The political chattering classes are beside themselves with excitement and terror as the Virginia governor’s race, being massively overhyped as a 2022 or even a 2024 bellwether, nears its finish line on November 2. All the late polls are showing a very close contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. And accordingly, there is fresh attention being paid to the third candidate on the ballot, Princess Blanding of the Liberation Party. As one pollster put it: “In this virtual tie, third-party candidate Princess Blanding’s 1% share of the vote looms larger.” Blanding is Black, identifies as LGBTQ, and well left of center. So naturally, it’s assumed she may be hurting McAuliffe, who may need every left-of-center voter available.
In politics there are few things that lend themselves more to dubious interpretations than very close elections. If results show a tiny margin of victory, there are always multiple what-ifs that might have tilted them in a different direction. But the desire to find a silver bullet is strong, and minor-party or independent candidates like Blanding often wind up being blamed for peeling off voters who might have otherwise gone for the major-party candidate who fell just short.
This idea ran wild in the 2000 presidential election when a lot of Democrats blamed Green Party nominee Ralph Nader for throwing the election to George W. Bush — or to be more precise, for putting Bush in a position where the U.S. Supreme Court could award him the presidency by stopping Florida’s recount. But multiple minor candidates, including some far to the left of Nader, like those representing the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers World Party, also got more votes in Florida than Bush’s margin over Gore. Were they all to blame? Was it a conspiracy? That way lies madness.
The truth is, it’s always difficult to say whether minor-party voters would have backed someone else or skipped the race entirely if their options were limited to the two major-party candidates. But that won’t protect Princess Blanding from blame if Youngkin edges out McAuliffe. She’ll likely face accusations that she is a spoiler candidate or even a secret (or unconscious) Youngkin ally, though a look at her background makes it clear that’s wrong and unfair.
Blanding got into politics by way of protesting her brother’s shooting death at the hands of the Richmond police in 2018; he was a schoolteacher experiencing a mental-health crisis. The candidate advocates a “defund the police” platform most Democratic candidates flee from, along with a ban on police unions. She also calls for state-funded reparations for Black Virginians, legalization of sex work, a ban on for-profit medicine, public takeover of vacant “corporate-owned” real estate, and an overhaul of “K-12 curricula to reflect the centrality of Black and Indigenous history and culture.” Blanding is not just a leftier version of Terry McAuliffe; she represents an entirely different point of view, one that quite plausibly one to two percent of Virginians share. She was excluded from the two major-candidate debates (moderator Chuck Todd had security throw her out of the room at the second one when she vocally protested her exclusion); but she’s on the ballot legitimately and shouldn’t just be treated as having stolen some of McAuliffe’s vote.
If McAuliffe loses by an eyelash, there are plenty of other factors that might better explain it, ranging from Glenn Youngkin’s wealth and relationship with Donald Trump, to the usual off-year election backlash against the party controlling the White House (which at least partially explained every Virginia gubernatorial election from 1973 until 2013). And if Democrats fall short in mobilizing Black voters, perhaps they should have spent some more time talking to the first Black governor in U.S. history, Doug Wilder, a perpetual gadfly who recently scorned his old party for inadequately funding HBCUs and taking Black voters for granted.
The real solution to “spoiler” candidates, of course, is ranked-choice voting, which allows voters themselves to verify or rebut the assumption they “should” support a particular major-party candidate. Barring that, Democrats and Republicans in close races should look in the mirror if they need someone to blame for a loss.