The Wasted Vote Syndrome


Libertarians who engage in electoral politics, either with the Libertarian Party or as Democrats or Republicans, are invariably confronted with the question: you know you don't have a chance to win, so why are you running? Every libertarian candidate has heard it hundreds of times. For example, Ron Paul recently appeared as a guest on The View, a popular morning gabfest/interview show. One of the hosts, Joy Behar, led off with exactly that question, about like this: "Well, we all know, including you, that there is no chance you will win, right?" Ron handled it masterfully, pointing out the great success and growth of his campaign so far, his record-setting fundraising, his steady rise in polls, and, if this progress continues, the substantial likelihood that he will move to the front of the pack.

As the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1984, I answered the question this way: "If everyone who is fed up with what the Democrats and Republicans have been doing to them for the past several decades were to vote for me, I would win in a landslide." That was a true statement, even back in 1984, but it was surely unrealistic for anyone to think, at that point in history, that large numbers of votes would actually come my way. They didn't. Today, we can be much more confident that a huge portion of the fed-up electorate will realize what's good for the country and act on it by voting for Ron Paul.

What's up with this maddening repetition of what is clearly an insulting put-down? I think it is the entertainment (including "news") media trying to morph a political discussion into their comfort zone, i.e., entertainment. First we will establish that you are not a viable candidate, so serious political discussion is not necessary. Once that's done, we can move quickly into frivolity, such as discussing your looniest supporters and the positions you take (e.g., abolishing the IRS) that "everybody knows" could only be held by a madman. So much more entertaining than giving the candidate the opportunity to explain his positions on real political issues. A more cynical explanation is that the media questioners see it as a way to undermine and discourage libertarian challengers to the political establishment before they can make any real headway. That probably gives the bobble-heads too much credit for tactical sophistication.

The "you know you can't win" premise lays the groundwork for perhaps the most significant psychological obstacle to libertarian electoral success: the wasted vote issue. That issue is always there, even if not brought up explicitly.

Every Libertarian, or other "third party" candidate, has had to confront this obstacle. "He (or she) has no chance to win, so I would be throwing away my vote if I cast it for him (or her)." This is a remarkably illogical and counterproductive way to look at elections, but it is also remarkably prevalent. It is quite likely that Ron Paul supporters have been challenged with exactly this assertion. "Ron Paul has no chance, why waste my vote on him?" How might supporters respond?

First, some caveats. Don't argue. An old adage from sales experts goes: Win the argument; lose the sale. No one wants to feel like a loser, and arguments have winners and losers. The objective is not to win arguments; it is to help others see the benefit (to them) of supporting Ron Paul's candidacy with at least a vote. Second, don't tell people that their thinking on this issue is flawed or ignorant. Most people do not respond favorably to what they perceive as insults to their intelligence. Isn't that amazing!

Questions are effective tools for dealing with the "wasted vote" syndrome. By posing questions one subtly transfers the burden of proof. Rather than having to persuade someone with traditional, formal argument that his vote will not be wasted, his answers to well-crafted questions will contain the arguments that lead to the desired conclusion. Here are some questions that might help. Try to imagine how people you know might answer them.

What would you say is the purpose of voting?

When you cast your vote, what is your objective, what are you trying to achieve?

How likely is it that your one vote, among millions, will determine the outcome of the election? (Hmm. So is every vote "wasted?")

If you like a particular candidate, such as Ron Paul, why isn't it wasting your vote to give it to a different candidate?

Do you think it's important to understand what the different candidates stand for on the important issues, like the war in Iraq, taxes, foreign policy, etc., before deciding which candidate to support?

If you know the different candidates' positions on the issues, which one do you agree with most?

If you were to vote for the candidate you agree with most, would that be wasting your vote?

When posing such questions (and you can no doubt come up with many more) it should be done with respectful attention. Ask the question and shut up. Don't argue with the answers. You actually might learn something by listening to what your partner in the discussion has to say. I know I have. Assuredly, your partner will be much more likely to accept the conclusions he reaches if he works his way to them in response to your questions rather than by reacting to argumentative challenges.

It has been observed by many that Ron Paul is a powerful messenger for liberty. His respectful demeanor, his depth of knowledge, his approachability, and his obvious strength of character make him irresistibly likeable. Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to introduce Ron and his libertarian philosophy to those as yet unaware of the many great benefits of liberty and a Paul presidency. Do so by showing respect to all with whom you discuss these matters. Don't argue or denigrate. Let yourself be a positive personal example of libertarians, libertarianism, and what liberty has to offer. The future of Western Civilization just might depend on how well you do the job. (OK. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but worth thinking about.)

December 10, 2007