By raising more than $340,000 for his independent campaign for governor, Chris Daggett has qualified for public matching funds, as well as the right to participate in two official debates this fall.
Just what else will result from having met the $340,000 threshold is not so clear.
Does it give Daggett a realistic opportunity to compete with the two major party candidates? Will his candidacy take votes away from Republican candidate Chris Christie? Can it somehow hurt Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine’s chances for re-election? Or will it simply be a wash with relatively equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters opting for an independent candidate?
We won’t know the answers to these questions until after Election Day in November, but in the interim, there will be plenty of speculation. For my part, I decided to take a look at three research studies on independent and third-party candidates and see how the findings may – or may not – apply to this year’s race for governor in New Jersey.
There is a progression in the three studies. The first takes a broad look at challenges to our two-party system; the second focuses on minor party candidates in gubernatorial elections, and the third examines the successful campaign of a third-party candidate for governor – Jesse Ventura, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998. Here is what I found:
Challenges to the American Two-Party System: Evidence from the 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996 Presidential Elections by Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, Philip Paolino and David W Rohde (2000)
In this study, the authors found that independent candidates benefit when voters’ connections with the major political parties are weakened. Moreover, dissatisfaction with the major party candidates – as opposed to their parties – played a greater role in voters’ support for independent candidates. According to the study: “The people supporting an independent candidate are not those harboring a long-developed disaffection from the major parties, but rather are those who can be moved to express anti-party views because, and probably only because, they are disaffected from the parties’ candidates in a particular election.”
In New Jersey’s race for governor, both major party candidates have been blaming the opposing party for today’s dire economic conditions. At the same time, there have been many direct attacks upon both Corzine and Christie. Based on this study’s findings, independent candidates such as Daggett would benefit more if the major party candidates target each other, rather than their political parties.
Picking Their Spots: Minor Party Candidates in Gubernatorial Elections by Steve B. Lem and Conor M. Dowling (2006)
Lem and Dowling examined gubernatorial elections in all states between 1982 and 2000. Their research was designed to determine why minor party candidates run for office when the chances of winning are slim. The authors also suggested that independents can benefit from “ideological gaps” left by the major party candidates. Such gaps create opportunities “to offer something different than the Democrats and Republicans,” they wrote.
Providing voters an alternative to the major party candidates has been a big part of Daggett’s message. By exploiting gaps in the Corzine and Christie campaigns, he and the other non-major candidates in the race could increase their appeal to New Jersey voters if this year’s election is consistent with Lem and Dowling’s findings.
The Origins and Impact of Votes for Third-Party Candidates: A Case Study of the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election by Dean Lacy and Quin Monson (2002)
Of the three studies, this is the most interesting in that it explores the circumstances surrounding an independent gubernatorial candidate who won an election. However, many of the factors accounting for Jesse Ventura’s 1998 victory in Minnesota were unique to that campaign.
While Ventura entered the race with high-name recognition due to his career as a professional wrestler, he also benefited from a well-timed newspaper report, a rare state election law, creative use of public funds, the absence of an incumbent on the ticket, and a tight campaign between the two major party candidates, both of whom had emerged from hotly contested and potentially divisive primary elections.
According to Lacy and Monson, as late as mid-October, polls were showing Ventura with just about 10 percent of the vote. But his numbers rose steadily in the latter part of October – so much in fact that on the Sunday before Election Day, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that he had a realistic chance of winning the election. The report had a profound and positive impact for Ventura.
“Even though he never officially led in the pre-election polls, the signal communicated to voters through the press was that Ventura was in a position possibly to win,” the authors explained. “In the close three-way race this significantly reduced the incentives to vote strategically. Third party candidates face a perpetual problem of losing their supporters to strategic voting: third party voters often defect to their second most preferred candidate in order to avoid electing their least preferred candidate. With his momentum in the polls and eventual victory, Ventura overcame the usual trend.”
The timing of the newspaper report was extremely beneficial for Ventura because Minnesota is one of the few states that allow citizens to register to vote on Election Day, making it possible for those who decided to support him – even at that late stage of the campaign – to cast ballo. Ventura’s rising poll numbers also made it likely he would qualify for public funds – but not until after Election Day. So he took out a loan, used it for late advertising and paid it back after the election.
The scenario in New Jersey this fall will be much different, but one element of Lacy and Monson’s findings may have implications in the Garden State, where Democrats hope to nationalize the election and benefit from President Obama’s popularity, while Republicans contend that state issues will determine the outcome. The study found that voter attitudes on the condition of the nation had no effect on Ventura’s support. Conversely, the condition of the state played a more significant role.
“Ventura’s electoral success was due to dissatisfaction with Minnesota government rather than a reaction to national conditions,” Lacy and Monson wrote. “People who believe Minnesota is on the right track are more likely to vote for the major-party candidates than for Ventura.”
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These research studies provide a good starting point for discussion of New Jersey’s race for governor. At the end of the day, however, every election is unique with its own set of candidates and circumstances. How Chris Daggett and the other candidates fare in New Jersey in 2009 will be determined by the distinctive factors in place in our state this year.
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Listen to my interview with Chris Daggett on BlogTalk Radio: Play Podcast