A “spoiler” is a candidate who has no chance of winning, but whose candidacy still impacts the outcome of the election.
A spoiler candidate draws votes away from one of the major parties, tipping the balance in favor of the other party.
In the same way, a spoiler party is a party which seems designed to take votes away from one or the other of the major parties, thereby spoiling that party’s chance to win the election.
Supporters of spoiler candidates describe them as idealists seeking to introduce big new ideas; in recent years, left-leaning candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein have been described as spoiler candidates. But their critics say that their candidacy sometimes harms the very causes they champion, by anding victory to the opposing party.
Critics of the U.S. electoral system have argued that spoiler candidates are inevitable in our system:
The current system does not ensure that the majority rules. Candidates can win elections with less than a majority of the vote. This creates “spoilers” – candidates who cannot win themselves but who get enough votes to throw the election to some other candidate who is favored by a minority. It also “spoils” the better debate and higher voter participation we would have with more attention paid to worthy independent candidacies.
Others have argued that ranked choice voting would put an end to spoiler candidates, because it would mean that no one candidate could ruin another candidate’s chances by drawing away their votes. Writing in the journal Democracy, David Daley argued that:
If these states used ranked-choice voting, no one would play spoiler. The candidate who comes in third is simply eliminated. Those votes would get immediately reallocated to the voter’s second choice.
Still, it’s worth noting that not everybody accepts the concept of the spoiler.
Ralph Nader, who ran for president on third-party tickets four times, has often been called a spoiler candidate. For his part, though, Nader has said that third-party candidates are the idealists who promise voters real answers. Nader has also criticized the two-party system as encouraging an unhealthy pragmatic attitude that borders on cynicism.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2016, Nader said:
In this season, the politically bigoted word on everyone’s lips is “spoiler,” which is rather bold if you pause to consider that the two-party tyranny is spoiled to the core and not just with quid pro quo campaign contributions. The name-callers do not expect to be charged with being anti-choice. Don’t we know that “no candidate is perfect,” and surely we’ve seen how bad the other party’s candidate is? Don’t we know that politics is all about pragmatism, and only one of the two major party nominees can win? This is no time, they say, for voters to let their moral compasses guide them.
I reject this logic. The least-worst choices are getting worse every four years, and the insiders only exacerbate the problem by trying to defang the third-party competition. So long as there’s no robust challenge to the duopoly, there’s no reason for insiders to improve. Pragmatism is just another name for electoral extortion.