Politics is a dirty game, but the mud seems to have gotten dirtier in Wisconsin lately. After an acrimonious fight over a new budget and a bill that would restrict public unions in the state, nine state senators are facing recall. The recall efforts themselves aren’t particularly dirty—much of the electorate is upset over the haste with which some pieces of legislation have been passed—but cynical politics have defined the resulting campaigns. The Wisconsin Republican party is recruiting Trojan horse candidates to run against Democrats in the primary election. The Democrats considered the same, changed their strategy when it was apparent the scheme wasn’t warmly received by the public.
Trojan horse candidates in a first-past-the-post system, depending on when they’re used in the election cycle, use a bit of electoral theory to tilt the tables in favor of one candidate or another. In the Wisconsin case, running a fake candidate in the Democratic primary is being used to buy the Republican incumbent more time, provided they don’t have a primary challenge of their own. By forcing the Democrat into a primary, the Republican is relatively free from attack until the campaign for the general election, but free to attack the real Democratic candidate. And of course if the fake Democrat wins the primary, the Republican candidate is a shoo in for the general election.
The Trojan horse candidate strategy works in Wisconsin because of the state’s open primary system, where all voters—not just registered party members—can vote in primaries. This system was implemented in the early 20th century “to take the political nominating process out of the hands of the parties and railroad and lumber barons,” state Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In general elections, parties can employ a similar strategy. For example, Republicans in Wisconsin allege that Democrats ran a fake independent candidate in 2010 to split the conservative vote in the Manitowoc state assembly race. Parties might use a Trojan horse candidate in the general election to win a seat without winning a simple majority of the votes, known as the Condorcet loser. Bill Clinton is one famous example, winning only 43 percent of the vote in the 1992 election. Ross Perot was not a Trojan horse candidate, but the effect he had on the general election was similar.
Introducing a Trojan horse candidate is not a guarantee that a Condorcet loser will win an election. Research by Mehmet Ekmekci, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, shows that endorsements can help coordinate the electorate, and if those organizations support a candidate who is challenged by a Trojan horse candidate, their endorsements can be enough to prevent the Condorcet loser from winning.
Photo by Zonie_Zambonie.