Independents are a rapidly growing block of voters--nearly one-third of today's electorate identify themselves as independents--yet of the 535 voting members of Congress, just two--Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders--are independents. No third party candidate has won the presidency since Abraham Lincoln in 1860--the party had only recently formed following the collapse of the Whigs. No third party candidate has won a single electoral vote since George Wallace in 1968. Ross Perot was a polling leader for parts of the 1992 campaign and though he finished with nearly 19% of the vote--more votes than any independent candidate in US history--he failed to garner a single electoral vote. In recent elections, third party candidates have been reduced to a spoiler's role without any serious chance of victory. So why haven't independent candidates been more successful and what obstacles do they face in 2008? Let's find out.
More than ever before, the 2008 cycle is about money and record amounts of it. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have combined to raise $170 million for their campaigns already. Most estimate that the eventual nominees from both major parties will raise and spend in excess of $100 million during this cycle. National parties will also contribute millions more to their election efforts, making this the most expensive election in history. Independent candidates don't have the fundraising machines of established candidates like Hillary Clinton and it would be nearly impossible for them to keep pace financially.
Candidates from outside the two dominant parties also find it increasingly difficult to get on the ballot in states across the country. Independent candidates would be forced to spend valuable time and resources just to appear on the ballots--tasks that the major parties often handle for their nominees. In fact, limiting ballot access has been one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats have been able to work together to achieve.
The Electoral College holds an inherent bias against third party candidates. Its winner-take-all allotment of electoral votes means that a candidate who wins 10%, 15%, or even 20% of the popular vote may come up empty in the Electoral College, as happened to Perot in 1992. Despite a strong presence across the country, Perot did not have enough concentrated votes to carry any individual state.
Voters who may find themselves ideologically in line with independent candidates often concede to voting for the "lesser of two evils" candidate from one of the dominant parties. Why? These voters are willing to compromise their principles, because voting their conscience has been equated with throwing their vote away. Just as bad, most voters instantly disregard third party candidates, because the idea that any candidate could succeed without a "D" or "R" behind their name has been made to seem impossible. The media also largely ignores these candidates, further reinforcing the two-party mindset.
For an independent candidate to have any chance at victory the right circumstances must present themselves. In 1992, an economic recession and an outrage at partisanship in Washington led many to consider Ross Perot. In 1968, divisions within the Democratic Party following the death of Robert Kennedy and the debate about Vietnam, George Wallace was able to carry several Southern states giving Richard Nixon an easy electoral win despite a close popular vote. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was able to garner 27% of the vote, thanks largely to his charisma and dissatisfaction with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. In 2008, a similar opportunity may present itself. To many, Hillary Clinton represents Washington partisanship, which could turn off many independent voters. Rudy Giuliani's liberal social views could lead many Republicans to defect or not vote and speculation about a third party pro-life candidate has already begun. Voter dissatisfaction is also at higher rates than ever before, manifested in record low approval for President Bush and Congress.
An independent with the ability to bring new voters to the process and appeal to the disaffected voters from each party could stand a legitimate chance in 2008. Whether New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent, or any other candidate has the capability to take advantage of the opportunity (if it even presents itself) remains to be seen. One thing is clear, however, independents are a rising force in US politics and both major parties would be wise to appeal to them or they risk becoming an afterthought.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.