There has been much hand-wringing of late in Maine politics over the possibility of there being a “spoiler” in the gubernatorial race in the form of independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who at the moment is trailing Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Paul LePage. There have been calls for Cutler to abandon the race (and, presumably, his principles) in order to help Michaud, one of his opponents, get elected.
There are a number of problems with this theory, but the biggest is quite simple: There’s not really any such thing as a spoiler in politics, and there never has been.
It has often been said in sports that a team can play spoiler. Here the concept is legitimate, when late in the season a non-playoff team can knock someone out of the playoffs with a victory. The idea works there because, long-term, it may actually be in the non-playoff team’s best interest to lose, since it positions them better in a draft. Their only gain in defeating the playoff team is hurting them, rather than helping themselves: being a spoiler.
The concept doesn’t really apply in a campaign, however. Though not all candidates are always in a race to win it, there’s truly nothing to be gained by losing rather than winning. Even candidates who know they can’t win are trying to do so. While running and losing may set one up for a successful run in the future, it’s not the primary intent.
In politics, the term is fundamentally unsound because it operates under the assumption that all candidates and their supporters share the same goal: electing or defeating one of the two major party candidates. It completely ignores the idea that an independent candidate and their supporters may actually — gasp! — believe in their candidate and want him or her to win. This is disrespectful toward independents by presuming their motives are somewhat less than genuine.
Moreover, it’s incredibly arrogant of partisan candidates and their supporters. Believing someone is a spoiler requires one to believe that your candidate is entitled to certain votes merely because of his or her political party. That is, quite simply, never the case. Candidates — whether Democrat, Republican, Green, or independent — are only entitled to the votes they earn: no more, no less.
Labeling someone a spoiler is the last grasp of desperate partisans, and it’s nothing new. Any time an independent or third-party candidate gets enough votes to affect the outcome, it’s inevitable. We saw this most prominently in the 2000 presidential election, when Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for getting George W. Bush elected. More recently, Virginia Republicans were using the term to describe a Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful.
The best way to keep a third candidate from affecting a race isn’t by bullying them into withdrawing, or attacking their supporters. Indeed, that kind of behavior is only likely to strengthen their resolve. If your candidate isn’t doing as well as he or she should, you shouldn’t be angry at someone else for being in the race. Instead, you should take a long, hard look at your candidate, and try to determine where exactly it is he’s falling short. Just as we don’t attack the Baltimore Orioles for being in first place instead of the Boston Red Sox, you shouldn’t criticize another candidate for the shortcomings of your own.
Eliot Cutler has every bit as much right to run for governor as Mike Michaud, Paul LePage, or anybody else. If the Democrats are worried about him, they should criticize him on the issues, rather than just for running. They should stop calling him a spoiler, because in a democracy, nobody is entitled to any votes. You’re entitled to run, if you fulfill the requirements. After that, the rest is up to you.