Seems like every four years we talk about the possible effect of third party candidates on various races. Usually, it’s in the context of legislative races, where some candidates have won with less than 50% in recent years and one could make a case that the presence of a (usually) Libertarian candidate might have had an effect on the outcome. The subject came up for the Governor’s race a little while back, and I’m here to tamp down on any irrational exuberance.
Don’t forget 1990.
That was the year a third-party candidate made a potentially game-changing difference in the Texas governor’s race, drawing slightly more than the number of votes separating Democratic winner Ann Richards from Republican Clayton Williams.
And while third-party gubernatorial candidates did not participate in Friday’s debate between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, they could help decide who will be the next governor of Texas.
“Third-party candidates can mean a big difference in close elections,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Third parties can rarely win. Generally, [they] play a spoiler role.”
Observers say this year’s Nov. 4 general election could provide a number of close races where a third-party candidate might change the entire dynamics of a race.
“In these contests there exists the possibility that were one or more third-party candidates not on the ballot … the outcome of the election would [be] different,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Political analysts say third-party candidates could make a difference in the governor’s race.
Abbott, the state’s attorney general and GOP nominee, squares off against Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth and Democratic nominee. Libertarian Kathie Glass and Green Party candidate Brandon Parmer are in the race as well.
If the race tightens up, Glass and Parmer combined could draw as little as 4 percent of the vote and impact the result.
“That could mean the difference in a very close election,” Saxe said.
After all, in 1990, Richards won by claiming 99,239 more votes than Williams, and Libertarian Jeff Daiell earned 129,128 votes.
“Overall, the principal impact of the Libertarian Party and Green Party candidates this fall will be to provide voters with a different perspective on how to address many of the key challenges facing the state today,” Jones said.
A key example, he said, is Glass, “who is far and away running the most visible and vibrant campaign of any third-party candidate in Texas.”
I will admit, I saw the Kathie Glass Bus on the side of the road as we were heading back from Austin on 290 a couple of weeks ago. I was tempted to take a picture of it, but I was driving at the time, and I didn’t think Tiffany would have appreciated me hauling out my cellphone at that moment. Maybe some other time. In any event, I will admit that as far as that goes, Glass’ campaign has been more visible than some other Libertarian campaigns of recent years.
Nonetheless, I’m going to play spoiler as well. Here’s a compilation of all third-party candidate performances in Texas gubernatorial races since 1990. See if you can spot the problem.
Year Lib Green Other Total Win % ======================================== 1990 3.32 0 0.30 3.62 48.19 1994 0.64 0 0 0.64 49.68 1998 0.55 0 0.02 0.57 49.72 2002 1.46 0.70 0.05 2.21 48.90 2006 0.60 0 0.01 0.61 49.69 2010 2.19 0.39 0.14 2.72 48.64
Notice how in none of these six elections how the combined Lib and Green (and write-in, which is what the Other above represents) total has reached four percent? In fact, outside of 1990, it’s never reached three percent? This could be the year that it happens – the Kathie Glass Bus is quite impressive, after all – but if you’re going to write this story, you ought to acknowledge the history. Don’t get our hopes up without justification.
It’s my opinion from looking at as many election results as I’ve seen over the years that the higher the profile the race, the lower the ceiling for third party candidates, our wacky 2006 Governor’s race excepted. Honestly, outside of the hardest of the hardcore political junkies and members of the third parties themselves, I doubt more than a handful of people even know who the L and G nominees are. With all due respect to Kathie Glass and her bus, the people that will be voting for her are basically the people that always vote Libertarian and the people that for whatever the reason didn’t like the nominee from the party that they tend to vote for no matter how much they protest their “independence”. Frankly, if the base party vote is reasonably close to even overall – which at this point I don’t think is likely, but I could be wrong – the place where an L and/or G candidate could affect the outcome is down ballot. I went through this exercise before, to show that one doesn’t need to get 50% of the vote to win most statewide races in Texas due to the presence of other candidates, and as you can see the higher totals for third party candidates tend to be in the lower profile races. I’m not saying that Kathie Glass and Brandon Parmer can’t have an effect on the outcome of the Governor’s race. I am saying that if I had to pick one race where there might be an effect, I’d probably pick Railroad Commissioner or Supreme Court justice. I promise to look at this again after the election.