[epistemic status: do I look like I know anything about game theory?]
This blog post will be assuming you like Gary Johnson. If you prefer Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the strategic voting implications are not particularly interesting. Conversely, if you prefer Jill Stein, my argument has nothing to do with strategic voting but is instead merely pointing out that the only elected office Jill Stein has ever held is Town of Lexington Town Meeting Representative.
As best as I can tell, the major argument people provide about why I, a dove who strongly opposes the drug war, should vote for Clinton is that Trump is even worse. While I might want to vote my conscience in general, in this case the consequences of Trump becoming president are so awful that I have to hold my nose and vote for Clinton. This argument would, admittedly, be a lot more plausible if Democrats were not The Boy Who Cried Hitler. While I agree with the claim that Trump is exceptionally bad, I am suspicious when this claim is also trotted out about McCain, Romney, and other establishment Republicans who have more qualifications for office than being the star of a bad reality TV show and who could be trusted to leave the country not substantially worse than how they found it.
But my fundamental objection is that this is also an exceptional year for third-party candidates! Gary Johnson is consistently polling about four times as well as he did in 2012. Trump and Clinton have record-breaking unfavorables, implying that a lot of people would be willing to jump ship to Johnson. If Johnson breaks 15%– which seems distinctly possible– he’ll be on stage at the debates, which third-party candidates essentially never get to do. And Johnson may very well pick up a state: perhaps his home state of New Mexico, or Utah, which absolutely despises Trump.
If Johnson is successful, there are two desirable outcomes for libertarians. First, it’s possible that no one will pick up 50% of the vote, in which case it will go to the House. The GOP establishment has reluctantly thrown itself behind Trump, but they still don’t like him. Facing a choice between Trump, a racist know-nothing with no governing history and a wavering commitment to conservative ideals, and Gary Johnson, a competent former governor with strong conservative principles, they might pick Johnson, and we have a libertarian president. Second, in the event that Trump causes the Republican Party to implode, Gary Johnson’s success would leave the Libertarian Party in a good place to pick up the pieces in 2020, nudging US politics in a more libertarian-ward direction. (This could happen either in the form of the Republican Party reformulating itself as more libertarian, or in the form of the Libertarian Party picking up Republican voters.)
In short, this is a unique election because voting third-party isn’t necessarily throwing away your vote.
So here are my general recommendations:
- If you like Johnson, say you’re voting for him to pollsters, even if you’re considering voting for Clinton instead. Getting Johnson to the polls is a complete win for libertarians: having him at the debates raises awareness of libertarian ideas, and means that there are at least two grown-ups on the debate floor.
- If you’re in a state where Johnson is polling extremely well such that there is a chance that Johnson might win, vote Johnson.
- If you’re in a swing state where Trump and Clinton are neck-and-neck, vote Clinton.
- I would recommend consulting Fivethirtyeight in the days before the election to figure out which of those groups you’re in; pay attention to polls, not pundits.
- If your state is solidly Trump or solidly Clinton, vote your conscience. But BE SURE TO VOTE DOWN-TICKET. Look up your local and state elections and have an informed opinion! Your vote counts much more in state or local elections than it does in presidential elections. In particular, in the SF Bay Area, I would suggest being a single-issue voter on the issue of building more fucking housing.