All Commentary
Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Is a Vote for a Third Party Really a Waste?

According to the economist George Stigler, politics is far from a winner-take-all game.

Image Credit: iStock

In 2016, Michelle Obama told Pennsylvanian university students that “[i]f you vote for someone other than Hillary… you are helping to elect Hillary’s opponent.” Her appeal to third-party voters is a common one: third-party candidates will certainly not win, and thus supporting them is an utter waste. Why not, as she says, vote for a candidate with a chance of winning? At least then your preference will be captured in some way, right?

This argument has been around for decades, and I imagine politicians play no small part in propagating it. They want you to think that elections are winner-takes-all—that being a part of the winning coalition is what makes your vote matter. But it isn’t.

Enter George Stigler, Chicago-school economist and Nobel laureate. In a 1972 paper, Stigler investigated whether some political activities—such as parties and elections—actually have elements of competition that we observe in markets. He notes that because policies are mutually exclusive (you can’t have both a 10 percent and 20 percent tax rate), political outcomes appear as if one side explicitly loses:

As a result of exclusivity in policies, there is a strong tendency to label the winning of 51 percent of legislative seats a victory and 49 percent a defeat. In economic life the firm which sells 49 percent of a product is no failure, and indeed may be more profitable than a rival selling 51 percent of the product.

From here, Stigler argues that “victory” in the political market is not binary—“political outcomes range continuously from failure to success.” When one side loses an election, they don’t cease to exist; they try again next time. Political “victories” last for short amounts of time, only until the next election. This restrains successful politicians from exploiting the powers of their office. Newly elected representatives may not find success in a second election if they do not maintain a winning coalition of votes; for example, a Democrat congressman from a moderate district cannot act on the opinion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—even if he wholeheartedly agrees—lest he lose re-election.

Why does all this matter? Well, the logical conclusion is that politicians are constrained by their political adversaries, even after victory. People hardly ever vote with a specific policy schedule in mind; that is, they do not vote for John Doe on the premise that taxes will specifically decrease by 27 percent, but rather on the platform of decreasing taxes in general. So victorious politicians are constrained by the level of support for their platform, which is gauged easily by glancing at their election results.

In a district where everybody is homogeneously Republican, support for a Republican representative’s platform will afford him much leeway in voting for highly conservative social policies. But introduce a Democrat minority, and suddenly the representative can’t be that conservative, or he’ll lose a winning coalition of votes. Introduce a third party, and the same logic applies: the politician becomes more constrained, and his platform leans more towards the positions of the other parties. In sum, voting for underdogs doesn’t promise the victory of a candidate, but it does influence the victory of a platform.

The incentive to vote is also elucidated with Stigler’s argument. Voting is often seen as almost useless, save for the small chance that your vote decides the election. There’s a low probability of a large reward. But, per Stigler, the opposite is true: there’s actually a high probability you’re affecting policy marginally. This explains why constantly-losing minorities persist, rather than disband from losses: the benefit from voting isn’t from winning the election, but from pulling all candidates’ platforms towards yours.

On this point, Stigler wrote:

Minority parties often persist for long periods—for example, the Federalists lost power in 1801 but survived for a quarter century. One explanation (the simple Downsian version) would be that these parties incorrectly predicted voter preferences in a long sequence of elections. It seems much more reasonable to interpret these periods differently: the minority is more effective in achieving its ends as a homogeneous minority than as a more heterogeneous majority.

Stigler is saying that, despite the Federalists miserably losing all the time, they did advance their goal of shifting party platforms. This is in stark contrast to the standard “wasting your vote” rhetoric mentioned above. Ultimately, that such a wide disparity exists between pre-election polling and post-election results suggests that many voters don’t realize the effect of their vote. They may be seduced by the likes of Michelle Obama, but perhaps they should be persuaded by the likes of Stigler.


  • Sam Branthoover is an economics student at Grove City College with plans to pursue graduate studies.