And now, for your entertainment, a bad math quickie.
I live in New York. ’round here, we’ve got a somewhat peculiar feature of how we run our elections. A single candidate can run for office on behalf of multiple parties. If they do, they appear on the ballot in multiple places – one ballot line for each party that they represent. When votes are tallied, if the candidate names for two different ballot lines match exactly, then the votes for those two lines are combined.
The theory behind this is that it allows people to say a bit more with their votes. If you want to vote for the democratic candidate, but you also want to express you preferences for policies more liberal than those of the democratic party platform, you can vote for the democrat, but do it on the liberal party line instead of the democratic party line.
In practice, what this means is that we’ve got lots of patronage parties – that is, lots of small parties which were set up by a small group of people as a way of making money by, essentially, selling their ballot line.
One thing we hear, election after election, is how terribly important these phony parties are. This year, we keep on hearing, over and over, how no Republican has won a statewide election since 1975 without the backing of the Conservative party! Therefore, winning the backing of the Conservative party is so very, very important!
This is, alas, a classic example of the old problem: correlation does not imply causation. The Republicans don’t lose elections because they don’t have the backing of the Conservative party: the Conservative party always backs the republican candidate unless it’s completely clear that they’re going to lose.
Some background, to help understand where this all comes from:
To get on the ballot, you’ve got two choices. You can get onto the ballot by petition, or you can get on the ballot by doing well in the previous election. Getting onto the ballot by petition is incredibly difficult: NY has a notoriously strange and difficult system of handling ballot petitions, which makes it extremely easy to force ballot petitions to be discarded. It’s a crazy system which is really designed to keep people off the ballot unless they’re approved of by at least one of the two big parties.
So, for these patronage parties, there’s a rather subtle dance. On the one hand, their primary reason for existing is really to get money and attention for their founders. So they really want to sell the line to the highest bidder. On the other hand, they need to make sure that whatever they do, they make damn sure that they’ll win at least 50,000 votes statewide, so that they don’t lose their ballot line.
Two of the worst historical offenders in these electoral hijinks have been the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal party nearly always chose the Democratic candidate for their line; the conservative party nearly always chose the Republican candidate. They were generally able to extort enough money from the big parties so that just continually endorsing them was a good investment. After all, they might make more this year by selling their line to someone else – but if that cost them their line, then that would be the end of the gravy train. So if the major party candidate is going to win the election, then the phony parties would naturally sell their line to the major party!
But when the major party candidate is certain to lose, then their calculations get trickier. They need to find someone who can get at least 50,000 votes. And with the major party candidate in trouble, he’s not going to spend any time telling people to vote on the conservative line! He’s going to be struggling to win votes, and talking about this phony fringe party isn’t going to help. So in those circumstances, the party will sometimes choose someone else – someone who has money or fame, and who’s willing to use that to get enough attention to get the 50,000 votes that the party needs.
One of the tricky parts of this is that NY has a very late primary: our primary is the second tuesday in September! So the secondary parties often choose their candidate before the actual primaries, which are very late in NY. This means that in election years where there’s a contested primary, and the result isn’t what people predicted, the little parties can get it wrong. For example, in the last governor’s election, the liberal party guessed wrong, and backed Andrew Cuomo. When Cuomo didn’t win the nomination, it was too late for them – they’d already officially selected him as their candidate, and so, backing the wrong candidate, they didn’t get their 50,000 votes, and lost their line.
Ok, there’s your background.
Now, in NYC, we actually had a contested republican primary for the governorship this year. We had the republican party hack, Rick Lazio; and we had the tea-party darling, Carl Paladino. Everyone expected the guy with the party backing to win – so the conservative party, naturally, selected him for their ballot line.
But he got crushed. The tea party backed candidate absolutely obliterated him. Crisis for the conservatives! They needed to scramble to find a way to get rid of Lazio, so that they could replace him with Paladino on their ballot line, or risk losing it!
Oh, what to do? What to do? Once you’ve put a candidate on the ballot, it’s almost impossible to change it! And now the poor conservative party is backing a guaranteed loser – they’re in danger of losing their line!
Well, there’s a little loophole in New York election law. If a candidate is nominated for a judgeship, then they can withdraw, and the party gets to choose a new candidate. So the republican party went and nominated Rick Lazio for a judgeship, knowing that he wouldn’t actually get it. But it gave them a way to get him off the line.
So the Conservative party finally met, and selected their new candidate. Every news source – every single one that I saw: NBC, CNN, CBS, CBS Radio, NPR, the NYT – every single one had stories about how the Conservative party was choosing its new candidate, and this was really important, because no Republican candidate for statewide office has won without the backing of the Conservative party since 1975! So it’s really important who the Conservatives choose – it could make the difference between winning and losing for Paladino!!
The backing of the Conservative party in NY is totally meaningless. Whether they had Paladino on their line or not this year wouldn’t make any difference to anyone except the Conservative party. For them, it’s a big deal: the tea party types are the people who typically vote for Republicans on the Conservative line when it’s the same as the Republican. They’re not going to vote on the Conservative line for anyone who might cause Andrew Cuomo to win the election. So for the Conservatives, their survival as a party is on the line. For everyone else? It’s total bullshit.
If you look at the electoral history, what you’ll find isn’t that the republicans tend to win when they’ve got Conservative party backing. Instead, what you find is that the Conservative party only chooses someone else when they’re absolutely sure that the Republican is going to lose.
But still, every election cycle, all of the media go and write stories about the stupid little fake parties. No Republican has won since whenever without the Conservative party. No democrat has won since whenever without the Working Families party. Therefore we need to pay attention to them, because their endorsement of a candidate can be the difference between winning and losing. Blah-diddy-blah-diddy blah. It’s nonsense.