Are Democrats the Actual Spoilers that Cost them Victories in Presidential Elections?

Photograph Source: Ryan McFarland – CC BY 2.0

When Democrats lose elections, they are quick to blame their defeats on others, in particular on those deemed to be on their “left” especially if they are running as third party candidates. Those candidates are depicted as being irresponsible and said to have enabled an evil Republican to win. Prime examples are Ralph Nader being held responsible for Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, and Jill Stein for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. They are called spoilers. The claim is made that had they not been running, the Democratic candidate would have won, and we would have not been victimized by reactionaries appointed to the Supreme Court, more tax breaks for the rich, and other terrible policies.

Were the Democratic candidate to lose in 2024, third party candidate Cornel West is already being told he could be responsible, even by some people who supposedly agree with his stands on the issues.

Biden supporter Robert Reich, former Clinton Labor Secretary, recently wrote that third party candidates like West who could take “anti-Trump” votes “away from Biden…are in effect front groups for Trump in 2024” because “if a third-party candidate takes even a small part of the anti-Trump vote away from Biden, Trump is likely to be returned to the White House.”  Hence, “If Cornel West and the Green party had positive intentions, they would…withdraw from all ballots for the 2024 election and try again in 2028” as if a similar message won’t be put forward then. The reason Reich provides is that “the risk to the future of American democracy is enormous.”  Risk to American democracy, or a “risk” to a system former President Jimmy Carter described well before Trump became president as “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nomination for president and elected president?”

Others urge West to run as a Democrat. He would then, like Sanders, be able to raise the issues of concern to him, but presumably not be on the ballot for the general election in November and take any votes away from the Democratic Party candidate.

There can be some truth to the claim that third party candidates help to prevent Democrats from being victorious. However, the blame for the defeats may rest far more with the Democrats themselves and their uninspiring candidates (and perhaps even less inspiring running mates.) They have provided people with few reasons to vote, or to vote for them. The narrative that almost solely blames third party candidates for their defeats oversimplifies and distorts the full picture of why they lost. The defeat can also partly be blamed on the use of the electoral college system for choosing the president.

How the Electoral College System Works and Undermines Democracy

The U.S. electoral college system for choosing a president does not embody democratic principles. In a democracy, each vote cast is supposed to have an equal impact on the outcome of the election with the winner generally being the candidate who is the one who secures more than half the votes if not in a first vote, then in a run-off between the two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round of voting.

However, in the U.S. screwball and undemocratic system for choosing a president, one can lose the nationwide popular vote and end up gaining what is often considered the most powerful position in the world. That is because the winner in the U.S. system is determined not by who receives the most votes across the whole country which could even be a majority, but by which candidate gains a majority of electoral votes, currently 270 or more.

Under this system, each state is allocated electoral votes based on its number of House and Senate members. Washington D.C. is treated as if it is a state which, given the size of its population, would have two senators and one house member entitling it to 3 electoral votes. U.S. citizens residing in territories including Puerto Rico and Guam have absolutely no voice in determining who is the next president since territories do not have any electoral votes.

With two exceptions, D.C. and each state use a winner take all system in which all of its electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote within the state. The margin of victory in a state is irrelevant and the winner need not gain a majority of the popular vote—just one more popular vote than any opponent—in order to win all of the state’s electoral votes. After the electoral votes in each state are determined, they are added together with the candidate winning a majority, 270 or more, becoming the next president or gaining another four-year term.

By winning the popular vote in enough states to win a majority of electoral votes, one need not worry about the total votes won nationwide. The winner may even have been rejected by the majority of voters. Essentially, the democratic notion of one person one vote does not apply in U.S. presidential elections.  One’s vote only counts towards determining electoral votes in the state in which a person resides.

The power associated with each vote cast can vary tremendously. A voting resident in California is responsible for determining fifty-four electoral votes while a voter in Vermont decides who wins just three electoral votes.

The electoral vote result in most states can be determined in advance of election day through polls and results in recent elections. For example, for many years and in the present period, in California, any Democrat running against a Republican has won the popular vote by a large margin to secure all of that state’s electoral votes. For years, the Democrat and Republican candidates have not bothered to campaign in California in the last few months before the November election since gaining the support of more voters makes no difference in one’s electoral vote count.

Determining the winner of a majority of electoral votes generally comes down to results in a small number of states known as swing or battleground states in which the margin of victory is likely to be a small number of the total votes cast.  The outcome is unknown until the votes are counted. Winning in the swing states will likely determine the winner of the election.  In most other states, the vote of many individuals is irrelevant since votes in the tens of thousands won’t alter the one-sided outcome in the state.

Even a great statesman, known to some as the Donald, who has called himself “a very stable genius” has agreed that the U.S. method for choosing the president is undemocratic. To what is likely the surprise of many, he once actually offered up a true statement about the electoral college system calling it in 2012  “a disaster for democracy.”

However, even if he favored democracy, this humble, selfless, and politically correct guy who always puts what is best for the country above his self-interest, embraced this “disaster” when it resulted in an electoral college victory for himself in 2016 despite losing the nationwide popular vote by almost 3 million. In 2019, he tweeted, “I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.” 

Gore Losing

In 2000, (if one accepts the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v Gore resulting in Bush winning in Florida,) Bush won the right to move into the White House by securing a majority of electoral votes.

On election night, given the outcomes everywhere else resulting in neither Gore or Bush securing a majority of electoral votes, the key to determining the winner of a majority of electoral votes came down to the election outcome in Florida. A recount should have occurred because the initial result was so close. It had Bush winning by just a few hundred votes out of almost six million cast.

Victory would eventually be officially given to Bush by the supposedly impartial protector of liberty, justice, and our democratic rights, the Supreme Court. They ruled against a recount in Florida essentially saying that people have the right to vote. However, voters should abandon the belief that there is a guarantee their votes will be accurately counted.

With this Supreme Court decision and his victory secured by less than 1,000 popular votes in Florida, Bush won the majority of electoral votes despite receiving some 540,000 fewer votes nationwide than Gore.

Gore accepted the decision against a recount in Florida that assured his defeat even though Republican nominated Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion in which he concluded:

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

Additionally, about a month after the decision and presumably not reported on at the time until months later in 2001, Supreme Court Justice Breyer called the decision  in  Bush v. Gore “the most outrageous, indefensible thing” in the Newsweek reporter’s words “the court had ever done.”

In an interview years later, Gore indicated he honors “the rule of law” saying “In our system, there is no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution.”[1] Really! A violent revolution would have occurred had Gore not accepted the decision of the Supreme Court?

Blaming Nader for Gore’s Loss

Many Democrats often fumed over Nader receiving 97,488 votes in Florida assuming that his votes came at the expense of Gore, or that had he not been on the ballot as a candidate, his supporters would have predominantly voted for Gore giving him the victory in Florida and the right to occupy the White House.

Certainly, had Nader not been on the ballot and his supporters still voted and voted disproportionately for Gore, or a thousand of his supporters, instead, voted for Gore, the outcome in Florida would have favored Gore resulting in his gaining the needed majority of electoral votes. This victory for Gore could have happened despite the often-unmentioned voter suppression efforts carried out on behalf of George W. Bush by his brother, then Florida Governor Jeb Bush and company, that largely targeted and stopped thousands of would-be Gore voters from voting whose votes would have also resulted in a Gore victory. For more details, see the movie Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election available on YouTube. 

Democrats and Gore Himself More Responsible for Gore Losing?

What is rarely pointed out is the finding of the major presidential survey in 2000 which shows that 11% of identified Democrats, some 4.49 million voters, voted for Bush while fewer, 8% of Republicans, about 2.9 million, voted for Gore. Just that 3% difference came to more than 1.2 million Democrats nationwide. Had Gore done as well with members of his own party as Bush did with members of his party, he would have won.[2]

I could not find survey figures to indicate the number of Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida. Jim Hightower claims  “Nader only drew 24,000 Democrats to his cause, yet 308,000 Democrats voted for Bush. Hello. If Gore had taken even one percent of these Democrats from Bush, Nader’s votes wouldn’t have mattered” in securing a Gore victory in Florida.

Additionally, Gore was in a favorable position when he ran. The economy was “healthy,” and the country was not involved in an unpopular war. He was running against a weak-minded and inexperienced often inarticulate opponent. However, Gore himself was a weak candidate. He failed to win in 11 states won by Bill Clinton in 1996 that included his home state of Tennessee that had sent him to the senate twice, in 1984 and 1990, with over 60% of the vote.  In fact, had he won all of Nader’s votes in Tennessee, he still would have lost this state where Bush received over 51% of the vote.

Gore also barely won the popular vote in Iowa, Oregon, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. For example, out of 2.6 million votes cast in Wisconsin, Gore won by just 5,708 votes. Had he lost the popular vote to Bush in those four states, the outcome in Florida would have made no difference.

Gore’s margin of victory in each of those four states was less than the total votes of the right-wing Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan and that of the Libertarian candidate, Harry Browne. In Wisconsin, together, they received 18,000 votes, over three times Gore’s margin of victory. The two may have taken enough votes away from Bush causing him to lose in the four states.

Clinton Losing

With 65.85 million votes, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes nationwide than Trump, but failed to win a majority of electoral votes.

She had many advantages in the race. The economy was in relatively good shape. That could be attributed to the eight years of Obama’s presidency of which she was a part.  Her opponent, Trump, offered crazy proposals such as claiming that Mexicans would pay for building a wall on its border with the United States. Trump’s rhetoric was blatantly racist and sexist and included elementary school playground name calling of his opponents. In addition, he was seen as having engaged in numerous questionable activities. They included defrauding students attending Trump University and making unwanted advances towards many women.

Right before the election, both Trump and Clinton had the worst and second worst unfavorable scores in Gallup polling history.  Trump’s unfavorable score was 61%, 9% higher than Clinton’s at 52%.

In September of 2016, a Washington Post poll found 60% of Americans saw Clinton qualified to serve as president while only 36% viewed Trump to be qualified.

An argument can be made that Clinton’s candidacy was harmed by having to deal with some deep-seated misogyny. However, Clinton hurt herself by running a campaign in which she often gave people few reasons to vote for her other than that she’s a woman and, by winning, would be breaking a glass ceiling; loves and is committed to children; is experienced; and is not Donald Trump. More importantly, Clinton offered practically nothing to address the many people harmed by years of neoliberal policies that have further empowered corporations and the rich, ongoing environmental destruction, cold war and actual hot war undertakings, and imperial and militaristic policies perpetuated not just by Republicans, but by politicians like herself. This record may have accounted for her losing in 6 states that Obama won in 2012.

Clinton had additional problems. They included questionable activities such as her highly paid speaking engagements on Wall Street. Other legitimate concerns were raised about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State. Then she chose a running mate whose politics could be seen as representing a slap in the face to what her defeated primary opponent and later supporter, Sanders, had campaigned on. Additionally, during the fall of 2016, Clinton failed to campaign in a state she barely lost, Wisconsin.

Unlike Gore, Clinton did as well among Democratic voters as Trump did among Republicans. Both lost 8% of the vote of party members to their main opponent. This suggests that she was, unbelievably, so unwanted by many Democrats that 8% of people identifying as Democrats voted for Trump over her.

Hence, what hurt Clinton the most that prevented a victory were more likely Clinton herself and the 8% of Democrats who voted for Trump.

Had Clinton won the popular vote in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, she would have won a majority of electoral votes. Trump’s margin of victory in these three states came to (rounding off) 23,000 in Wisconsin, 11,000 in Michigan and 44,000 in Pennsylvania, fewer than Green Party candidate Stein’s total votes in each of the states, 31,000 in Wisconsin, 51,000 in Michigan, and 50,000 in Pennsylvania.  Clearly, had Clinton won all of Stein’s votes, she would have won in all three states.

However, what has usually gone unmentioned is the more than 4.8 million votes won by Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, more than three times Stein’s total. Libertarian voters often vote for Republicans when a Libertarian candidate is not on the ballot. In 2016, the total vote for Johnson in the three closely contested states came to 106,000 in Wisconsin, 147,000 in Pennsylvania and 172,000 in Michigan. These numbers are more than what would have been Clinton’s margin of victory had she received all of Stein’s votes. Johnson’s totals could mean that Trump was hurt far more by the presence of a third party candidate than was Clinton.

Biden and Trump

Trump could have accused the Libertarian candidate of playing a spoiler role in 2020. Biden’s margin of victory in 2020 in Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia was much less than the number of votes secured by the Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgensen, who received over 1.86 million votes nationwide. Had the Libertarians not run a candidate and most of Jorgensen’s votes had gone to Trump, he would have ended up winning in Wisconsin, Oregon, and Georgia. That outcome would have resulted in a tie in electoral votes with Trump and Biden each getting 269 creating a massive nightmare for the country in deciding who would be the next president—one more reason to get rid of the electoral college system especially since Trump could have been made the winner even though Biden won a majority of the nationwide popular vote and beat Trump by more than 7 million votes.[3] 


By often overemphasizing or solely blaming third party candidates for their defeats, Democrats leave out critical factors and distort the record.

For years and likely to continue, the much bigger problem facing the Democrats that has caused them to lose presidential elections is that their uninspiring candidates offer the voting public little. They fail to motivate more non-voters to vote for their candidates. Furthermore, to win, Democrats may often need greater success at getting more members of their own party to not support their Republican opponent.


[1] In this clip, when Gore made this statement, people laughed. Later in the interview, Gore called what he said a joke. The first time I heard Gore address this issue was on the PBS New Hour on May 30, 2007. He used the same words “In our system, there is no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court Decision and violent revolution” and did not call what he said a joke. Unfortunately, a video of this interview is no longer available.


[2] The reporter responsible for the article on the survey in the New York Times failed to point out that 3% more Democrats voted for Bush than Republicans who voted for Gore. From the article:  “Few voters crossed party lines. Large majorities of Republicans supported Mr. Bush. Mr. Gore won the votes of most Democrats. Voters who identified themselves as independent split almost evenly.”

See survey in Wikipedia slightly different numbers, but the same on how Democrats and Republicans voted, or page 627


[3] Reich explains why, in 2020, Biden won in five swing states. “Biden’s razor-thin margins in these five states in 2020 came from a massive anti-Trump vote” in which “at least 1 in 3 voters said they voted mainly against Trump.” In other words, what made the difference in Biden winning was not people “mainly” wanting him to be president but not wanting Trump.  How inspiring!

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.