Independents Can’t Win: The Biggest Lie in the Two-Party Playbook

There’s no argument that candidates affiliated with the major political parties have tremendous, built-in structural campaign advantages over independent candidates. The range of major-party advantages is long:

But the biggest disadvantage for independent candidates is far less tangible, but incredibly more influential in determining an independent candidate’s ability to run a competitive race -- and it will be the most challenging hurdle for the independent movement and its candidates to overcome.

The disadvantage is the voting public’s perception of an independent candidate’s electability.

Even the most jaded partisan insider, accustomed to dismissing independents as unable to ever win an election, will acknowledge the explosive growth of independent voters. In fact, some recent reports show that more than 44% of all voters consider themselves independent - making them the largest voting bloc by a wide -- and growing -- margin.

To be clear, those independents aren’t all centrists and they don’t and won’t vote in lockstep for independent candidates. They come from across the political spectrum, and many still have a social/historical connection to one of the major parties. However, they no longer want to be associated with belonging to one of those broken brands.

But it’s impossible to believe that the unprecedented movement away from party membership will not have enormous consequences in elections sooner rather than later.

Yet the partisan insiders, cheerleading PoliSci “experts,” and especially the political media will continue to argue that independent candidates will never amount to more than footnoted sideshows at best -- and spoilers in denying their favorite partisan candidate at worst. The “system” likes and understands how to cover elections in the traditional right vs. left, Red Team v. Blue Team terms.

Independents make things messy and complicated. So it’s easier to reinforce the fallacy that elections are for and about the two legacy political parties and their candidates instead of elections being for and about voters. It’s easier for the media, insiders, and aligned political scientists to simply leave independent candidates off of ballot surveys and articles about elections and to frame elections as just another battle of Us vs. Them.

Stop me if you’ve heard this “expert analysis” from a political beat writer before: “Yes, I get it... the system is broken...the voters can’t stand either of the political parties or the candidates that they’re running -- but the independent candidate can’t win so (1) we won’t cover their campaign, and (2) when we DO mention the independent candidate in a news story, we’ll belittle their campaign and remind readers that the most consequential role an independent will ever play is that of a spoiler.

The truth is that newspaper reporters and political scientists can be fantastic experts at looking backwards and analyzing what happened and how and why voters behaved the way they did. Political scientists' prescience for forecasting future voter/public behavior? Not so great. (See: Gay marriage laws, marijuana legalization, President Trump)

As Jackie Salit, president of Independent Voting, put it in a recent column highlighting an insightful academic report that her organization helped develop:

“Like Einstein’s theory of relativity or Galileo’s insistence that the earth revolves around the sun, new ways of seeing the dynamics of our world can be game changing. The fixed principle of two party politics is eroding rapidly, along with the institutions that enforce that arrangement. What will come to take their place? A new party? A new alternative to parties? That is something that the American people will have to decide. But with 44 percent of Americans looking for an alternative to partisanship and gridlock, it is likely that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will suffice.”

(A side note: Add Jackie’s “Gamechangers” study from  The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University and the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California to your reading list.)

It’s clear to me that we’re at an inflection point in American politics. By their rapidly expanding numbers, independent voters are demanding more and better options than just the two broken down parties. But the partisan system and its attendant media, analysts, and academic experts will not give up their stranglehold on election coverage without a fight.

Greg Orman wrote in a recent opinion column in Kansas City Star, “Americans are tired of the professional wrestling in politics”:

“The American people are sending the major parties another message: Your time is running out. (Forty-nine percent) of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats actually think we need a third party. While partisans don’t like the other party at all, they aren’t particularly fond of their own party either, and they’re looking for alternatives.”

Voters want options. The parties are on the ropes. So what’s the most effective way to change the perception that independents aren’t electable? Independent candidates need to win a few campaigns.

In concert with the growth of independent voters, there will be more credible, capable independent candidates running for elected offices up and down ballots in 2018 than at any time in modern American political history.

Let’s go win a couple.