- - Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Libertarian Party candidate for governor in Virginia is upset because he won’t be invited to participate in a debate at Virginia Tech later this month. Fans of smaller government can feel relieved, because all that Robert Sarvis can accomplish by his futile run is to take enough votes away from Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative, to lose to Terry McAuliffe, a big-government liberal.

Television station WDBJ in Roanoke, the debate host, wrote the rules for the Oct. 24 debate well in advance. The station would invite only candidates with at least 10 percent support in the public opinion polls. Mr. Sarvis didn’t make the cut in Real Clear Politics’ rolling average of several polls. “I’m disappointed,” Mr. Sarvis says, “but not surprised.”

Viewers will now have more time to consider the substantive differences between the conservative Mr. Cuccinelli and the liberal Mr. McAuliffe. Contrary to George Wallace’s famous disdain in 1968 that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties,” there’s millions and millions of dollars worth of difference in taxes and spending between these two nominees. Mr. Cuccinelli argues that Mr. McAuliffe’s economic plans would translate to $1,700 in new taxes for the average Virginia family over the next four years.

Third-party candidates satisfy only those who think “none of the above” is the most appropriate choice from a list of scoundrels. Sometimes a strong third-party vote can send a needed lesson to the major parties. More often, however, third-party candidates are spoilers, who accomplish the exact opposite of what they say they want. Ross Perot didn’t stop “the giant sucking sound” of NAFTA jobs leaving the United States in 1992, but tipped the election to Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader ran in 2000 because he thought Al Gore didn’t care enough about the environment and global warming, so he tipped the election to George W. Bush, an oilman.

This happens in state elections, too. In 1994, J. Marshall Coleman’s independent candidacy for the U.S. Senate was orchestrated by John W. Warner to keep Oliver North, a real conservative, from joining him in the Senate. Mr. Coleman drew 11.4 percent of the vote, and the unpopular Chuck Robb beat Mr. North by fewer than 3 points.

The latest Real Clear Politics polling average shows Mr. McAuliffe with a 6.8 percent lead in the race, for which he can thank the libertarian Mr. Sarvis. Almost all of the prospective Sarvis voters would otherwise pull the lever for a Republican, and Mr. Sarvis is polling at 9.4 percent. Mr. Cuccinelli insists he’s not worried, but if he isn’t, he ought to be. Last month, he predicted there would be no spoiler candidate this year. He noted that third-party candidates in the end “traditionally dwindle to 2 percent or less” of the vote. The last such candidate, he said, “spent $2 million and still only got 2 percent.” The independent gubernatorial candidacy in 2005 of former state Sen. Russ Potts, a liberal Republican, didn’t affect the result, either.

When voters turn their attention to next month’s election, they should keep in mind that their votes have a big impact — worth a lot more than a mere dime — on what their government does for and to them. Messrs. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe hold very different ideas about how much Virginia should extract from Virginians in taxes and how much the state should spend to expand the size of the government. Voters can make a big difference, and they deserve a choice uncluttered by a third-party candidate.