Sunday, October 23, 2016

Evan McMullin and the Elections, Part 1: Is Evan McMullin a Spoiler this election?

This is the most complicated blog post I've ever worked on. I'll try to make everything clear, but there's a lot to cover! I'll do it in two parts: "Is Evan a spoiler?" and "Can I safely vote for Evan and not make my most disliked candidate win by accident?"

The most common question I get, working on this campaign, is "Is voting for McMullin going to get _______ elected?" Sometimes it comes in vitriole from Trump supporters. Sometimes it comes in quiet, private conversation from concerned friends. Sometimes it's online. But everyone remembers Ross Perot, and everyone has heard that old, tired line that a vote for a third party is a vote for _____ (whoever my enemy is).

I keep hearing people worried that McMullin is a "spoiler" who will push the election in a direction they don't want it to go.

So what is a Spoiler?

A "spoiler," in election terms, is a candidate who shows up and takes enough of the vote to prevent someone else from winning, without actually winning themselves.

There are actually two fairly common (as far as an uncommon thing can be called "common") scenarios that illustrate the concept of a spoiler making it so a good candidate doesn't win.

The First Scenario  There is one really lousy candidate who happens to have a steady following. It's a small following, like 30% of the voters--not enough to win, but steady.  One single other even tolerable candidate could easily beat this person, but there is not just one other candidate in the running. Instead, you have 3 or more candidates opposing this person. Instead of one person getting 60% and trouncing the bad apple, each of them gets 20% or less. Nobody gets over 30%, and the worst candidate wins. (These numbers are obviously oversimplified, but you get the point.) All of the too-many candidates are spoilers for each other--none have enough pull to win outright, but they keep the votes away from everyone else, allowing the least-liked (or less-liked) candidate to win.

This is exactly what happened in the Republican Primaries in 2016. There were more votes cast against Trump than any other candidate in the history of the Republican Party. But because they were not all cast for one or two other people, the candidate the majority did not like won the nomination.

This is usually the case with third parties as well. If all the people who dislike a single candidate cannot coalesce behind a single other candidate, the disliked major party candidate will still win.

The Second Scenario
There are two fairly decent candidates running who are close to evenly split in their following. Let's say one has 53% of the vote and the other has 47% of the vote. Clearly the one with 53% is winning, even though it's close. But then along comes a third party candidate. He pulls in only 8% of the vote, but it all pulls from the guy who had 53%, dropping him down to 45% of the vote. The person who the majority did not want therefore wins the election.

This is the situation people cite all the time in 1992 where Ross Perot siphoned votes off George Bush, letting Bill Clinton win.

So when people hear you are voting for a third party candidate and they say, "But a vote for him is just a vote for my enemy," this is what they're talking about. It isn't actually a vote for the enemy, but it's a vote that allows the so-called enemy to win simply by preventing enough votes from going to the favored candidate. "You might as well just vote for ___enemy," they say. And they have a point, whether you vote for ____enemy or not, you have prevented someone else from beating them.

Limitations of the Spoiler Concept

There are some clear limitations to the concept of a spoiler. Not all third party candidates who get votes are spoilers.

For a third party or independent candidate to be able to "spoil" the election for someone, these conditions have to be met:

A. The two major party candidates have to be in a close race.
B. The third party candidate has to hit a sweet spot in the vote percentages. They have to be able to pull enough votes to unbalance the race, but not enough for it to be considered a three-way race. In other words, they can't have a chance of winning, but they have to get enough votes to make a splash.
C. The third party candidate has to primarily or exclusively pull votes from only one of the major party candidates.

If all three conditions are not met, the third party candidate cannot be considered a spoiler.

If condition A is not met and the two major party candidates are not  in a close race--one is clearly winning--the third party candidate did not spoil the race for the loser because the loser would have lost had the third party candidate not existed.

If condition B is not met because the third party candidate has too few votes to change the outcome, they are not a spoiler because they didn't change the outcome.

If condition B is not met because the third party candidate has enough votes to potentially win outright, the race is considered a competitive three-way race. They are not, therefore, spoiling for anyone but merely competing on level ground. Remember, a spoiler has to spoil someone's chances of winning without having a legitimate chance to win themselves.

If condition C is not met because the third party candidate is pulling from both major party candidates or from somewhere else (like from other third parties or from undecideds or from people who had decided not to vote at all), they are not a spoiler because they didn't unbalance things in favor of one major candidate in a way that caused the other (and only the other) to lose.

The Limitations of Data-Gathering During Elections

Obviously, we can't actually know what is going to happen in the future. We can only guess.

Consequently, we cannot declare beforehand with absolute certainty whether a candidate is a spoiler or not. We can only discuss whether they are likely to be a spoiler or not.

Unfortunately, our only sources of information about where a race is going are polls and expert pundits. And both are notoriously imperfect. However, many are not as unreliable as candidates who are losing would like you to believe.

Some polling organizations are more reliable than others. You can see an analysis here:

Some reasons, briefly, why a poll might not be a reliable indication of where the race stands:
     *The poll didn't even include a candidate who actually is impacting the race
     *The pollsters asked the wrong question. "If the election were today, would you vote for Trump or Clinton?" will get you very different results from "If the election were today, who would you vote for?"  Even just asking "Clinton or Trump" vs "Trump or Clinton" can skew your results.
     *The poll is too old
     *The poll is not scientific (they only called people with landlines when most people use cell phones; they didn't poll a balanced and broad demographic sample--like they failed to ask any women or hispanics; they had a completely open poll on an internet website; it was a twitter poll; etc.)
     *The poll doesn't figure out "likely voters" accurately

Reliable polling organizations will take all these and many more factors into account and use established, research-based methodology to determine their questions, their sampling methods, their reporting methods, etc. You can read about the challenges here: and about how polling works in this election here:

So, the million dollar question:

Is Evan McMullin a Spoiler?

The short answer is no. He doesn't appear to be in a situation that will qualify him as a spoiler on election day.

Let's look at the three conditions.

Condition A: The race has to be close.

The race was close. But mid-October, the Trump Tapes hurried an already established decline for Mr. Trump. Currently (Oct 23), all the experts are predicting a Clinton win--and not a close one.  Even if McMullin takes the two states he is most likely to win--ID and UT--it won't change the outcome. Even if he were to take a couple of "blue" states from Clinton, she would still win. In short, if the prognosticators are correct, Trump is losing all by himself, without third parties included in the equation. That means Evan McMullin cannot be considered a spoiler. Anything he does doesn't look like it will change the outcome of the race. (This doesn't mean it's a waste of time to vote for him, of course. There are many valid reasons to vote for someone who might not win. It does mean, though, that if Trump loses, it's Trump's own darn fault.)

Condition B: McMullin has to hit the sweet spot in the votes, where he spoils it for someone but can't win it outright himself. If you go on a state-by-state basis, it appears he is outside that range, getting too many votes in some states to be spoiler (he's competitive in UT and ID) and too few in others (he's behind other third party candidates in some states). This is hard to know, though, because Evan McMullin hasn't been included in most polls. So there is no data on how he's actually doing. ID finally included McMullin in their polls just this week and were shocked to discover he is polling in double digits there. Nobody had any idea because they weren't asking the right questions. So we can guess about whether he's in the sweet spot nationwide, but we can't know without more polls that include him as an option.  Because Condition A isn't being met anyway, it doesn't matter. He can't spoil a race that isn't close.

Condition C: McMullin has to be pulling voters only from one candidate. Again, without polls we can't know for sure, but informal polls and surveys of McMullin followers indicate that this is not the case. While Trump supporters love to say that McMullin is "stealing" votes from Trump, that doesn't appear to be the case. People who are voting for McMullin are generally people who report they were not going to vote at all, they were going to vote for Clinton (holding their noses), they were going to vote for a different third party candidate, or they were undecided. McMullin is very definitively not pulling votes away from only one candidate, but collecting them from all over.

Given that the two major party candidates are at historical levels on the "dislike" scale, this is not surprising.  It is interesting to note that Hillary Clinton is winning in Colorado right now with 45% of the vote, but Mitt Romney lost in Colorado in 2012 with 46.5% of the vote. The numbers of people who are undecided or voting third party are at record highs this election--close to a quarter of the population of many states--so there is quite a large pool of people for McMullin to pull from before he ever touches the supporters of either major party candidate.

So is Evan McMullin a spoiler for either major party candidate?

The answer is unequivocally NO. Unless something dramatic happens (what one newspaper called the "biggest comeback in presidential history"), Evan cannot possibly be a spoiler for Trump. Trump is losing all by himself, dramatically, and he (and his followers) cannot blame McMullin because the numbers just aren't there. Even if Evan's states went to Trump, Trump would still lose.

So if there is a dramatic comeback, then is Evan possibly a spoiler? No. That could only happen if all of Evan's votes were pulled from Trump and went back to him, and this is not the case. Even if Evan's voters were not voting for him, they were not voting for Trump either, so Trump would not benefit from those voters being released from Evan McMullin.

Evan McMullin does not qualify as a spoiler.


Marla Hughes said...

Great analysis. Although I think McMullin will have a greater impact than in Utah and Idaho I appreciate your use of currently available data instead of inserting a lot of speculation into it.

Becca Jones said...

I think he will also have a greater impact in Utah and Idaho, and I'm hoping elsewhere as well. I just didn't have the data on hand to say that outright. :)

Snowcatcher said...

I, too, think this is a great write-up. I appreciate all the research you put into it. The only thing I'd add is that Perot also drew equally from both parties. That race was closer than this one might be, but the Republican candidate was falling behind. One place he did make a difference is he drew votes from people who would not have voted at all. Many of the people we talked to yesterday also said they were not planning to vote. I did not vote for Perot, but I have never considered him a spoiler.