The Misconceptions of Playing Spoiler

Democrat Charlie Crist (left) and Republican Rick Scott appear in Florida’s first gubernatorial debate.

By now everyone knows about “Fangate” – the shallow controversy between Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his challenger former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ­­­– in which the two candidates argued over Crist’s use of an electronic fan inside his debate podium. Scott would not take the stage if Crist insisted on using the fan, which was apparently prohibited in the debate rules, but Crist took it as an opprounity to show Scott as “pleading the fifth” in not wanting to take the stage.

CNN televised another Florida gubernatorial debate Tuesday, and certain factions are a bit upset that a third challenger was not on stage for any potential fan-induced brouhahas. Adrian Wyllie, a Libertarian also seeking the governor’s mansion, is registering as high as 13 percent in some polls and wants to be included in the discussions moving forward.

Adrian Wyllie is running on the Libertarian ticket in the Florida gubernatorial race.
Adrian Wyllie is running on the Libertarian ticket in the Florida gubernatorial race.

“For too long, the Republican-Democrat ‘duopoly’ has controlled the conversation, and they have used their power to silence the competition,” Wyllie said last week after a U.S. district judge rejected his arguments to be allowed in the first debate. “Their attempts to exclude me from the debates is just another example.”

Scott and Crist are tied or nearly tied in all recent polls, but both candidates poll in the low 40s, leaving Wyllie with an opening to possibly have an effect on the outcome.

Wyllie is not the only Libertarian who could swing a tight gubernatorial race next month either. Unpopular Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is facing a tough challenge from Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, but with Quinn’s failed record, the challenge should arguably be tougher. And that gives Libertarian Chad Grimm an opening.

Quinn leads Rauner by an average of about two points, labeling the race a toss up and too close to call weeks away from the election. But like in Florida, both candidates poll in the low 40s. Quinn has effectively been able to paint Rauner as a non-compassionate billionaire, similar to the way President Barack Obama painted Mitt Romney in 2012, and that message might not fly well with independents (though Rauner received endorsements from both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times).

Moreover, and maybe more troublesome, many conservatives take issue with Rauner’s proud pro-choice stance on abortion, and his ties to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The conservative base is not 100 percent behind Rauner, despite Quinn’s ineptitude, and Grimm can take advantage.

Grimm polls as high as seven percent, which are points that could matter in such a close race. He originally faced a legal challenge from Republicans this summer when he was trying to gather signatures, ultimately winning, but showing in the process that Rauner and the GOP were afraid of the prospect of “losing” votes to a third party.

But Grimm’s candidacy, and Wyllie’s, are about more than playing spoiler, and they both know that.

“If you actually want to change the government, people have to change the way they vote,” Wyllie told NPR. “No vote of conscience is a wasted vote, ever.”

This is especially true since change takes time. Not only are Rauner, Quinn, Scott and Crist not owed the votes of the citizens in their respective states, but they are the beneficiaries of a status-quo mindset. In another comparison to Romney, Rauner cruised to victory in his primary without a passionate base but rather an “electability” argument, and the result is disenfranchised conservatives looking for an alternative. Where Rauner loses conservatives on abortion, Grimm is pro-life. Where Rauner was an aide to Emanuel, Grimm is a complete political outsider.

And Grimm does not need to win the race to have a lasting impact. Illinois, like many other states, requires five percent of the vote for a party to be recognized in future elections and to avoid the messy ballot-access process. If he grabs five percent, Grimm and his party would not only be a headache for the Illinois GOP in 2014, but in 2016 and beyond.

“Five percent is a victory for the state,” Grimm told “Five percent is a great step forward.”

On the contrary to Grimm, Wyllie pulls significantly from Crist, according to a Quinnipiac poll, thanks to his socially liberal positions. In both cases, though, neither candidate is stealing votes, but rather tapping into disenfranchised bases. If the establishments of the Republican and Democratic parties want to avoid third parties playing spoiler, the responsibility is on them to produce better candidate that won’t frustrate the base or struggle with independents.

Grimm, Wyllie and some other 2014 third-party challengers are only following national trends. A Gallup poll just last month found that 58 percent of U.S. adults, including 71 percent of independents, think a third-party is needed.


The “throw your vote away” stigma obviously is not propelling any third-party challenger to reach 58 percent in a race, but in elections where the choices are between unpopular governors and sometimes out-of-touch billionaires, the desire for a “none of the above option” develops. That option, not existing, manifests itself in a Grimm or Wyllie, and it’s more so on Republicans or Democrats to eliminate that element by producing better candidates, than by condemning challengers for “stealing” votes.

It will be known next month if Republicans missed that change in Illinois, or if Democrats did in Florida. If they did, they should try to change. A good start would be to stop worrying about electronic fans and instead trying to engage voters’ needs.