I wanted to save writing a post about protest voting and single-issue voting until closer to the general election. In case I have any tiny influence with the people reading this blog, it would be better to read this argument in the immediate run-up to the general election rather than a year out when nary a primary vote has been cast. But sometimes you read something so stupid that you want to rebut it as quickly as possible, before it has a chance to become unchallenged received wisdom.
The argument is not so relevant to primary contest voting, though in rare circumstances it can be. The argument is better suited to the general election, when the country is going to have two choices, Republican or Democrat, and any third choice will have the power to spoil the election for one of the two major parties but will certainly not get near the presidency himself or herself. The argument is simple: figure out which major party you prefer and vote for its candidates; otherwise, you have wasted your vote, or worse you have flipped the election to the party you like less.
This argument comes from shame and love; shame for my vote for Ralph Nader in 2000, and love for the country that unfortunately has a political system in which only two major parties can exist.
The piece prompting this post – “10 Reasons I’m Only Voting for Bernie Sanders and Will Not Support Hillary Clinton” – popped up in my Google News feed this morning. The author, H.A. Goodman, is a bit cheeky in that he never comes right out and says he won’t vote for Clinton under any circumstances, but that seems to be what he’s getting at, especially since he writes that he “will not vote for Hillary Clinton or Trump,” like those two are similarly bad choices in some way. If Goodman had stopped at making a case for Sanders over Clinton in the primaries, fine, no harm done. By conflating Clinton and Trump, however, he buys into one of the myths about American politics that cause people to be ill-informed and to vote against their own interests.
Goodman is guilty of promoting two myths in his piece. First, the idea that there is no difference between Hillary Clinton or a Republican in the general election contest for president is so asinine, it makes you wonder if the author is just trolling. The second myth he buys into, that a significant proportion of American voters are “independent,” calls into question whether or not Goodman is at all familiar with the actual voting tendencies of the American public. As political science has shown again and again, “independent” voters are in fact overwhelmingly attached to one party or the other. They just get off on calling themselves “independent.”
In spite of these huge errors in analysis, Goodman makes several good points in his piece about how some of the general survey data about Clinton, like how many people like her or find her trustworthy, are alarming. He also makes a believable case for why Sanders can win the general election. Too many Clinton supporters are dismissing Sanders because they believe he can’t win the general election. It is not clear at all that Sanders would disappoint Democrats in a general election.
Whether Goodman is trolling or not, the danger of his piece is that it conflates the two major political parties and threatens to depress primary voters whose preferred candidate does not win the nomination. If you think Clinton is no better than Trump or any other Republican, why would you bother to go out and vote if she’s the nominee? If you’re a Clinton supporter, why would you work to elect Sanders if he’s the nominee after his supporters spent eight months trashing your candidate as no better than a Republican? Of course, voters who prefer the Democratic Party ought to put aside their differences and rally around whoever is the general election candidate. Which brings us to the 2000 election and protest voting and single-issue voting.
In 2000, I was living, attending school, working, and paying taxes in Virginia, so I changed my voter registration to that state. At the time, Virginia was a solidly Republican state, so naive 20-year-old Steve talked himself into voting for Ralph Nader as a protest vote. After all, Nader and his supporters had told me there was no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties! And since Bush was going to win Virginia anyway, why not register my disgust with the system? That’ll show them!
Democracy is a funny thing. Voting in a large country like the US is a dumb, statistically insignificant thing to do until it’s not. Famously, Al Gore lost the 2000 election thanks to falling 537 votes shy in Florida, while Nader received 97,488 votes there. Members of the Florida Nader coalition had a statistically more significant opportunity to affect the outcome of that election, and had 538 of them switched their vote from Nader to Gore, well, tell me again how there was no difference between Gore and Bush. While my protest vote ultimately didn’t matter in Virginia, I regret it to this day.
Single-issue voting is similarly counterproductive to a preferred electoral outcome when it comes to the general election. Single-issue voting has its place in primary contests, where a party’s base of support has its opportunity to hash out the direction of the party.
In a general election, any given candidate’s basket of positions needs to be evaluated in aggregate. Of course, a voter may give added weight to certain issues, which helps explain why I liked Barack Obama better than Clinton in the 2008 primaries because of foreign policy while I still would have preferred Clinton to any Republican in the general election. America’s two major parties (and there are only two for a reason! it’s not THE MAN trying to keep us down!) now stand for completely different agendas, and it’s a voter’s duty to figure out which one he or she shares. The Democratic primaries appear to be getting ugly, and ultimately, Sanders and Clinton partisans need to remember that it’s the party, much less than the person, that they are voting to empower.