It is sometimes much easier to understand American elections if you look at it as a three party system instead of a two party system. While Republicans and Democrats tend to be the only two parties that win most elections, there is the informal “just stay home” third party which is often the top choice for many Americans and can end up tipping the balance in many elections. In many elections, easily one quarter or more of people who have voted at least once before will not go to the polls, a share of the vote that many parties in true multi-party democracies would envy. Tom Jensen at PPP found that the alternative choice of just staying home could cost Democrats control of the state legislature in North Carolina:

The Republican lead is coming not because folks who voted Democratic in 2008 are turning against the party, but because so many of them are planning to stay home. Only 6% of people who voted for Barack Obama now say they’re planning to vote Republican for the Legislature this year. That number is identical to the 6% of John McCain voters who express an intent to support Democrats. But those planning to vote this fall supported John McCain by 9 points in 2008, in contrast to Barack Obama’s actual narrow victory in the state. That massive enthusiasm gap is what has Republicans in a very strong position right now.

While Jensen is only looking at North Carolina, I suspect that we are seeing almost the exact same pattern elsewhere. Democrats aren’t losing this year because their former supporters have suddenly been convinced of the superiority of the Republican party platform. Democrats are losing because their former supporters are actively choosing the third option of simply not voting. Democrats’ real enemy, and competition for critical swing votes this November, isn’t the Republican party, it is the informal just stay home party.

If we had compulsory voting, a system that actually fined people for not voting, we would have a truer two party system. If everyone actually had to vote, the winner would the party that is least objectionable to the most voters. In that system, no matter how poorly both parties were viewed by a wide swath of the electorate, as long as one of the parties was seen as slightly less terrible, it would win.

But in the United States we don’t have compulsory voting. Voters have a choice besides Democrats and Republicans, and that is the fairly popular choice of simply not voting. Even if people think one party is marginally less terrible, that doesn’t mean they will actually go to the polls to vote for what they think is the just slightly less awful party.

I feel too often Democratic leaders fall into the dangerous trap of acting like we have perfect two party system. It leads to thinking such as, “It doesn’t matter if we don’t deliver for constituency X, the Republicans are even worse on the issue, so they have no other choice but to still vote for us.” This type of cynical thinking leads to nasty zero sum politics, but worst of all, it is just wrong. In fact, voters do have the third option of just staying home when they don’t like either of the two major parties. It is a popular choice in this country and growing even more popular this cycle among former Democratic voters.

I think if Democrats spend more of their time trying to win “swing votes” from their true competition this November, the just stay home party, and less time thinking they can pull of the nearly impossible task of actually flipping Republicans voters, they would fare much better.