The folly of voting third-party for president

It’s post Labor Day and it’s a presidential election year. You know what that means. According to our press, it means people are now starting to seriously pay attention to the upcoming election.

I find this hard to believe. Granted that I am something of a political junkie but it must be a very, very remote corner of Appalachia that hasn’t heard the endless thoughts spewing from the mouth and Twitter feed of Donald J. Trump. He’s the mouth that has roared for over a year now. And Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public spotlight. We all have firmly baked opinions about her.

Perhaps to stir up some excitement, the press is agog about tightening polls showing Hillary Clinton’s lead dropping. It’s still a rare poll that shows her numbers below Trump’s, at least nationally but polls are generally showing her numbers moving to within margin of error numbers. It’s clear that large majorities of Americans don’t particularly like either Clinton or Trump and wants someone else to vote for. Unsurprisingly some are looking at third party candidates instead: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Those voters who follow through seem to want to make a statement.

And they will make a statement if they don’t mind shooting themselves in the foot. This happened to me in 1980 when I voted for John Anderson for president. I hate to say our electoral system is rigged but when it comes to the presidential vote it certain is and it’s by design. This is because an Electoral College actually votes a president into office and because 48 of the fifty states have laws that whichever candidate wins a plurality of the votes in the presidential race gets all of the state’s electoral delegates.

This means the system is rigged so as to make it virtually impossible for any candidate not in a major party to win. But it also means that if you are voting third party, you are throwing away your vote. The only exception is if your third party candidate wins a plurality of the votes in your state. And while that may garner some electoral votes for your third party candidate, a whole lot of other states have to do the same for your candidate to actually win. In short, you have to bet that both the Democratic and Republican party candidates are so dysfunctional that a wholesale national voting rebellion is going to happen, something that has never happened in our country as best I can tell and probably can’t happen now in our polarized political environment.

In practical terms, this means to a Massachusetts resident like me that if I would have otherwise voted for Hillary Clinton and I vote for Jill Stein instead, I am effectively voting for Donald Trump since it will bump up his share of the votes as a percent of the state’s votes. And if I am a non-racist Alabaman that normally votes Republican but I am so disgusted by Trump’s racism that I vote for Gary Johnson instead, I am helping elect Hillary Clinton.

In my case in 1980 as a 23-year-old voting for third party candidate John Anderson, I was effectively voting for Ronald Reagan, the last candidate I would have voted for. Fortunately in the blue-state of Maryland, it didn’t matter as Maryland’s electoral votes went for Jimmy Carter. Nationwide though John Anderson took 6.6% of the popular vote. Conceivably had Anderson not run and those votes had gone to Carter instead (as research suggests) then that election would at least have been a lot closer. Carter lost by nearly 10% of the popular vote but where it matters, he received only 49 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Reagan’s election was a landslide by any standards, thanks probably to John Anderson’s spoiler effect. As bad as that was the 1984 election was worse. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes (his home state of Minnesota and Washington D.C.) Reagan got the rest (525) and that was with no serious third party opposition. For a more recent event that shows the folly of voting third party, look at the 2000 election. Had the Green Party votes in Florida gone to Al Gore, there would have been no President George W. Bush.

Trump is right that the presidential voting system is rigged, but it’s always been that way. The Electoral College mess was designed by our founding fathers to get a commitment from southern states at the time the constitution was ratified. Without it, southern states would have probably never been able to elect a president. With slaves counting as 2/3 of a free person for a state’s share of electoral votes, with a few exceptions (like John Adams) for decades it made it virtually impossible for a non-southerner to become president.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you not to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. If still not convinced, consider that the Green Party and Libertarian Party are minority parties because their views are simply not mainstream views. I find a lot to admire about the Green Party but it’s a party of ideologues, not a party of pragmatists. For example, GMO foods are not going away and it’s folly at this time to try. Libertarians are easy to dismiss because it is wholly unworkable. Imagine selling all our roads, sewers and schools. Imagine no laws against pollution. It would be an unmanageable nightmare.

Which leaves you dear voter ultimately holding your nose while you vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (I realize there are some voters, particularly Trump voters who are actually enthusiastic about their candidate. Weird.) The other option is not to vote, but not voting is effectively the same as voting third party. You will effectively give more power to those that do vote.

So suck it up for democracy. Democracy ain’t pretty sometimes and it won’t be in this election. However, you have a duty to perform so do it mindful that the system is not perfect and your candidate won’t be either. If you really want the Green or Libertarian parties to grow, you have to do it the hard way by getting local and state candidates elected. With enough of them they may become a majority party in your state. Then you will have leverage, at least on the state level. Or you can work for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College and make it based on actual votes.

Oh, and those polls? I’m still not worried. I think Clinton is still going to win based on state polls, which are the only ones that matter. With a majority of Americans saying they will never vote for Trump, the only way that Trump wins is if a lot of those voters stay home or vote third party instead of voting for Hillary. It’s unlikely but it can happen, and it could happen this year if you don’t vote with the left side of your brain instead of the right side.

I’ll be using the left side and voting for the imperfect Hillary Clinton.

Bernie supporters: vote with your head, not your heart

It’s not much fun when you go from feeling the Bern to feeling the burn. Burns hurt!

I have supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign with actual money and some non-monetary contributions. I voted for him on Super Tuesday. I like his ideas and I liked that he truly energized people and Democrats who were not very engaged in the political process.

Radical change is not easy but as eight years of an Obama administration it’s also true that incremental change is not easy either. These days real change can happen but only when you have a supermajority in Congress and your party controls the White House. In Obama’s case it lasted just two years, but even Obamacare (on which Obama stayed largely detached) was a patchwork compromise, with centrist Democrats pulling a public option out and barely holding together long enough to pass the darn thing. With Hillary Clinton tacitly acknowledging she will have to compromise with Republicans to get things done, her incremental approach is a hard sell. There is no sign that a Republican congress will be anymore cooperative with her than they were with Obama.

Not surprisingly I bet on Sanders but Sanders too is a politician and has an ego. And it’s clear he won’t quite let go of the fact that he won’t win the party’s nomination. And his supporters are fighting – literally – for their candidate. Perhaps you saw online the ruckus at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention where his supporters shouted down opponents and threatened to send chairs hurling at those controlling the meeting. Bear in mind that Hillary Clinton won Nevada, not just its congressional districts but in actual vote tallies. She was entitled to a majority of the delegates. Were Nevada Democratic Party officials a bit tone deaf to the Sanders people? Perhaps. Still, the passion of Sanders supporters crossed a line at the convention. It was disturbing. Naturally I expected the principled Bernie Sanders to call his supporters to task, which he did weakly while complaining their cause was just and that his leadership team had nothing to do with the matter.

This was a souring moment for me. Bernie has been about principles and waging a good fight, but apparently when push literally came to shove, actual fighting is more important than principles. The sorts of actions he and his team are taking are worrisome to say the least. They are trying to convince super-delegates supporting Clinton to support Sanders instead. They have the right to do so, but gently. Supporters though are feeling the Bern by expressing anger and using a combination of harassment and bullying to twist arms, something only Donald Trump could admire. Doing so violates the principles Sanders was campaigning on: democratic socialism; it has to be done democratically. If you come to a convention with fewer pledged delegate than your opponent (Clinton) you can’t credibly make the case that you represent a majority of the Democratic Party. It makes no sense. And Sanders will almost certainly end up in the minority, since he needs more than two thirds of the remaining pledged delegates to win that majority, in spite of a narrow loss in Kentucky and a clear win in Oregon Tuesday night.

What Bernie has accomplished is amazing, but not quite enough. It’s an unpleasant fact, but that’s how it is. More disturbing is how his supporters can’t seem to accept reality and move on. I have a friend who refuses to vote for Hillary if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination. What a stupid and counterproductive thing to do!

I speak from experience because I too once felt not quite the Bern, but the Anderson: John B. Anderson, an independent that ran against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Like Sanders, Anderson was right on the issues. Voting for him though was like shooting myself in the foot: I took votes away from Jimmy Carter that put Reagan in for two terms and all the wreckage that followed.

So when the 2000 election came around I was wiser and voted for Al Gore instead. Gore won a majority of votes cast, but lost to George W. Bush in Florida, at least according to some based on trying to read the intent of voters who used punch card ballots. Of course that case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately decided it. But it was the good super-liberals voting for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader that really tipped the scales in Florida. As a result Bush won and we got embroiled in a pointless war in Iraq, which has morphed into all sorts of conflicts, including the creation of the Islamic State. All because some people that normally vote Democratic would not. They went with their hearts, not their heads.

Clearly our system of electing presidents is poor. If I had my way we’d have a parliamentary form of government, not the mess we have now with party primaries and caucuses and an electoral college. But we have to work with the system we got, which means that in most elections we voters must put pragmatism over principle. The 2008 election was something of an aberration because we didn’t have to do that. In 2016, we need to go back to the old model.

To every Sanders supporter out there I say simply this: if you don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, refrain from voting or worst of all vote for Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, you are making a catastrophically bad mistake, similar to but actually much worse than the one I made in 1980. Trust me, Trump is much worse than Reagan ever was. Don’t be stupid. It may not be natural, but take your enthusiasm and use it to get Hillary Clinton elected instead. She’s hardly the evil person you think she is. It’s also absolutely critical. Trump cannot and must not be president of the United States and if it happens by narrow margins you will have only yourselves to blame.

The hard road ahead

In 1980 at the tender age 23, I voted for John B. Anderson for President. Anderson was an independent candidate. Anderson was full of great ideas that were politically non-starters. One of his ideas was to increase the federal gasoline taxes by fifty cents per gallon. This was at a time when you could buy a gallon of gasoline for under a dollar a gallon. His rationalization was that the tax would serve three purposes: reduce our dependence on foreign oil (we had already been through two oil shocks during the 1970s), give us incentive to practice conservation and provide the funds needed to achieve energy independence. This great idea killed his campaign. He started his campaign at above 25% support in polls and ended up with 7% of the vote.

John B. Anderson, Independent for President in 1980

In one of life’s little ironies, just a month after the tragic events of September 11th, John Anderson showed up at my church and gave a talk. (See picture.) He was then about to retire as president of the World Federalist Society (now Citizens for Global Solutions). There was time for questions and answers after his lecture. I went to the podium, looked him in the eye and told him I proudly voted for him in 1980. I mentioned his gas tax proposal and opined that events had sure proven him right. Had we taken the unpopular steps he suggested in 1980 and imposed on ourselves a fifty cent a gallon gasoline tax, the events of September 11th likely could have been avoided. It was President Reagan after all who strategically aligned us with Saudi Arabia, providing a compact of military arms for a dictatorial state for the assurance of low oil prices. It was our support of this oppressive state that provided the animus for Osama bin Laden, a citizen of Saudi Arabia to target the United States on September 11th. If only we had the courage to follow through on Anderson’s courageous idea, three thousand Americans who died that day would still be alive and we might also be energy independent today.

Change is never fun and serious change is usually resisted. Those who embrace inevitable changes though often end up ahead in the end. Why has the Euro been doing so well while the U.S. dollar has been in the toilet? It is because in Europe they were prepared for a changing world. Gasoline has been highly taxed for decades in Europe specifically to discourage the automobile and to encourage public transportation. If you have been to Western Europe, you know that it has phenomenal public transportation. Right now, Europe is also leading the way on global climate change. Among many initiatives, it is markedly reducing its carbon footprint through fuel efficiency standards in place today that we will not have in ten years. Not surprisingly, the European economy is doing rather well in shaky economic times. Its currency is so valuable because Europe as it is configured and managed is very well matched for our changing times.

What has the United States done? It would be polite to say we have been dragging our feet. In reality, we have largely ignored the environment and concentrated on glorious selfishness instead. We started an unnecessary and foolish war in Iraq that is bankrupting us. We have pretended to care about global climate change while doing almost nothing to address it. We have blithely ignored the consequences of our increased oil dependency. Public transportation, which is still inadequately funded, remains focused on highways and bridges. We have thrown mostly chump change at mass transit solutions.

It’s karmic payback time. In the years to come, we are going to get sticker shock at the cost of having ignoring these problems for so many decades. We may come to resemble Haiti in the sense that we will ask our leaders to deliver the impossible: address climate change, keep our taxes low but not allow our standard of living to change. If the 1980 election is any guide, when we discover our current leader cannot do it, we will elect someone else who will claim they can, but who will also fail.

Whether we like it or not, the times, they are a changing. We can choose to adapt to this new reality or, more likely, continue to try to have the same selfish lifestyle we always have had and take half measures. However, more of the same will only result in additional unnecessary pain. It is time to acknowledge that our future lives will be markedly more downscale than our current lives are. This transition is unlikely to be much fun. As a nation, we are in the initial phase of an extended high colonic.

Here are some likely outcomes that I see. Traditionally, the cost of living out in the country has been cheap. That is going to change. Life in the country may become a privilege for the rich. To live in the country you will have to pay the freight: ever-higher gas prices. As those living further out feel the gas squeeze, they will naturally choose to live closer in. By doing so, they will be less affected by the cost of oil. They will also be closer to jobs. By living closer in, they will have access to public transportation so they can get by with one or no cars. This will allow them to have a comparatively higher standard of living and more job security than if they live in the country or in a far-flung exurb.

This will work for a while. Of course, economic factors will make most who do not live around a city also want to move in closer too. This means land prices will rise the closer you are to urban areas. Which means the cost of living will go up around cities too. You will feel damned either way. As I suggested in a recent post, people watching these mega-trends are already making the smart choices. They are moving in now while housing prices and interest rates are down. Their houses are going to be smaller than they envisioned, but they will gladly pay this price for convenient access to jobs and transportation.

Energy costs will continue to rise, which will drive everything toward energy efficiency. Energy efficiency though will not come cheap. New houses will probably need more than just better insulation and highly energy efficient windows. They will need solar panels on the roof. It will be built into the building codes. Houses will be required to be built with LEED Silver or better standards. This will raise the cost of housing making it that much harder to afford to buy a house in the first place. Older houses are probably too hard to retrofit to be LEED compliant. Eventually they will become too expensive to inhabit, so they will have to be replaced with energy efficient houses. More likely, they will be replaced with condos and apartment communities. Demand will require it.

We will require readily accessible public transportation. This will mean heavy rail, light rail, trains, buses and bike trails everywhere and maybe even the return of trolleys. This cannot be done for free. It will require substantial tax increases. In short, we are all going to feel very squeezed which will have the consequence of us having lifestyles that will seem markedly poorer than our parents. We will probably resent this new reality.

What I have outlined is something of a best case. What actually happens is likely to be quite different and probably worse. Certain trends like people migrating from far-flung areas to closer in areas are inevitable. Most likely, we will try incentives like tax credits to ease the pain. Yet tax credits still have to be paid from somewhere. In short, to reinvent society takes incredible amounts of money. We will pay it one-way or the other. It can be intelligently accomplished through taxes and careful planning, or unintelligently through reaction to market forces. It is a road that we will have no choice but to traverse. However, we do have a choice on how painful it will be. As with most things, the sooner you start and the more intelligently it is accomplished, the less painful it will probably be.

I suspect that if a candidate today proposed a fifty cent a gallon tax on gasoline, he would get the same response at the voting booth that John Anderson received in 1980. Unfortunately, because we have dragged our feet for thirty years, the cost of procrastination has gone up dramatically.

So get ready. Our economic foundations are starting a seismic shift that will affect every one of us. Are you going to work with these natural forces? Or are you going to resist them? We all need to realize that to adjust to these new realities will require extraordinary sacrifice, akin to what our parents went through during World War II, but unfortunately lasting much longer. Over the next fifty years, we will have to reinvent ourselves as a society and as a world. I hope that this time we find the determination to do it intelligently. If government of the people, by the people and for the people is not to perish, we the people are going to have to come to terms with these costly changes that are already unfolding all around us.