Patrick Ruffini, one of the smartest young strategists and web tacticians on the Republican side, has come up with
an intriguing idea, based on the race in the New York 23 special election, on which I’ve blogged here and here: conservatives should back independent candidates in districts with weak or ideologically unacceptable Republican nominees. Ruffini notes that, depending on state election law, independent or third-party candidacies can be launched much later in the campaign cycle than major party candidacies, and so conservative independents, like Conservative party nominee Doug Hoffman in New York 23, will be subject to negative campaigns for only a short period of time. Such candidates will also, he argues, have appeal to self-identified Independents, like many of those tea party protesters, who remain disgusted with Republicans’ behavior when they were in the majority.
What I think we’re seeing in both New York 23 and in the New Jersey governor race, where Independent candidate (and appointee in Tom Kean’s 1980s Republican administration) Chris Daggett has been a factor, is tactical voting. Polling in New Jersey suggests to me that Daggett’s support is evaporarting, as he has failed to reach critical mass indicating that he has a chance to win—what usually happens to third-party candidates. But when a third-party candidate does reach that critical mass he can win, as Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota in 1998, with the help in his case of election-day registration, which allowed previous nonvoters to go to the polls and cast their ballots for Ventura. That experience may have been one reason that support for third-party candidate Dean Barkley did not evaporate in the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota even though he did not really achieve critical mass. In New York 23, the polling indicates to me (though others might disagree) that Doug Hoffman reached critical mass in the second week of October and that Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava fell out of contention in the fourth week.
In Britain, with single-member districts and three active parties, tactical voting is common. I’ve interviewed voters there during the campaign periods and on election days in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections, and it’s clear that voters are aware of the political balance in their districts and cast their votes with an eye to affecting the political balance in the House of Commons. In 1997 and 2001 almost all tactical voting was directed against the Conservative party. If you check out the election results, you will see that in districts where Labour was the chief opponent of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat vote slipped almost down to zero, while in seats where the Lib Dems were stronger than Labour, the Labour vote slipped down almost to zero. As a result, the total votes cast for each parties’ candidates are a misleading guide to what their support would be if the Commons were chosen by national vote.
In 2005 tactical voting was more mixed. In university-dominated districts there was tactical voting against Labour, because of Tony Blair’s support of the Iraq war. In Putney, a modestly upscale area of southwest London, I found one family of four (parents and two adult children) who were splitting their votes—two for the Lib Dem, one for the Conservative, one for Labour. They explained, “We want Labour to win with a smaller majority,” which is exactly what happened. We in the political commentariat tend to condescend to voters and overstate their ignorance. Actually they’re quite capable, in elections which they believe matter, of figuring out the odds and how to make their vote serve their intended purpose.
So I see Ruffini’s suggestion as an invitation to widespread tactical voting against the policies of the Obama administration and congressional Democratic leaders. Republican party officials will be very nervous about this: they are used to backing every Republican candidate and opposing every third-party candidate. But there is a large, spontaneous conservative movement, as we saw in the tea party movement, that is not affiliated with the Republican party and many of whose participants are suspicious of if not hostile to Republican party incumbents and leaders. Thanks to the Internet, that movement can communicate quickly and effectively with likeminded voters. Ruffini does not advocate opposing all liberal or moderate Republicans; I don’t think he would advocate supporting a third-party candidate in the Senate race in Delaware, which Obama carried with 62% of the vote and in which Mike Castle, a thoughtful moderate, is almost certainly the only Republican who could win statewide. But not all the 435 congressional districts are like Delaware. Tactical voters in Britain aren’t stupid. Ruffini is betting that Americans are capable of intelligent tactical voting too.