Today, the Virginia State Board of Elections ruled that former Rep. Virgil Goode has qualified for the state’s presidential ballot. The news immediately prompted discussion of what impact Goode will have on the presidential result in November as well as some ambitious declarations that Goode’s place on the ballot hands the Old Dominion, and thus the entire election, to President Obama. The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated, and not just because Republicans asked the election board to have the attorney general investigate Goode’s ballot petitions for alleged fraud.
Back in early July, Public Policy Polling asked Virginia respondents how they would vote if Goode made the ballot. The poll found Goode winning 9% of Virginia’s presidential vote, pulling Mitt Romney down to 35% while Barack Obama held relatively steady at 49%. With Goode on the ballot, it seems there is only one word to describe him: spoiler.
But is this really true? Maybe. Goode’s history as a conservative Democrat-turned-Independent-turned-Republican makes him far more likely to “steal” votes from Mitt Romney than Obama. But the reality is, it would be a shock if Goode won 9% in November, or even close to that. Recent American history has shown repeatedly that third-party candidates perform better in national polls well before the election than they actually do on Election Day. In 1980, John Anderson was polling at 21% in mid-July but in the end he won less than 7%. Similarly — though less pronounced — Ralph Nader was polling at 6% in mid-July 2000 but won just 2.7% in November. Goode is unlikely to poll as high as Nader did at the national level but like other major third party candidates, Goode will see a serious drop-off from his polling support to Election Day, just more specifically in his home state of Virginia.
Outside of rare cases such as 1912 and 1992 where a third-party candidate had significant national support, it’s rare for third-party candidates to draw much of the vote. In light of this fact, most are inclined to vote for one of the two major parties. Yes, Goode voters are more likely to vote for Romney (or against Obama). But at the end of the day, there probably won’t be that many conservative voters who will vote for Goode knowing that doing so might actually help Obama. This comes down to strategic voting within a two-party system. While 9% said they would vote for Goode in July, history tells us that most of those voters will decide to vote for a major-party candidate. Additionally, it’s important to note that some Goode voters will be supporters who didn’t plan to vote for either Romney or Obama. Some political scientists have estimated that roughly a third of Nader’s voters in 2000 were people who would have abstained otherwise (see page 3 here).
While Goode will win higher percentages in his native Southside, it’s hard to see him winning much more than 1% statewide. Remember that in 2008, Obama and John McCain combined to win 99% of the vote in Virginia. So perhaps Romney and Obama will combine for 98% of the vote this time around. That’s still the vast, vast majority of the vote. Therefore, the only way Goode will truly be a spoiler is if the Virginia result is decided by just a relative handful of votes. Could it be Florida 2000 all over again? Of course it could, but chances are that the outcome in Virginia is more likely to hinge on the efforts of the Obama and Romney campaigns and the state of the economy than it will on Goode’s performance in November. In other words, while we certainly believe the Romney campaign would prefer for Goode to not be on the ballot, we hardly think his presence makes an Obama victory in Virginia a fait accompli.