Sanchez v. Tebow. Obama v. Romney. Do You Vote For “The Lesser Evil?”

Like most Americans, I love New York but don’t care much for the Jets.  Similarly, I love America, but am not a fan of the electoral system.  No offense to Fireman Ed or Uncle Sam, its just that neither are what I want– its what I’m stuck with.  The electoral system, with its Winner-Take-All electoral college, was surely a great idea a few hundred years ago as an improvement over a King and his elite Lords an ocean away.  Now, it deserves a recount.

In 1789, white male property owners were a small group of voters whose conflicts pitted farm owners against merchants.  The right for slaves to be free, for example, was not up for debate.  The leaders merely debated over whether slave owners could use their “property” to bulk up their districts in the way that prisoners are used today.  Two centuries later, we have more diversity in our economy and our people, yet we hardly see that reflected in our choices for political office.  We also hear more voices advising us to vote for “the lesser evil” rather than who we want.

Choosing the candidate you hate least is like choosing the Jets quarterback.  Mark Sanchez, the incumbent, has come under classic Big Apple scrutiny because his team is in utter disarray and his stats are terrible.  His defenders point out the many other problems on the team, such as injuries, coaching, and a weakening offensive line, yet his detractors don’t want to hear it.  Sanchez has to go.  Meanwhile, Tim Tebow has his own fan base, though it is arguable whether they support him as a quarterback or as an outspoken Christian.  This is the signal caller that Broncos GM (and Hall of Fame QB) John Elway was desperate to ship out of Denver; he believes that Tebow can only win so many games on a wing and a prayer.

The arguments about Obama v. Romney are similar to Sanchez v. Tebow.  And the fundamental question comes down to whether you allow the team leader to continue, hoping for improvement, or do you give another guy a chance to lead? Some people see the field general in the context of his entire organization, while others put more weight on his single contribution.  Jets fans seem to have universally decided Sanchez is not the next coming of Joe Namath, and he is no longer their dream date to the prom.  Now the argument is whether (1) Tebow is so bad, we may as well stick with Sanchez, or (2) Tebow can’t be any worse than what we have, and he might just be better.

Changing quarterbacks, like changing presidents, is a big deal that can take some time to back out of when things turn out badly.  In our Winner-Take-All system, those with 49% of the vote get no voice at all (unlike many other nations).  We are now asked not to choose what we want, but rather to avoid the worst-case scenario.  We are even told that supporting what we want, if it is a third party candidate, can hurt either of the two primary job applicants.  Yet our election history is full of peculiarities that indicate more possibilities than we are sold on television.

In 1824, no candidate earned an electoral vote majority, so the states individually voted, and favored the second place John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson (Jackson won the rematch).  From 1876-1892, five elections were decided by margins where the third (or fourth) option could have swung it either way.  In 1876, Rutherford Hayes also became president without the majority of the vote.  In 1912, Woodrow Wilson received less than 50% of the vote, yet earned 435 electoral votes in a “landslide.”  In 1920, Eugene Debs earned 3.4% of the vote from his prison cell.  In 1948, Harry Truman also won with under 50% of the popular vote while third party candidate Strom Thurmond carried 39 electoral votes.  Although he earned practically the same number of votes as Henry Wallace, the latter received no electoral votes.

In 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon by a controversial 100,000 votes, but then in 1968 Nixon beat Humphrey by half a million… while third party candidate George C. Wallace received nearly 10 million votes, becoming the last third party candidate to earn an electoral vote (46).  In 1976 and 1980, third party candidates earned nearly enough votes to nearly cover the margin of victory.

Ross Perot’ candidacy was nothing new in American history, as he ushered in the contemporary concept of the “spoiler.”  Most agree that if two-thirds of Perot supporters voted Republican, George H.W. Bush would have beaten Clinton in 1992.  Likewise, if they all had voted for Bob Dole in 1996, we might have had a recount.  However, it is fuzzy math to reallocate votes even in a hypothetical scenario, particularly when a candidate has some fundamental differences from the others.  Some would argue there was more similarity between Clinton and Bush than Bush and Perot.  Ross Perot did not win an electoral vote in either election, and Clinton won them in electoral vote “landslides.”

In 2000, Ralph Nader earned 2% of the vote (less than Debs did from prison) and some consider him to have given the election to George W. Bush, who did not win 50% of the popular vote.  It is surprising as to Nader’s elevated role in history, particularly when presidential hopeful Al Gore threw in the towel before the recount was complete, and where more people were “accidentally” disenfranchised in Florida than actually voted for Nader.  Most would agree that Republicans and Democrats are more aligned than the Green Party and Democrats, so it is again fuzzy math to go counting Nader votes as “stolen” votes for Gore.

Is third string presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson a spoiler?  Some may see him as a Best of the Rest, as they are disenchanted with their own party and the other main alternative looks even worse.  Some will support Johnson because his issues are aligned with theirs, such as taking a new approach to the War on Drugs.  The fact that Republicans and Democrats don’t know which party he draws from the most is significant in two ways: (1) These party members see the world in a zero-sum game, where all constituents have been claimed by two major parties, and (2) Gary Johnson is very independent of their platforms.

As for the Jets, it is time to start Greg McElroy, the second year guy out of Alabama.  If you think its crazy to go down into the third string, here are a few names to remember: Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Steve Young, and Doug Flutie.  Oh, and New Yorkers might remember a nobody named Jeff Hostetler, who quarterbacked the Giants to a Super Bowl championship.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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