes. The party in power changes every now and then, but when one party falls into disfavor the other steps right in.
This practice borders on insanity. It’s like getting cavities from drinking sugary sodas, then switching between Coke and Pepsi every time you get a toothache.
The two-headed monopoly in American government has several consequences. Most importantly, politicians are practically required to secure a nomination from one of the two major parties if they want to get elected. Often times, the nominee of one major party runs in a partisan district and is therefore a shoe-in for the general elections. The problem is that these parties are private organizations that represent the interests of their donors, the largest of which are typically corporations and special interest groups. Generally, the winner of a primary is whoever best represents and serves the interests of that party’s platform. If you need an example of a political party rejecting a candidate who does not adequately represent its platform, look no further than the way Ron Paul was mistreated in the 2012 RNC.
What this means is that all elected officials come from two narrow-minded, private organizations that are driven by wealthy and powerful interests. Most of these officials would, in all likelihood, not have been elected without the support of their parties and they are well aware of that fact. Furthermore, politicians whose policies and performance are frequently antithetical to the interests of their constituents are bound to get elected as long as they have enough partisan voters – or if the other party nominates an even less appealling candidate. For the President, he’s practically guaranteed to be win his party’s nomination after his first term. Even if he broke numerous promises, disappointed many of his supporters, and continued many of his predecessor’s policies which he originally ran against, he’d still get reelected as long as the other nominee is perceived to be worse. The incumbent could even be revealed to be an evil space alien bent on human enslavement, and STILL get elected as long as he was the “lesser evil.”
“Don’t blame me! I voted for the other guy!”
As for the aspiring politician who won’t sell out to one of the two major parties, they’re hopeless unless maybe they’re obscenely rich and can pay for an entire campaign out of pocket. In fact, I’m surprised the Witness Protection Program doesn’t have their witnesses disappear by running for federal office under one of the lesser known political parties. I’m pretty sure there’s no better way to make sure nobody ever hears of you again.
Why is this so? There are a number of reasons; campaign finance, media, the debates, and even unscrupulous attempts by the major parties to keep third parties off of ballots. But the crucial reason third party candidates struggle, and the one I will discuss now, is that too many voters play along and allow it to happen.
Vote third party? Nah…
We take it for granted that only two parties are viable enough to win elections, a notion which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of the millions of Americans who identify as independents or the legions more who are dissatisfied with the options from the major parties, far too many of them follow the thought process outlined below.
This behavior, voting for the perceived lesser of two evils or not voting at all, is a positive feedback loop that only strengthens and legitimizes the two-party monopoly. Third party candidates are irrelevant because few will consider voting for them, and few will consider voting for them because they’re irrelevant. Remember, these are people who are decidedly dissatisfied with the federal government, who profess allegiance for neither of the two major parties, yet they won’t even consider voting for someone besides a major party candidate.
Many disillusioned citizens simply do not vote. Either they think their vote won’t make a difference, or they decide they don’t like either major candidate and don’t bother voting at all.
But it seems even more adhere to a utilitarian voting strategy, voting for the less objectionable of the two major candidates since they are the only two with any realistic chance of winning the election.
Voting for the lesser of two evils – it doesn’t work
Essential to the utilitarian voting strategy is the belief that one’s vote has a chance of affecting the outcome of the election. In 2012, one might vote Obama only because one really doesn’t want Romney to be elected and believes that one’s vote might actually help keep Romney out of office, or vice-versa. This belief, that one’s vote can change the outcome of the election, is downright delusional for most Americans and merely extremely unlikely for a small minority voting in swing states.
Most states, numbering at least 40 each election, lean for one candidate significantly more than the national average and the eventual winner of these states is all but a certainty. These states are givens in the electoral math that determines who wins the Presidential election. While they could theoretically become competitive, any scenario in which that were to happen would include a massive national shift towards one candidate that would make the election a landslide.
Let’s take a look at what needs to happen for one’s vote to determine the winner of an election.
- The election needs to be close, really close, on election day.
- One needs to vote in a state that is a true toss-up between the major candidates.
- Neither candidate may accumulate more than 269 electoral votes outside of the state where one votes.
- One’s state, with its hundreds of thousands or million of votes cast, must be tied without one’s vote.
Nate Silver, who runs the FiveThirtyEight blog which simulates and predicts elections, published a paper that aims to quantify the probability of a single vote being decisive in a presidential election. Using polling data from two weeks before the 2008 presidential election, he concluded that a vote in a small handful of swing states had a roughly 1 in 10 million chance of deciding the election, while most states were at a small fraction of that or essentially zero. Of course, by election day in 2008, Obama had widened his lead to the point where his victory was all but a certainty. As it turned out, even a million votes allocated strategically in swing states wouldn’t have given the election to McCain. As it turned out, 98.6% of Americans voted for Obama or McCain anyway.
Even when the 2008 presidential race was still close, the best chance a single vote would have of deciding the election was one in millions. In the map below, I’ve attempted to qualify the chances of a single vote in each state deciding the 2012 election according to the current electoral outlook, recent polls, and expected number of votes cast in each state.
Most Americans have no chance of deciding the outcome of the election with their vote, and the few that do have a chance that’s roughly on par with winning the lottery. Voting for the lesser of two evils is about as effective at stopping evil as voting for Captain America as a write-in. So what should a citizen who’s concerned about politics do?
The answer is simple. Presidential elections are major events that attract a number of diverse candidates with backgrounds, philosophies, positions, and ideas that are truly different from what the two major parties are offering. While they won’t get much media coverage, there is no shortage of information about them on the internet. Go read about them and see if you like any of these candidates or their ideas. If you do, support those candidates or ideas and discuss them with friends and family. Then, when election day rolls around, go out and vote for whichever candidate you think would be best for you and the country. Don’t neglect voting and don’t give your vote to a major candidate only because he or she seems less objectionable than the alternative. If nothing else, the presidential election is the most visible and significant opinion poll of the U.S. population there is, and votes for a third party candidate lend support and credibility to that candidate and his or her platform.
Hold the major parties and candidates accountable when they disappoint you. If you’re one of the many Americans who are tired of the usual lies, letdowns, and broken promises in presidential elections, then do something about it. With the election less than 4 weeks away, you can start right now.