Americans Elect, the third-party group that is acquiring ballot access for next November, is prompting cries of alarm from Democrats, who think it will divide the center-left vote and help elect a GOP President. There’s an intuitive logic here, as the ideology of the group much more closely mirrors that of President Obama than the GOP.
But I actually think it’s more likely to help Obama.
If you look at Mitt Romney’s conception of the median voter, as expressed by the themes of his general election-oriented campaign message (which he may now be shelving, but never mind), it’s a voter who disapproves of Obama solely because of the state of the economy yet has no desire at all to put Republicans back in charge. That’s why Romney has spent months crafting a completely vague stump speech about how Obama is a nice guy who has failed, and Romney understands the real economy, largely eliding the ideological stakes of the election. Obama’s lack of support is solely the result of economic conditions – he continues to be popular in comparison with the still-discredited Republican alternative.
Obama retains the loyalty of a fairly strong base of voters, especially minorities, that gets him pretty close to 50 percent. I suspect that third party would tend to peel off low-information voters who want a change but remain deeply suspicious of the Republicans. They might be persuaded to vote Republican in a two-way choice simply because they’re more focused on their anger at the incumbent president, but they would jump at a choice to vote against the incumbent without having to go in with the GOP.
Whatever its impact on Obama, I think Americans Elect is bad for democracy. We have a winner-take-all system that tends to create two parties. I hate it. I would love to reform the system in order to make influential third parties possible. But without reforming the system, third parties can badly distort election outcomes. The main impact of a third party candidacy is to harm the larger of the two parties that most closely agrees with you. The result is to increase the chances of a candidate who represents a minority faction winning. Left-of-center candidates won a majority of the vote in 2000, but right-wing George W. Bush won 100 percent of the power, in part because Ralph Nader split that left-of-center vote. I consider that a procedural injustice and not just an outcome I didn’t like. Groups that don’t like the two-party system should be working to change it rather than make it work even worse than it already does.