Friday, December 08, 2017

John Anderson

John Anderson in 1980.
The 1980 independent US Presidential candidate John B. Anderson died earlier this week, and it brought up a lot of misunderstanding and misremembering. John Anderson did not help elect Ronald Reagan, nor did he defeat President Jimmy Carter. Those two did all that on their own. But he did give them a good run.

John Anderson didn't give the presidency to Reagan, for many reasons. If one looks at the breadth of Reagan’s victory, Anderson being absent would not have changed the results. Even if one looks at the states where Anderson did the best, his margin wasn’t enough to hand victory to Carter, nor did the few closer states matter in the end: Reagan had too much of a lead. My friend Roger Green has laid out that case clearly.

Immediately after the election, it was widely reported that polling indicated that had Anderson not been in the race, his voters would have broken more or less the way the general public did, meaning Reagan would have won the majority of those votes, too. So, in nearly every state it wasn’t a case of simply handing Anderson’s votes to Carter: Had Anderson not been in the race, the result wouldn’t have been any different.

The main reason for this is the USA’s idiotic Electoral College system for electing presidents means that in most US states whoever wins a mere plurality of the popular vote—just one vote more than the next highest vote getter—gets all a state's Electoral College votes. Because of that, the winner of a presidential election WILL be the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate without exception, and the only two questions are, what winning margin of Electoral College Votes will they achieve? Also, will they win the totally irrelevant nationwide popular vote? Of the two, only the first question actually matters. That’s because a candidate merely needs to win just enough popular votes in just enough of the right states to win 270 Electoral College votes. Under the US system, it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win a tiny percentage of the nationwide popular vote and still become president because they got one more vote than any other candidate in enough states to get to 270.

And all of that means that there was actually no way John Anderson could ever have won the presidency, and votes for him were not “spoiler” votes helping Reagan, they were—electorally speaking—wasted votes, meaning they achieved nothing. All First Past The Post election systems have the potential for a VERY high percentage of wasted votes, and the USA’s presidential election system is particularly bad for that.

I voted for Anderson in the 1980 general election. When he didn’t win, I took comfort in the fact that he didn’t help elect Reagan, and that even if all of Anderson’s votes had gone to Carter, the president would still have lost. I stuck to that position for years—until I began to regret my vote for Anderson, something I mentioned only in passing in a post back in 2012.

I eventually came to regret—somewhat—not voting for Carter, even though I know that my vote didn't help Reagan. It's because the idiotic Electoral College system disenfranchises all voters who vote for an independent or third party candidate, so voting for one is too big a risk to take. That will be the case until the Electoral College is abolished or the electoral system is changed (neither will happen, by the way). Since 1980, I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate for president most of the time, but also against the Republican a few times. Each election I’ve marked the ballot for the Democrat, and never again voted for an independent or third party candidate because after battling the Reagan regime and the extremism he unleashed, I realised that doing anything other than voting for the Democrat was simply too big a risk to take.

However, I haven’t made a total repudiation of my earlier support and vote, which is why I said I “somewhat” came to regret not voting for Carter. The fact is, I quite liked Anderson’s no-nonsense positions. At the time, I was a Liberal Republican, like Anderson, and I was also socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I perceived Carter as inept, and Reagan as a dangerous extremist. For most of the general election campaign, I thought Anderson would knock out Reagan because of Reagan’s harsh conservatism and often extremist views. I was wrong. I also vastly underestimated how utterly loathed Carter was, a factor that helped Reagan. Anderson calling for a 50 cent per gallon gasoline tax to help fund energy independence, while bold and maybe even visionary, helped kill off his campaign in the eyes of the general electorate.

So, when I backed Anderson it was out of principle, and born of conviction. This is a sentiment that a former colleague of mine shared in a Letter to the Editor published recently in the Chicago Tribune. Like Tim, a friend and I were also at a Republican Presidential Forum that was held in Rosemont, Illinois in late 1979, but I don’t remember it with the detail that Tim does.

What I remember most about that event was Phyllis Schlafly, because, as I wrote back in 2011:
She flowed into the room where the forum was being held like royalty, entourage in tow, and wearing June Cleaver-type housedress and a huge red stop sign-shaped badge demanding “Stop ERA!” in type larger than any eye chart I’ve seen. She put on her best fake smile and handed out her propaganda to attendees who, like me, were early. I don’t remember her staying to actually watch the forum.
The other thing I remember, apart from Phyllis, and the fact that Reagan, who hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, didn’t turn up (his absence was somewhat controversial for and against), was that we visited some hospitality suites. Bush the First and his wife Barbara were really nice, John Connolly was smarmy, and John Anderson ate a sandwich. It was a little surreal to be in the room with a presidential candidate who was sitting on a sofa having something to eat, while we stood around a little awkwardly, I thought.

So, I technically regret voting for John Anderson, because voting for an independent or third party candidate is too much of a risk. Even so, I would never tell anyone else what they should do, but that’s me. The fact is, I completely understand why someone would vote for a third party/independent candidate on principle, because I did it.

In the end, John Anderson didn’t actually change anything. The system now is as bad as it was then—worse in many, many ways—but that’s not his fault. Neither is it his fault that Reagan won or that Carter lost. And that means that it’s not the fault of those of us who voted for him in 1980. However, because he ran as an independent, we’re talking about him now, and I doubt very much that would have happened had he not run as an independent. I guess that’s something.

Photo above by Leffler, Warren K., photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


rogerogreen said...

I REALLY threw my vote away in 1980, voting for Barry Commoner on some 4th party ballot. I did regret it because Reagan won NY by an overtakable plurality.

Linda Sanora said...

I voted for Anderson as well. And for very similar reasons. He came to our college campus, a small, Christian liberal arts college on Chicago's North side. And, I too, never voted for an independent again.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I'd forgotten about Barry Commoner! As you pointed out in your post, all the Anderson votes cast in Illinois wouldn't have given the state to Carter—and he wouldn't have gotten all those votes, anyway.

Now, if only there were an election system in which someone could vote their conscience, secure in the knowledge that it won't help elect a candidate one rejects. If only… /sarcasm

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Ya know, in all these years, I don't remember that ever coming up before. Maybe it did and I've forgotten. In any case, it's a common enough thing for voters in their teens and twenties to vote their conscience, then they find out the damage that can do, and they learn to settle for "least worst" far too often. And THAT is why we need to change the election system—it's the only way to end that conundrum, but more importantly, it's the only way to foster real change.