No-hope candidates


in Politics

Elections bring up the interesting question of the psychology of no-hope parties and candidates. When they choose to run in areas where there is a real contest between two other candidates with differing views, they generally risk harming whichever candidate has views most similar to their own.

Perhaps the most dramatic example ongoing is Ralph Nader’s campaign in Pennsylvania. It is difficult to understand why he would choose to run there, and perhaps even more difficult to understand why people would choose to vote for him. Doing so can only increase the probability of an outcome these people would probably find less preferable (it is difficult to imagine someone who prefers Nader to Obama finding McCain more attractive than Obama). It definitely challenges the notion that the aim of voting is to rationally advance whatever program of government you would most like to see implemented.

I suppose saying “don’t run serious candidates until you are popular enough to win” is a strategy that would forever prevent the emergence of new parties. In a sense, it is a bit like the strategy of not negotiating with kidnappers: it may contribute to a bad outcome in a specific instance, but establishes a more desirable long-term pattern.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah September 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

I can imagine that someone with significant racial biases might have a first preference for Nader, second preference for McCain, & rate Obama third. Indeed, there is an indication that Nader is angling for these voters, as evidenced by his bizarre attack on Obama regarding race .
As for why he chooses to run, I think we must presume that Nader isn’t concerned that encouraging people to vote for him may cost the Democrats victory, nor that his past actions have likely had that effect. Criticising his stance doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t run unless one expects to win, but it might mean that one shouldn’t tun unless one can reasonably expect to shift the nature of the debate and subsequent policies in one’s desired direction (eg. the Greens).

Anon September 10, 2008 at 8:05 pm

To those intending to vote for Nader in Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania:

For once in your lives, please show a splash of pragmatism!

tristan September 10, 2008 at 11:19 pm

Political parties are essentially undemocratic. Rational government requires their elimination. All partisanship contributes to addressing and responding to particular (re:swing) groups, rather than doing what is in fact best for the state at large.

Milan September 11, 2008 at 12:35 am


This has nothing to do with political parties, per se. It is equally valid in a situation (say, the election of a grade 4 class president) where only the identities of those running are at issue.

As long as there are comprehensible differences in policy, those who espouse policies akin to those of a candidate with a chance of winning will generally reduce the chances of the plausible candidate winning, simply by virtue of being candidates.

Tim September 11, 2008 at 1:01 am

In a marketplace of ideas distressingly devoid of original thought, I particularly appreciate third party candidates.

Your last paragraph is quite apt. A world in which only those candidates with a hope of running participated is far less desireable than the (Canadian) status quo. Nader is indeed the exception that proves the rule; the state of the U.S. body politic is wretched, and I attribute most of it to the artificial consensus brought on by the two-party status quo.

Further, when only those with a chance of winning are involved in politics, those groups in that privileged position have a strong incentive to shut out dissenting groups. This stifles debate in a big way; see the U.S. and its equal times rules, for instance.

Indeed, votes siphoned to Nader in Florida in 2000 are as much a reflection of Al Gore as they are of Nader. Clearly, Gore’s ideas didn’t appeal to Nader Raiders in a significant way; he failed to adapt to the marketplace, failed to offer something worth consuming, so they didn’t vote. You can bet that the Democrats have learned that lesson, and thus their politics have been shaped by the fact that there was a “no-hope” candidate.

Or something like that. I’m really tired.

Tristan September 11, 2008 at 7:20 am

“This has nothing to do with political parties,”

Do you honestly believe that the American political system would have produced a 2 horse race in the presidential runnings by this time if there were no political parties? Do you actually think that the status of “no hope candidates” isn’t directly related to the strength of the parties that back them? Do you really think that without the structure of political parties, virtually unknown candidates could garner the kind of advantage Obama and Mccain have over other presidential runners?

Milan September 11, 2008 at 9:01 am


I simply meant that I was talking about a phenomenon more general than political parties. I was not asserting that the existence and nature of parties does not alter the dynamics of elections.

Tristan September 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm


it’s unclear whether or not any Candidates could be both worthwhile enough to steal votes from other plausible candidates and a “no hope” candidate in the absence of parties. This might happen in cases where, in the absent of parties, the incumbant had a main rival with a history of politics who expressed different views, and many upstart rivals who expressed similar views but were critical of the incumbant for the standard things people are critical of incumbants for (corruption mostly). In this case you could say the upstarts are stealing votes from the incumbants, but its clear that they play an essential role, and unclear whether its possible for them to be “no hope” candidates, presumably a very good debate appearence could make them a “hope” candidate.

Milan September 11, 2008 at 3:17 pm

If anything, I would expect the absense of parties to worsen the chances of candidates outside the mainstream. Relatively few people engage in politics to an extent where they are likely to watch debates. As such, I would guess that elections without parties would be even more about name recognition than elections with them.

Also, as it stands, a vote for the Green Party sends a decent signal about your political priorities. A vote for someone who espouses green issues (but is totally unknown in other parts of the country) doesn’t do so to the same extent.

Milan September 11, 2008 at 3:22 pm

it’s unclear whether or not any Candidates could be both worthwhile enough to steal votes from other plausible candidates and a “no hope” candidate in the absence of parties.

I disagree with this. Simplifying the situation for clarity, let’s say the only difference between candidates is the degree to which they are ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing.’ Say that being 100% left-wing corresponds to a score of -10 and being 100% right-wing corresponds to +10.

The presence of a candidate at -8 or +8 espousing the same beliefs as a candidate at -4 or +4 will probably draw some votes away from the more centrist option. If the difference between the +4 and -4 option is only 15-20% of the vote, having 10-20% of people vote for the +8 or -8 option could decide which of the +4 or -4 options actually wins.

This really has nothing to do with parties or debate performance. It’s just a question of splitting the vote.

On a macro scale in Canada, just look at how the success of ‘uniting the right’ has changed things. Now, relatively left-leaning voters are likely to be split between NDP, Bloc, Green, and Liberal candidates. Add up all those votes, and you probably have enough to beat the Conservative candidate in almost any riding.

tristan September 11, 2008 at 5:19 pm

In politics outside political parties, I doubt very much that simply “right wing” or “left wing” would be close to the only considerations in Candidate choice. This is a massive simplification of the political process, which is itself something produced by the status quo-ness of the two party state which we basically live under (no one seriously considers the possibility of the bloc or NDP forming government).

BuddyRich September 11, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Although I agree with you that partisian is essentially undemocratic, what Milan is refering to has more to do with the FPTP electoral system and game theory than anything else…

There’s actually a theorem for that states FPTP systems have a tendency go lead to a two-party system… so its not parties, its the sysetm that leads to two-horse races.

So what we need is electoral reform…

Anonymous September 15, 2008 at 7:03 pm

“No hope” candidates run for two reasons:

1) Vanity

2) A belief that they can somehow influence the debate just by being in the race.

For Nader, it’s probably a bit of a combination of both.

A few other points:

1) I like Tim’s comment: Gore didn’t lose because of Nader. Gore lost because he wasn’t very good at persuading people that he’d make a good president. Gore may have been more intelligent and/or more capable than Bush, but I don’t know if he was a better campaigner – and in politics, that matters.

2) Ron Paul made a good point: if he weren’t running for the Republican nomination, he’d never have made the splash that he did. But anyone can run for the GOP or Democratic nomination… and if they win, they dictate the platform. I’m not sure that if there were a viable avenue for him to run as a third or fourth party candidate whether he’d have done more to advance his cause than he did in a two party system.

3) You can’t calculate votes that a hypothetically-united left wing party would receive by adding up the previous totals of the NDP, Liberals, Greens, and Bloc. You just can’t. The Alliance and PC vote didn’t come close to what their numbers were separately, and they only had 2 points of view, not 4. What would happen if these parties united for any extensive period of time would be that the newly-formed left wing party would move to the left of the Liberals, and the Conservatives would move toward the centre. A lot of the big business interests who currently support the Liberals would transfer that support to the Conservatives. And because the Conservatives would have a new base of support to please, they’d shift aware from social conservative issues (which they have already done to try to win this election).

. October 1, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Ralph Nader

Interviewed by Gregg LaGambina
September 25th, 2008

By 2000, his reputation had changed. After decades of protecting people from injustice and corporate crime, he finally figured that the only way to get things done was to work from the inside. He announced his bid for the presidency, running on the Green Party ticket. After every last heartbroken Democrat was finished staring at Florida, they stared at Nader and tagged him as the spoiler, the one who lost it all for Al Gore. (Some even blame him for the war in Iraq, figuring that if Gore had won, we’d never have gone there.) Nader shrugged it off and ran again in 2004. With his poll numbers much lower this time, John Kerry was largely credited with his own loss, though Nader still wasn’t entirely forgiven.

Now, in 2008, Nader is running again as an Independent party candidate. He’s been successfully blacked out by the media, locked out from debates, and driven to having a conversation with the likes of Cardozo the Parrot and posting it on YouTube. Anything for a bit of press. Last week, Nader sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss Barack Obama, John McCain, the politics of avoidance, hockey moms, spoiling elections, Conan O’Brien, and something called “anal flutter.”

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