When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. switched his candidacy from Democratic to Independent, headlines abounded about his potential to spoil the 2024 presidential election: Politico published “The real way RFK Jr. could spoil the 2024 election,” The Wall Street Journal published “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Shifts to Independent Presidential Bid, a Potential Spoiler in 2024,” The New York Times released a podcast episode titled “The Spoiler Threat of R.F.K. Jr.” and the list goes on. This media attention demonstrates that our narrative surrounding third-party candidates is not at all about their candidacy. Rather, it is a perpetuation of the spoiler effect, the phenomenon of a third-party candidate garnering enough support to tip an election. Instead of being concerned with his platform or campaign, the media seems to only care about Kennedy’s potential to siphon votes from President Joe Biden, which would give his opponent a significant advantage.
Kennedy would make a terrible president due to his anti-vaccine standpoint, pro-Russia sentiment and general lunacy, but he still is a candidate. In a country where nearly four in 10 Americans want more political parties on the ballot, it is shocking that third-party candidates receive such irrelevant and negative media attention. The media plays an outsized role in American elections, meaning that change must start with a shift in media narratives. In order to foster a necessary systematic transition to a multi-party system, the media must stop perpetuating the spoiler narrative and instead give fair and holistic coverage to third-party candidates.
The media’s role in elections is to educate voters on candidates and provide a forum for campaigns to make direct appeals to the American people. While the Federal Communications Commission’s equal time rule requires news outlets to give equal attention to all candidates, there are many exemptions and loopholes which prevent the law from having any real effect. This is not to say that every third-party candidate deserves the same amount of attention given to a candidate from the main party — that is impossible and nonsensical. Rather than spend the time and words brandishing third-party candidates as having no chance to win, the media should use that time to cover their campaign events and platforms. This is not necessarily an effort to tip votes to third-party candidates but a way to ensure that voters make the most informed decisions.
Fear of the spoiler effect causes many voters who voice initial support for third-party candidates to switch their votes as election day nears. Betsy Johnson, an Oregon independent and gubernatorial candidate in 2022, had 27% support in polls on July 1, 2022. Four months later, without any scandals or campaign mishaps, she received just 8.6% of votes in the election.
Third-party voters, nervous that their vote will swing the election, will generally settle for a candidate from the two main parties. However, this view of the American election system, perpetuated by media coverage, is flawed. While supporters of the two-party system argue that the way to avoid the spoiler effect is to vote for the two main parties, that appeal is inherently undemocratic. To say that someone is wasting their vote by voting for the candidate of their choice goes against our very foundations of representative government. The true solution to the problem is providing more choices. If the point of democracy is to give citizens a representative in government, we should strive for candidates who represent us most of the time, not settling for candidates we agree with some of the time. It is only when the media stops perpetuating the narrative of third-party candidates as spoilers that this change can happen. This does not mean veering down a path of censorship but having both journalists and readers recognize that spoiler appeals are a hindrance to our democracy and the establishment of a multi-party system.
With the recent slate of third-party presidential candidates being among the likes of vaccine skeptic Kennedy and famous rapper and antisemite Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, it could be understandable that third-party candidates do not garner much media attention. However, a shift in media attention toward fair and holistic coverage could provide an incentive for better candidates to enter the mix.
With current media coverage, third-party candidates are doomed before they begin. While some personalities enter the race solely for attention, no sane candidate wants to spend millions of dollars on a presidential campaign only to be called a hopeless spoiler in the media. However, if the media shifted its attention away from spoiler potential and onto policy, better candidates would be incentivized to run for office. In a country where just 16% of people trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, better candidates are exactly what we need.
The media is not the only thing holding third parties back in the United States. Our popular voting system makes it incredibly difficult for third-party candidates to garner support, especially given the perpetuation of the spoiler argument. A solution to this is ranked-choice voting, in which voters could rank third-party candidates first, then have those votes transfer to their second choice if the candidate fails to garner enough support. The state of Georgia adopted ranked-choice voting for military and overseas voters in 2021, but statewide adoption proposals have experienced little movement in the state legislature. Calling on one’s congresspeople to support ranked-choice voting is an essential step Georgians can take in supporting stronger third-party candidacies across the state and country. While alternatives like ranked-choice voting are essential, a transformation of media coverage is necessary whether there is or is not a change in our voting system.
As the country gears up for a likely but unpopular rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the need for strong third-party candidates. With partisan gridlock at an all-time high in Congress, we need candidates who are not beholden to mainstream party agendas to bridge the gap in our government. Most importantly, the people deserve candidates who represent and will work for us. The media must take the crucial first step toward achieving this goal. Otherwise, it will only continue to spoil democracy for every single American.
Pierce McDade (25Ox) is from Bloomington, Ill.
Pierce McDade (he/him, 25Ox) is from Bloomington, Illinois, majoring in Political Science and Economics on the pre-law track. Outside of the Wheel, Pierce is a first year senator in Oxford SGA and an Admissions Ambassador in the Oxford Student Admission Association. In his free time, Pierce enjoys thrifting, playing Pickleball, and hanging out with friends.