The conventional wisdom is that in 2000 Ralph Nader spared the republic four years of Al Gore in the Oval Office. Nader’s vote total in Florida that year was small compared to the two majors, but it was a multiple of W’s winning total. And it’s hard to imagine who would have been committed to voting for Bush II until Ralph Nader became available.
Most political races these days come supplied with at least one minor party candidate, very often a Libertarian. Once again the conventional wisdom, much repeated in the media, is that Libertarian candidates take more votes away from Republicans than from Democrats, there being something close to libertarianism in the Republican’s view (much spoken of but little practiced these days) of limited government.
But hang on a minute says Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason. This bit of wisdom Gillespie suggests, in the words of the Gershwin song, “Ain’t Necessarily So.” Perhaps Republicans need not despair when a Libertarian hops into a race with them.
Gillespie says exit polling from the 2013 governor’s race in Virginia shows the Libertarian in that one, Robert Sarvis, took more votes away from Democrat Terry McAuliffe than Republican Ken Cuccinelli, perhaps twice as many votes.
Though there was no exit polling in the March special congressional election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, those who analyze such things say Libertarian Lucas Overby likely pulled more votes from Democrat Alex Sink than from Republican David Jolly, the winner by two points.
So what gives? How come the conventional wisdom misses the mark again? In the Libertarian matter it may be that countering the limited government philosophy of Republicans is the anything-goes approach to social issues that Democrats and Libertarians share. Many Democrats find Libertarian views on abortion, gay marriage, and weed simpatico. I’ll see you James Madison and raise you Timothy Leary.
There is a Libertarian candidate in the current very expensive, very nasty, and much unloved race for governor in Florida. In some polls Libertarian Adrian Wyllie is scoring in double digits, rarefied air for minor party candidates. In this case it may not be Wyllie’s positions on issues — fewer people in Florida know what these are than understand the infield fly rule or what constitutes offside in soccer. Wyllie’s relatively high polling numbers almost certainly reflect a “pox on both candidates” attitude on the part of Floridians given the choice of an unpopular Republican and an unpopular Democrat.
The who-would-you-vote-for? portions of most of the many polls conducted on this race of late are stubbornly within the margin of error between incumbent Republican Rick Scott and Democrat (former Republican and former independent) Charlie Crist. But a majority of likely voters tell pollsters they don’t trust either of these guys. Crist because he is probably the most soulless opportunist and flip-flopper even people who follow politics have ever encountered. Scott because he is stiff as a canoe paddle and almost as cuddly. Voters don’t understand who he is and what he’s about.
So Wyllie is collecting the votes of exasperated folks who despair of the candidates offered by the two major parties. If on Nov. 4 Floridians were given the option of “Someone chosen randomly out of the phone book,” it might just be a winner.
It’ hard to see what would cause either of these candidates to pull away from the other. Their TV ads are on the air almost constantly. But the ads, for both candidates, are hyperbolic, nasty, misleading, and no fun at all to watch. Most Floridians tune them out. The two television debates between Scott and Crist — one tonight and one Tuesday — will likely get low ratings (full disclosure: I’ll be watching the Royals and the Orioles). TV political debates are mostly watched by political junkies who already know who they will vote for. But voters with lives outside of politics will be bombarded in coming days with media analysis and replays of high moments of the events (assuming there are any).
One candidate may throw a bomb, or introduce something new and daring into the equation. Or one may lay an egg. But don’t count on either of these things. Candidates in political debates these days tend to be super cautious, more intent on not making a mistake than on breaking new ground. They are usually the equivalent of an NFL team going in to the prevent defense in the first quarter. These two will be no different. Scott tends to read the sanitized talking points he has been handed regardless of the question. Crist is a bit more inclined to give an unscripted answer because it’s difficult for him (or anyone else) to remember his own latest positions on issues. But he too can be cautious and can stick to how much he LUVs Florida and Floridians.
Wyllie is not included in either debate. Too bad. Whatever the questions are for Florida, it’s unlikely that Wyllie has the answers. But chances are he would have a better chance of saying something interesting or provocative than the other two guys, one of whom will be Florida’s governor after Nov. 4.