Thursday, June 19, 2008

Third-Party Candidates and Restaurants

Every election cycle, you hear people making the following lament:

“The Republican and Democratic candidates seem to have similar positions on many of the issues. Both want lower taxes on the middle class. Both want more funding for transportation. Both say they will protect Social Security. And so on. Neither candidate will take a tough stand on issues such as the looming funding crisis for entitlement programs. I wish there were a third-party candidate I could vote for who would not just represent politics as usual.”

Let’s look into this a bit further. First, let's consider the example where we are choosing a location for a Burger King franchise. Look at the picture below. There are three towns, and there is an existing McDonalds near town 2. Assume people are evenly distributed. Where is the best place along the road to put the Burger King?

If you think about it for a moment, you will see that you should put it right next to the McDonalds. You’ll be the closest to all of Town 3, plus half of Town 2. There is no better place. (By the way, this is one of the reasons why you often see a bunch of fast food places grouped together, then nothing for a while.)

Now suppose you have two candidates running for President:

Again, if the electorate is uniformly distributed you will see them both position their statements leading up to the election to be as close to each other as possible.

If they both succeed, they will ram together right in the center. This is what we have seen for many years, with a small number of undecided voters in a few moderate states deciding all of the recent Presidential elections.

A third party candidate has two options. One - he can go left or right of the candidates to go after that half of the vote. But in that case, by definition, he will not be a good representative of all of the people. Or he can attack the center, and try to be a better leader than the other candidates. But then we are back to the original problem of the candidate just taking the same moderate positions on the issues in order to win the election. Simply having a third-party candidate will not magically cure the system.

You can see that there is a natural incentive in debates and speeches for politicians to go as far to the center as they feel is reasonably possible. After the election, they can immediately revert back to their true beliefs. Because of all this, I believe that people waste too much time voting on where candidates say they stand on the issues. The best thing to do is vote for who will be the better leader and decision maker. If you just find the candidate that meets your checklist of litmus tests, you might end up electing someone who will do stupid things like nominate his personal attorney friend for the Supreme Court, or use his religious beliefs to prevent people from curing diseases.

Let's stop romanticizing the concept of a third party, put aside our litmus tests, and just vote for whomever we determine will be the best and most thoughtful leader.


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