Who Should You Vote For? My Best Case for Each Choice

by Benjamin Studebaker

When they write about what you should do with your vote, most people pick one side and make a case. But there are a lot of arguments for different courses of action and I think it’s more interesting to lay them out and let you decide which one you think is strongest. These are the very best arguments I can think of for any political choice you might want to make on November 8, consistent with what I know about how policy and political institutions work–I’m not going to pretend that Gary Johnson’s tax plan makes sense or that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Here are the main options:

  1. Hillary Clinton
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Evan McMullin
  4. Gary Johnson
  5. Jill Stein
  6. Write In Someone Fun
  7. Stay Home

Let’s take them one at a time.

Hillary Clinton: The Case for Playing It Safe

The best case for Hillary Clinton is that in most respects, she represents a continuation of Barack Obama’s policies. If Clinton is president, she will continue to have the same fights with the Republicans in congress that Obama has been having. She won’t be able to do very much as a result, but given that many of the Clinton alternatives want to enact policy that is destructive and which might get some support from Republicans in congress, a status quo president might be the least bad option. Over the next four years Clinton is highly unlikely to do anything domestically that makes most Americans’ lives go worse, and any Supreme Court justices she picks are likely to be reliably liberal on social issues (if the Republicans will confirm them–we may be entering a period where that doesn’t happen the way it normally would).

All the stuff about the e-mails, the paid speeches, the relationships with Wall Street and foreign governments? None of this is unique to Clinton. Her neoliberal positions and affiliations are predominant within both parties, and our recent previous presidential administrations (Obama, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, Reagan) have all taken money from most of these same groups through the campaign finance system. Attempts to bribe Clinton through the Clinton Foundation were probably largely unnecessary–Clinton has long been an ally of these kinds of people and probably doesn’t need to be bribed to frequently take their interests into account. But this has been true of all leading American politicians for several decades. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about it and it doesn’t make her more corrupt than most of the establishment Democrats and Republicans who regularly run for president. None of this is a reason to support some alternative candidate who actively pursues policies that are even more destructive than the run of the mill stuff our political establishments do.

In many respects people are looking for a change, and it’s understandably disheartening for them to have to settle for someone like Clinton who embodies the same old stuff. But we need to make the right sort of change, and it’s better to stick with the devil you know until we have an alternative that really does look like a serious improvement. There will be more presidential elections down the road and we will have more chances to pick an alternative to neoliberalism. Let’s be patient and wait for the right alternative, and stick with what we know in the meantime.

Donald Trump: Accelerationism and Risky Bets

The best argument for Trump doesn’t rely on his policy positions, some of which are unclear and some of which are completely detached from the available evidence. Instead the argument for him is accelerationist–because Trump will change things, often for the worse, he might create opportunities for other, better changes further down the line. You can see the philosopher Slavoj Zizek make this kind of argument:

To put it in greater detail, the argument is that there is some section of our population that feels left behind, that our political and economic institutions aren’t working for them and the system is rigged. If Clinton wins, she is unlikely to change the way these people feel for one of two reasons:

  1. She substantively supports the rigging.
  2. She can’t get around the Republicans in congress.

Whether you think Clinton is a malevolent or benevolent person, conditions will stay the same or deteriorate, and because Clinton is affiliated with the Democrats and the Democrats are affiliated with the left, these people will blame the left and it will be easier to elect someone as bad or worse than Trump in 2020 or 2024.

Meanwhile, if Trump wins that will send a clear message that neoliberal candidates are not as electable as they once were and that might cause the Democratic Party establishment to go in a radically different direction. Because Trump’s policies are bad and incoherent, he will make things worse and him or someone like him will be easy for this new form of left wing politician to beat in 2020 or 2024.

The fascism concerns are something of a scare tactic–unlike Weimar Germany, we don’t have an Article 48 for Trump to invoke. Our legislature and judiciary have historically shown a strong willingness to oppose presidents (consider how much they’ve impeded Obama) and so the very worst Trump policies are highly unlikely to actually happen.

The concern with this argument is that it relies on a lot of claims about what will happen in the future and how people are likely to respond. You have to make daring and risky bets.

Evan McMullin: The Right’s Nader?

Evan McMullin is a Mitt Romney type attempting to win over “Never Trump” Republicans. McMullin hopes to win one state, Utah, and then hope for a deadlocked election in which neither candidate wins 270. That would throw the election to the house where, as the winner of at least one state, McMullin could in theory be chosen by house Republicans who prefer him to Trump. Because McMullin is running an independent ticket that isn’t tied to any party, voting for him doesn’t give an alternative movement momentum or resources in 2020. What does it do?

Well, according to 538, McMullin has no chance of winning any state other than Utah, which he has about a 12% chance of winning at the time of writing. The current chance of a deadlock is 1.2%. This means that McMullin in theory has a chance in all of the cases of deadlock in which he wins Utah. The trouble for McMullin is that he tends to pull votes from Trump, so the stronger he does outside of Utah the harder it will be for Trump to do well enough to achieve the deadlock.

So if you’re in Utah, voting for McMullin helps him. If you’re outside of Utah, voting for McMullin as opposed to Trump helps Clinton. I can see little reason for you to support McMullin, because he suffers from all the flaws we frequently attribute to Clinton–the neoliberalism, the willingness to get in bed with Wall Street and special interest groups–along with a suite of additional problems. He supports a regressive Romney style tax plan, means testing for Social Security, repealing Obamacare and many other traditional Republican policies that would hurt a lot of people. I can however see significant reasons for you to encourage the Republicans you know to support him, if you don’t buy accelerationism and want to see Clinton win. Outside of Utah he’s useful to the Democrats.

Gary Johnson: Nope. I’ve Got Nothing.

Johnson’s policies are arguably worse than Trump’s and his record as Governor of New Mexico was far from sterling. Can we make the same kind of accelerationist argument for him that people make for Trump? Not really, because Johnson has no chance of winning this year. According to 538 Johnson has no substantive chance of winning any state at this point, not even his home state of New Mexico, which means he would not be relevant even if the election were thrown to the house. This means voting for Johnson is mostly about trying to get the Libertarian Party above the 5% threshold which would qualify it for federal funding in 2020.

What purpose would it serve to give a party with a horrifying platform more resources in 2020? All this does is make it more likely that the alternative to Clinton or Trump will be really bad. In the accelerationist argument, we’re trying to bring about a superior alternative, not something worse. So even that argument fails when applied to Johnson.

A really hardcore accelerationist might argue that by making the Libertarians a dominant party in American politics we are encouraging things to completely break down and create a space for some kind of revolution. But this argument is too speculative for me to take very seriously, even for the purposes of a post like this where I’m trying to make a case for everyone. Once we’re talking that far ahead into the future, we could just as easily argue that we ought to sit tight and wait for the robot revolution to drive up structural unemployment and create public support for a universal basic income.

Jill Stein: A Green Alternative in 2020?

Way back in June, Stein was polling at close to 5% and it was realistic to talk about her possibly winning federal funding for the Green Party in 2020. Initially she looked like a Sanders surrogate to many people and I anticipated being able to make an argument to that effect. In the months that followed her numbers collapsed, and she now polls below 2%. This means she has no realistic chance of achieving her objective, as she would need to more than double her polling and hasn’t hit 5% in even a single national poll in the last two months.

Much of this was due to avoidable errors–Stein chose to take a number of unpopular, unscientific positions that appeal to the left’s most base, conspiratorial instincts. This has damaged the Green’s brand and made them a poor vehicle for developing robust left wing alternatives, not just now but going forward for some time. The more attention we give to the Greens and to Stein, the more we affiliate their anti-science brand with the left, so at this point I struggle to come up with good arguments for them.

If you buy into accelerationism you could make a reverse McMullin argument and claim that Stein helps Trump make a mess of things. But in the course of that Stein also raises the profile of the Greens and consequently of the anti-science branding they’ve acquired, making it more difficult for the left to distance itself from her and the Greens in 2020 and beyond, which unfortunately is now imperative.

Write In Someone Fun: Voting as Expressivism

One of the best kept secrets in political science is that individual votes don’t matter, especially in large elections, especially in the presidential election. If the election comes down to one state and that state comes down to one vote and you happen to live in that state, there’s going to be a recount anyway.

Indeed, your individual vote is of such limited value that political scientists have come up with fun and exciting ways to illustrate the point. Jason Brennan calculated that even if one presidential candidate credibly promised to give you $33 billion if they win and the election were projected to be very close (decided by less than 1 point), your chance of deciding the election would be so small that your vote would only have an expected value of $4.77 x 10^-2650, a value much closer to zero than any fraction the human mind is capable of imagining. And that’s before they do the recount.

So if you decide that you’d rather vote for someone who makes you feel good, irrespective of their chances of winning, there’s an argument that justifies your choice in the political science literature, and I don’t think anyone would have grounds to criticize you. Of course, if you are able to convince large numbers of people to do this, that might potentially cause trouble. But it would need to be a lot–even if you live in Florida and it’s expected to be close, your chance alone of deciding Florida is about 0.00015%. If you convince 1000 Floridians, you still only have a 0.1% chance. It would take 10,000 Floridians all lined up to do your bidding to give you even a 1% chance of tipping the state, and there’s no guarantee Florida will even be decisive this year. So if you personally want to write in “Bernie Sanders” or “Robot Nixon“, that’s okay. Just don’t persuade tens of thousands of people in Florida to do it.

Stay Home: Getting Mad at the System

Maybe you’re not just disgusted with the choices, but you’re disgusted with the institutions that have given us these choices. George Carlin was fond of this argument:

If you stay home, you can’t participate in the downballot contests, but your chance of affecting those races is pretty small too. In a local election where there’s 30,000 votes and it’s projected to be very close, your chance of being decisive is still just 0.04%–indeed, even if you persuaded 100 people who live in your community to stay home with you, that would only raise the chance to 4%. In statewide races these chances are much, much lower. The closest senate race right now is the New Hampshire race between Maggie Hassan and Kelly Ayotte. In that race, one citizen of New Hampshire has about a 0.003% chance of making the difference, which means you’d need to convince 1000 people in that state just to get the odds up to 3%. So if you want to express disgust not just with the choices but with the process, staying home isn’t going to hurt anybody (again, subject to the qualifiers about persuading very large numbers of people to do it who live in swing states or in places where there are meaningfully important closely contested downballot rates).

Those are your options, and those are the best arguments I can give for them consistent with what I know about policy and political institutions. It’s up to you now to consider the arguments and decide for yourself what you believe is the right thing to do.