Let's say you're the DNC, why not fund an independent candidacy for a somewhat well-known, legitimate conservative politician who is too extreme to actually get elected, but with views appealing to the extreme right wing -- say staunchly pro-life. Wouldn't this be guaranteed to siphon off the critical 0.1% necessary to secure the battleground states?

Imagine spending 5% of resources on this tactic -- that gives you $50M in a presidential race to spend on ads encouraging voting for a pure "pro-life, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, anti-tax, pro-business, pro-military" candidate. And it's all positive issue ads -- no negative ads, no consulting fees, etc. If you focus on, say, 3 battleground states, that gives you 25% of the visibility of a major party candidate. that should be enough to risk the 100-200k voters that are the margin in those states.

When a party becomes dependent on single-issue voters (including a coalition of single-issue voters on a variety of issues), why aren't they are susceptible to this attack?

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    Total wild guess but a party has a finite number of resources. They could prop up an opposition candidate, but that's resources that aren't going to their own candidate...plus if the party is supporting it, it would be obvious and likely set off more red flags than it would help.
    – user1530
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 1:21
  • You are refering to the USA, aren't you? If that is the case, for that to work, they would need to finance that politician enough to gain the primary election. And that's no easy feat. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 7:45
  • @bilbo_pingouin Hence "independent candidacy”, anybody with a real shot at the presidency strives for endorsement by one of the two main parties and therefore needs to win primaries but that's not a legal requirement to be on the ballot and there are many other candidates.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 11:17
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    What makes you think people don't do this kind of thing? foxnews.com/story/2008/03/03/…
    – lazarusL
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 13:33
  • @lazarusL to be fair, that's not a political party's endorsement.
    – user1530
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 19:43

6 Answers 6


Updated Answer

It is possible that a vote-siphoning tactic could be an effective one. You're not crazy or misguided here. Your cost estimates are about right, and actually siphoning off 1-2% of voters in a battleground state would absolutely have an election-swinging impact. However, the costs and risks associated with it are certainly enough to scare off any organization that hasn't gone off the deep end in desperation. The following, however, are reasons why it might not be so effective as it seems.

Something I should have previously addressed is that the effectiveness of 'siphoning' votes through a third candidate isn't as cut and dry as it seems.

From this NYT article, which discusses some of the math behind Ralph Nader's candidacy and the 2000 election vote share:

Among Nader voters, 45 percent said they would have voted for Mr. Gore, 27 percent said they would have voted for Mr. Bush, and the rest said they would not have voted.

Supporting a candidate who is more ideologically extreme than your opponent does not purely take away votes from your opponent. This dilutes the theoretical effectiveness of a third-candidate vote-siphoning strategy.

Another of the major issues with this tactic, which I briefly touched on in my first answer, is backlash. Campaign tactics can have negative repercussions on those who employ them - an election mail study in Michigan once provoked such negative backlash the researchers involved had to change their address due to the influx of angry mail they received.

Party organizations (RNC, DCCC, etc.) occupy a higher and more visible space in the political organizing hierarchy than smaller campaigns. A party organization caught doing something unsavory, such as mobilizing "the crazies" (as Sen. McCain might call them) on the other side by supporting an extremist candidate, could experience backlash effects which would have a negative impact on the entire party's prospects for the election. Major election scandals also tend to linger, like a dark cloud, for years or decades (ever heard of the Watergate Hotel?).

Your assessment of the resources needed for this tactic to flourish seems about right--Gary Johnson's campaign ran an ineffective and inconsequential campaign with $2.5M in 2012. $50M might be enough for a third-candidate to start taking in significant vote totals.

Although presidential campaigns are now run on massive budgets (>$1 Billion each between super-PACs, party organizations, and actual campaigns), $50M is still a lot of money to spend—especially on a largely unproven tactic. Parties and campaigns spend all the money they can afford each election: both the Obama and Romney campaigns in 2012 ended up with less than $13M on hand at the end of the election. Few campaigns or organizations would have interest in taking that kind of risk.

And it's all positive issue ads -- no negative ads, no consulting fees, etc. If you focus on, say, 3 battleground states, that gives you 25% of the visibility of a major party candidate. that should be enough to risk the 100-200k voters that are the margin in those states.

Positive advertising is not necessarily insulated from backlash effects. If it seems like you are "gaming the system" to one person, it will seem that way to many others.

There are also definite start-up costs associated with this tactic. You are suggesting fabricating a separate campaign from the one the campaign is already running. This means developing new messaging, recruiting new volunteers, and focusing on an entirely different population of prospective voters. That means new consulting fees, designer costs, media buy strategies, etc.

I've shared a few articles to get you started; there are more, but I'm not going to do all of your research for you. Much of my explanation however also comes from my academic and professional experience in campaign science & consulting.

Original Answer

Campaigns do in fact sometimes support 'extreme' and 'insurgent' candidates from the opposition. This is almost always a ploy to set up an easier general election battle by pushing a weaker candidate through the opponent's primary system. Here is one example of this tactic in use from the 2012 Senate election in Missouri.

This happens rarely for three reasons. First, campaigns have limited money at their disposal, and cannot afford to support a second insurgent candidate on their own. There has to exist an already close primary battle for the opposition party to decide it is worth funding the weaker opponent.

Second, parties control their own primaries across most of the US. This lets them set the requirements for even being on the ballot, creating a steep barrier-of-entry for all but the most serious and supported candidates. Without support from the party establishment, most candidates have no way of mounting an effective campaign.

The third reason this phenomenon is rare: it risks damaging a campaign's image while costing them money to do so. Presidential campaigns avoid it specifically for this reason. Plus, many insurgent candidates end up on the ballot anyway. See the 2000 presidential election for reference.

  • you're talking about "campaigns", but i asked about "parties." parties (and now PACs) have a lot more resources, and more ability to engage in this tactic without discovery. a dedicated PAC could even do it openly. you're also talking about trying to win the opposition's primary, when i asked about merely drawing a small part of the opposition's extreme base away. running out of room here, i'll edit the OP to discuss actual cost. can you cite primary evidence to substantiate your claims about the reasons this isn't practiced? Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 9:33
  • Thanks for the clarification - I will update this post when I get a chance later and try to answer the specific points you just brought up. Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 12:31

What makes you think that they aren't doing this?

The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in 2016 won a bit over 94% of the popular vote between them. The difference between them was about 2% of the popular vote. So either could have won a majority of the popular vote if all the people who voted for someone else voted for them instead.

Some of the other candidates included Jill Stein and Gloria LaRiva, who are exceptionally liberal candidates, as well as Darrell Castle who would normally be considered more conservative than a Republican. If Stein's voters had voted for Hillary Clinton instead, Clinton would have won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. That would have been enough for an electoral college win, at least 273 electoral college votes assuming that all the electors from those three states would have voted for Clinton and no one else changed away from her.

The challenge though is that most voters know this. And even if they would prefer Stein's policies to Clinton's or Castle's to Trump's, they still choose from the major party candidates. For that matter, people can say this even if it is not true. "A vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Donald Trump." Or "A vote for Darrell Castle is a vote for Hillary Clinton."

It should be obvious that if the Democratic National Committee (DNC) supported Castle, Evan McMullin, or Gary Johnson openly that they would have lost votes from people who would find that inappropriate. But what's to stop a Clinton donor from running ads favoring any of those candidates? And the same in reverse for Republicans and Stein, LaRiva, and Bernie Sanders.


Because it's dangerous. What would they do if the candidate actually does get elected?

Donald Trump is a perfect example of this. The staunchly-Liberal American news media gave him lots and lots of coverage during the primary because they wanted him to win it because they didn't think there was any way he could possibly beat Hillary in the general election... And then he turned out to be a much more serious contender than they anticipated, and it has both parties in a panic.

Thing is that the American government is split between two factions that are more similar than different. Both major parties are corrupt and govern with the primary aim of gathering more power for themselves and siphoning tax dollars into their own pockets and those of their major donors. The huge fights about which one is "good" and which one is "evil" stem mostly from the fact that they each choose different methods for getting the money. This means that, much as they hate each other, they are often willing to work together on the "gathering power" bit. Bringing in a fringe candidate offers a major threat to their gentlemen's agreement because if both parties engaged in it, then there would be a serious chance of one of the fringe groups winning and disrupting the carefully-balanced money-laundering scheme that is D.C. politics.

To blatantly rip off one of Ronald Reagan's metaphors: the two major parties in this country spend a lot of effort on convincing the public that their choice is between left and right in order to distract them from the fact that the real choice is between up and down, and that both major parties favor down because they think they can get rich along the way. "Fringe" candidates are generally the ones who have the audacity to espouse up or down directly and promoting them risks breaking the illusion that both parties have spend so much time creating.

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    This answer seems to include a lot of personal opinion, rather than fact. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 3:35
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    @indigochild It is extremely difficult to be certain of facts when it comes to political motivations as even if you ask the various parties involved directly odds are good that their answers will prefer self-service over the truth. My explanation does fit the facts as observed. The Democrats launder taxpayer money into their own pockets via green energy and labor unions while the Republicans do it via big oil and military contracts, and the major players on both sides team up against any candidate that doesn't play the game by "the rules." youtube.com/watch?v=njYlAcJ6IB8
    – Perkins
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 3:59
  • Answers are expected to be factual. If you think that your answer can't be backed up, then it's a good sign that you should stop writing it. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 4:00
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    @indigochild what part of "fits the facts as observed" makes you think I think my answer has no factual basis? I am hardly the only one to see the pattern this way. There are entire books on the subject, and most Libertarians will give you a very similar assessment. If you're honestly interested I will dig up a reading list for you, but if you're just looking to criticize because I've made you uncomfortable then I am disinclined to waste my time. The resources are trivially easy to find and future readers would be better served by up-to-date material anyway.
    – Perkins
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 5:13
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    There actually is information in the DNC email leaks which confirms that supporting Trump during the Republican primaries was part of the DNC election campaign strategy. Referencing this would make this answer a lot stronger. Also, I would suggest to remove the 3rd paragraph, because it's mostly soap-boxing.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 13:16

Note: I know the question has been narrowed to US, but I think a relevant example can be provided from outside of US

The wining party in Romania used at least one satellite party for Romanian legislative elections back in 2016, namely United Romania Party (URP). Alliance of Liberals and Democrats is considered by many another satellite.

a Romanian nationalist political party. It was founded by former Social Democratic Party member Bogdan Diaconu, who announced the party's creation in 2014.

This article shows that this party gathered some ex-SDP members, so its connections to the SDP is quite clear.

SDP usually got some 30-40% of the Parliament seats (wining party) in virtually all elections after the fall of the communism. However, since the threshold is 5% there will quite some seats that will be redistributed from all the parties which got less than 5%.

Although URP did not reach 5%, its seats were mainly transferred to SDP. This is one factor (besides low voter turnover) that allowed SDP to form an alliance with ALD and Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, thus reaching a "conformable majority" within both Chambers of Parliament.


Addendum to other answers, which argue the disadvantages of vote siphoning strategems, (whether open or secret), for political parties. Although it seems disadvantageous for political parties to do this, this strategem has been employed by sponsors.

For example:

  • This needs more examples. If anyone happens to have a credible source for say, Democrat strategic crossover open primary voting, (rumored to have helped Trump in 2016), or the like...
    – agc
    Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 23:15

They don't do it in the open. But what makes you think they don't do it behind closed doors? You have to ask yourself how the Libertarians peaked at 10% and got as high as 3% during the last Presidential election cycle. Could the media have given more coverage to Johnson than he warranted? Libertarians + Republicans got more than 50% of the vote last election. Democrats + Greens less than 50%. And yet Democrats got the plurality of the popular vote. Gotta ask youself if the media exposure had nothing to do with it.

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