Should third-party voters vote in the Democratic primaries?

On February 3, the Iowa caucuses will mark the official start of the 2020 election. While there are technically candidates running against Trump in the Republican presidential primaries, the most contentious race of this primary season will surely be the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

A large number of Democratic presidential candidates have declared their candidacy to date. As of January 6, 2020, fourteen of these candidates are still in the race. Who will ultimately win the Democratic presidential nomination?

Of course, electoral politics isn’t the only way or best way to create social change. Grassroots organizing at the local and regional level empowers people to create change for themselves, inside and outside of existing systems, rather than waiting for politicians to create change from above. But most grassroots strategies for social change contain at least some electoral component, even if that only involves voting and contacting elected officials about issues rather than campaigning for particular candidates. Therefore, if we’re voting as part of a strategy to change our society for the better, it’s important to talk about who we’re voting for and why.

For months now, I’ve had a serious question on my mind about the Democratic presidential primaries. So far, I haven’t seen anyone else discuss it at length. Therefore, in an effort to clarify my own thoughts and spark meaningful discussion, I’ve decided to pose this question to my readers.

Should “progressive” third-party voters, and other “progressive” people who don’t usually vote for Democrats, vote in the Democratic presidential primaries?

The “Progressive Primary Swing Voter”

Based on conversations I’ve had, posts I’ve seen on social media, and my own thoughts as a voter, I’ve come to believe that there is a significant voting block that I’ll call the “Progressive Primary Swing Voters.”

Who are these Progressive Primary Swing Voters?

Progressive Primary Swing Voters, or PPSVs, are voters who usually don’t vote for a Democratic candidate in the general election, but might be persuaded to do so in a primary election. Some of these voters may be members or supporters of a progressive third party such as the Green Party or one of the many smaller left-wing third parties. Others may not have a strong party loyalty and instead choose the most progressive candidate in each race on a case-by-case basis. There may even be PPSVs who don’t usually vote at all due to their objections to the two-party system, first-past-the-post voting, etc., but might be convinced to vote depending on the argument in favor of a particular candidate or electoral strategy.

Some PPSVs would never vote for a Democratic candidate in the general election due to their broad critiques of the Democratic Party, the two-party system, or specific policy concerns that the Democratic Party establishment has not adequately addressed that the voter considers to be a “deal breaker” (anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, election reforms such as instant runoff voting, etc).

Other PPSVs might vote for a Democratic candidate in the general election, but only if their preferred candidate receives the nomination. For example, they might vote for Bernie Sanders in the general election, but would not vote for Joe Biden, instead choosing to vote third-party or stay home.

Either way, PPSVs are progresive voters who don’t consider themselves to be Democrats, but might be willing to vote for a Democratic candidate in the primaries — if they believed it were both morally acceptable and strategically helpful to do so.

The Relevance of Progressive Primary Swing Voters

Are PPSVs relevant to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?

Part of what determines the relevance of this or any voting block is its size. How many PPSVs are there? Who are they, where do they live, where do they turn for information and advice on elections, etc.?

Honestly, I don’t know. Based on what I’ve read and heard so far, I don’t think that anyone else analyzing the election knows either. This seems to be a distinct voting block that hasn’t been considered or studied.

There’s a great deal of hand-wringing in the media and online political commentary over what I might call Centrist Swing Voters and how to convince them to vote Democrat in “swing states.” However, those same media outlets and political pundits seem to be paying far less attention to voters to the left of the Democratic Party who may or may not be interested in swing-voting for the most progressive Democratic candidates. And so far, in the discussions I’ve seen that do mention any voters left of the Democratic Party, I’ve seen little to no mention of voters who might be willing to “swing Democrat” specifically for the primaries, but not for the general election.

If anyone has any research that sheds light on this question, I’d like to see it. How many PPSVs exist? How likely are they to swing vote for Democrats in the primaries? Will this have a significant affect on the outcome of the primaries?

In the meantime, I’m going to assume that there are enough PPSVs out there to affect the outcome of at least a single primary election in a single state. Therefore, since this may very well be a close election for both the primaries and the general election, PPSVs are significant enough to warrant at least some consideration.

Since I’m starting a discussion here, rather than claiming to know the definitive right answer, let’s explore some of the moral and strategic arguments for and against a PPSV voting strategy.

Moral and Strategic Arguments in Favor of Progressive Primary Swing Voting

Some of the moral and strategic arguments in favor of voting for the “most progressive Democrat”¬† (lesser of two evils, harm reduction, etc.) are the same in both the primary election and the general election. I won’t go into those arguments in detail here, though, because they’ve already been covered elsewhere. Also, rehashing them is alienating to most third-party voters, myself included. So many Democratic “spoiler theorists” are in the habit of attacking third-party voters with rants about voting for the “lesser evil” rather than listening and responding to third-party voters’ legitimate concerns about voting for Democratic candidates whose policies and party politics actively harm either the voters themselves or their allies.

What I will discuss, though, is the moral and strategic arguments that are unique to a PPSV strategy.

Morally speaking, I’m starting to see a difference between voting in a primary election versus voting in a general election. During a primary election, the voter is selecting the best candidate for that party’s nomination, rather than granting that candidate authority to make policy decisions on their behalf. This may or may not be a candidate that the voter actually wants to be elected. For example, I’ve heard stories of die-hard Democratic voters who always vote in the local Republican primaries — not out of any mischievous intent to sabotage the Republican primaries, but because they know that their district will almost certainly elect Republicans, and they want the least offensive Republicans to advance to the general election. The same thing presumably happens for some progressive third-party voters who know that their district will almost certainly elect Democrats. For some people considering a PPSV voting strategy, this potential moral distinction between primary voting and general election voting may be a decisive distinction. In other words, viewing primary elections as morally distinct from general elections may change the way that some third-party voters vote in primary elections.

Strategically speaking, a PPSV strategy could be a way for third-party voters to influence the present and future course of the Democratic Party by changing the outcome of the Democratic presidential primaries in a more progressive direction, while simultaneously working to build stronger third parties by voting third-party in the general election (and thus qualifying the party for federal funding and automatic ballot access if enough votes for the party are cast).

Some third-party voters may fear that moving the Democratic Party in a marginally more progressive direction will allow that party to capture progressive votes without actually doing enough to act on progressive values, thus harming the growth of third parties while not actually delivering sufficiently progressive policies. While that is certainly a risk, I also see the potential for a dramatic shift in the Overton window in the United States in the course of a single election.

If the most progressive Democratic candidate wins the nomination (and presidency), and conservative Republicans lose significant ground, and third parties see a great resurgence — all in a single election — then that would have a tremendous impact on the Overton window. The Republican Party would be taken less seriously, and the Green Party and other progressive parties would be taken more seriously. And it would be firmly established that the relevance of the Democratic Party is wholly dependent on its ability to speak to progressive values, rather than the current situation in which “Establishment Democrats” and their¬† wealthy (and relatively conservative) financial backers largely determine the course of the party on the national level.

In addition to shifting the Overton window, the harm reduction argument may be uniquely relevant for the 2020 election season. There is a significant chance that the outcome of the primary will largely determine the outcome of the general election. Some current polls show Bernie Sanders doing better against Trump than any other Democratic candidate. Therefore, a PPSV strategy may affect the outcome of the entire election rather than just affecting internal Democratic Party politics. And the climate crisis in particular will be tremendously affected by the course of public policy and executive action over the course of the next several years. It’s never too late to act on the climate crisis — but after 2020, it may be too late to act in ways that have a realistic chance of keeping warming below the target 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Regardless of what other failings a Sanders administration may have, it would presumably do far more to limit greenhouse emissions than a Trump administration, thus achieving significant harm reduction. Even if third-party voters feel unwilling or unable to vote for Sanders in the general election, that may affect how they view the prospect of voting for him in the Democratic primaries.

Moral and Strategic Arguments Against Progressive Primary Swing Voting

The most obvious moral and strategic argument against a PPSV voting strategy is that it arguably involves voting for a candidate — if only in a primary election — who crosses certain “red lines” that third-party voters find it unacceptable to cross.

A PPSV voting strategy also arguably gives more power to the Democratic Party, which is the exact opposite of what many PPSVs would like to see. If one of the most progressive candidates wins the presidential nomination, then that fact will be used to promote the Democratic Party in other races and future elections, even in the case of candidates who are far less progressive than the presidential nominee.

The most effective strategy that the more conservative factions within the Democratic Party seem to have for recruiting and retaining progressive voters is “sheepdogging.” This involves using a more progressive candidate to draw voters into supporting a party that is in some regards contrary to their values. For example, many voters who were excited about Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary election found themselves voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election when she received the Democratic nomination, even though many of her past and present stances were antithetical to their progresive values.

A PPSV voting strategy seems to play right into this sheepdogging strategy by encouraging progressives to support Democratic candidates. Establishment Democrats can let progressive voters get excited about a progressive Democratic candidate, then either defeat that candidate in the primary or pressure that candidate to turn in a more regressive direction after they win the election. Either way, progressive voters find themselves pouring support into the Democratic Party largely in vain, while third parties that more accurately reflect their progressive values languish from lack of sufficient support to achieve automatic ballot access, federal funding, etc.

Sheepdogging, though, is only effective if it successfully encourages voters to maintain Democratic party loyalty during the general election. If PPSVs vote for a Democratic candidate in the primary, and hold on to the idea that they don’t have to “Vote Blue No Matter Who” in the general election, then they will not be “sheepdogged.”

PPSVs whose candidate win the nomination can vote for that candidate in the general if they so choose. Or, they can continue with their third-party-oriented voting strategy in the general election, regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination. Voting for a third-party candidate in the general election will still allow PPSVs to help third parties gain and retain ballot access, build the party base, contest two-party candidates who fail to act on progressive values, etc.

On the Democratic side of things, I suspect that some Democrats, particularly more conservative Democrats, will object to this PPSV voting strategy. They’ll say that non-Democrats shouldn’t be meddling in the Democratic primaries, and they’ll argue that outsiders swinging the primaries in a progressive direction will lead the party to lose the presidency in the general election. (Which, again, is not what recent polls indicate.)

Honestly, though, I’m not concerned what conservative Democrats have to say about this or any other political strategy. The voices I am most interested in hearing from are more progressive voices: progressive Democrats, Greens, socialists, independents, social anarchists who vote, and anyone else whose voting (or lack thereof) is strongly shaped by progressive values. Therefore, the objections to a PPSV strategy that I’m most concerned with are moral and strategic objections rooted in those values and how they can be better actualized in our society.

Closing Thoughts

Should progressive third-party voters, and other progressive people who don’t usually vote for Democrats, vote in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020?

As an individual voter, I’m definitely considering voting for Bernie Sanders in the primary election, mostly due to the fact that he’s the strongest candidate on climate and also the most progressive Democratic presidential candidate on many other points of policy.

I’ve never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate before in my life, not even in a primary. I usually vote Green Party, and may very well do so this year in the general election. But I’m considering voting for Bernie Sanders in the primary because I’ve come to see a difference both morally and strategically between primaries and general elections. I’m open to hearing and responding to your questions and objections about this distinction.

This is also such a profoundly important election for resolving the climate crisis that I’m considering all options, electoral and otherwise, that seem likely to increase the chances of a rapid and just transition to a zero emissions society. Climate justice demands that those of us living in the heart of a climate-denying and extraction-embracing empire do whatever we can to resist and challenge the harm caused by some of the most powerful institutions in our society. Voting is just one small part of that process — but since we do have the power to vote, we may as well figure out how to use that power to the best advantage of climate justice and the good of all people and the living lands we call home.

What do you think? Thank you for hearing me out. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. The best places to reach me with your thoughts about the 2020 election are on Facebook (TreesongRLSH) and Twitter (@Treesong).


My name is Treesong. I'm a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois where I write books and volunteer for the Illinois Initiative. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon to stay up-to-date on my latest cli-fi releases and Real Life Superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox.

Posted in Climate, Climate Justice, Environmental Justice, Global Warming, Green Party, Politics, Voting

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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