Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Spoiler Effect--Is it Real?

With this year's Presidential candidates not exactly inspiring confidence in the voters, the typical talk of third party candidates tends to come up in political discussions. This of course inevitably leads to topics like the spoiler effect and first-past-the-post-voting. The common wisdom is that you are throwing your vote away if you vote third party. Worse yet, you are actually helping the mainstream candidate you are the most ideologically opposed to because you are taking a vote away from the candidate you would have voted for had the third party candidate not run. This sounds scary, but is it true?

One of my favorite political podcasts is Abe Lincoln's Top Hat, hosted by comedians Ben Kissel and Marcus Parks. I was listening to an episode the other day where Kissel claimed that if Perot hadn't run in the 1992 election, Clinton would have still won because Bush would have needed 100% of Perot's votes to beat him. Since this statement was against the conventional wisdom, I decided to investigate the claim.

First, let's talk about what actually happened in 1992. Perot had dropped out of the race, but returned. After election day, Clinton was the winner with 370 Electoral votes. Bush won only 168 Electoral votes, and Perot won no Electoral votes. Here's the strange thing, though: Clinton only won 43% of the popular vote. Yet, he beat Bush in the Electoral college by more than a 2-to-1 margin. How was this possible?

As I'm sure the reader is well aware, the American people don't directly vote for the President. The states do. The states vote for the Electors who actually cast the ballot for the President. The problem with the Electoral College is that the 538 votes are not distributed evenly by population. Every state (and the District of Columbia) gets 3 votes, right off the bat, regardless of its population. The rest are distributed proportionally by population. The result is that states with lower populations, like Montana, are actually over represented in the Electoral College, while highly populous states like California and Texas are under represented.

Additionally, the vast majority of states (with the exception of Nebraska and Maine) are "winner-take-all" states. That means all a candidate has to do is get the largest share of voters in any given state and they get all of that state's electoral votes. In a two-party race, it sort of represents the will of the people most of the time because a candidate has to get at least 50% of the popular vote to carry that state. Even so, there are several incidences where the winner of the popular vote was not elected President because the results of the Electoral College differed. But as my data will show, this problem is greatly exacerbated when a third party does unprecedentedly well, as we saw in 1992.

In 1992: Bill Clinton won a number of states with less than 50% of the popular vote. Those included:

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
Rhode Island

That's a lot of states, and many of them weren't states typically won by a Democrat, not even in 1992.  So the question is, would Clinton have won those states had Perot stayed out of the race? Which would he have won and lost?

The problem with answering questions like these is quite simply that we don't know what would have happened because it didn't happen. The best we can do is guess, based on the available information. So what do we know about Perot voters?

Perot was running as an economic conservative. In much the same vein as Donald Trump, he was vehemently against Free Trade Agreements, NAFTA being the hot-button topic of the time. I think it goes without saying that Perot's supporters had more in common ideologically with Bush than with Clinton.

Thus, it stands to reason that most of them would have voted for Bush. The question of how many is difficult, because again, there's no way to know that for sure. I am unaware of any polls indicating what Perot voters' "second choice" would have been. There's also a good reason to believe many of them would have stayed home rather than vote for either Bush or Clinton. And yet again, there's no way to know how many would have.

So, I decided to make a spreadsheet, listing all of the state's Clinton won, how many electoral votes each of those states had in 1992, and how many actual votes each of the three main candidates received. Then, I calculated a number of scenarios. Which were as follows:

1. Clinton and Bush share Perot's voters equally: 50/50
2. Bush gets 50% of Perot's voters, Clinton gets 25%, and the remaining 25% stay home on election day. This, I believe, is the most realistic scenario.
3. Bush gets 75% of Perot's voters, Clinton gets 25%. This is another believable scenario in my opinion.
4. Bush gets 100% of Perot's voters. Unrealistic in my opinion, but not impossible.

So what were the results?

Scenario 1: Bush and Clinton Share Perot Voters 50/50

Map of Scenario 1. Also the actual results of the 1992 Election 
In this scenario, nothing changes. Clinton still wins all of the states he won, and Bush wins all of the states he won. Clinton still wins.

Scenario 2: Bush gets 50% of Perot Voters, Clinton gets 25%, 25% Stay Home

In this scenario, Clinton still wins, but it's close. Bush gains Colorado, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin. But that only gets him to 255 electoral votes, 15 shy of the 270 needed to win.

Scenario 3: Bush gets 75% of Perot Voters, Clinton gets 25%

Map of Scenario 3
This is the turning point. If Bush had gotten 75% of Perot's voters--a very realistic possibility in my opinion--he would have won the 1992 election in a landslide. In addition to the states he picked up in Scenario 2, he would have gained Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin. That would have put him at 377 electoral votes to Clinton's 161, easily winning his second term.

Scenario 4: Bush gets 100% of Perot Voters

Map of Scenario 4

Though this isn't a very realistic scenario, it's certainly possible. Had all of Perot's voters voted for Bush in 1992, Bush would have won re-election with Reagan-level margins. He would have gained a whopping 486 electoral votes to Clinton's paltry 52. Clinton would have only retained Arkansas (his home state), D.C., Maryland, and New York. He would likely had been nothing but a footnote in history, regarded as another Walter Mondale.

Of course, none of these scenarios would have been exactly what happened. No matter how many scenarios I could come up with, I could only get close to what would have actually happened. These scenarios are snapshots.

In my opinion, scenarios 2 and 3 are the closest to what actually would have happened. This, of course, is unhelpful in deciding whether or not Bush would have definitively won the election had Perot remained out of the race, since scenario 2 has him losing by a narrow margin and scenario 3 has him winning by a large one.

I continued playing around with scenarios, but there are a number of variables that cannot be accounted for. I did discover that Bush would have needed 67% of Perot's votes in every state across the board at the minimum, if the rest of them had voted for Clinton.  Bush's chances improved the more Perot's voters stayed home.

So would Perot dropping out have changed the results of the election? We just don't know, and there is no way to know for sure without speculating. There is a good case for both sides, but my opinion is that it did. I base this on Scenario 2 being such a close race, and Scenario 3 being a landslide for Bush. If you average the two, Bush comes out on top.

If you'd like to view my spreadsheet, click here.

UPDATE: I was recently made aware of some peer-reviewed research in this matter. According to this research (Economics 737), 49.5% of Perot voters would have voted for Bush, and 50.5% of Perot voters would have voted for Clinton. This distribution means the election results would have been unchanged and Clinton still would have won.



Economics, Issues and the Perot Candidacy: Voter Choice in the 1992 Presidential Election. R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler American Journal of Political Science Vol. 39, No. 3 (Aug., 1995), pp. 714-744

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