Fourth in a series
Part of what’s being tested in the Smith Project is whether a hypothetical presidential candidate, “Mr. Smith,” would be competitive running as an independent in a general election against a Democrat and Republican. Conventional wisdom says no. At best, an independent only rises to single digits in the polls. At worst (depending on your preferences), they alter the outcome of the election – undeservedly catapulting one major-party candidate to victory.
The Smith polling, however, tells a different story. The independent candidate can be elected. Rotating through four potential general election matchups, our hypothetical Candidate Smith wins three times. And this result is achieved despite a huge handicap: 62% of Americans tend to view voting for an independent as a wasted vote. Presented with a candidate they genuinely like, Americans in the Smith poll appear willing to cast a vote for an independent despite their misgivings.
The question of whether an independent will ever catch fire has particular relevance as the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary season is about to kick off. Millions of American voters are just starting to size up the stable of candidates running for the highest office in the land. Many are asking themselves the troubling quadrennial question: “Is this really the best we can do?”
How do we square the results of our polling with the reality of our political system today? The likelihood that an independent would make it to Election Day without being demonized is nil. The idea that Candidate Smith’s supporters would be impervious to those attacks (an assumption implicit in the polling) is highly unlikely. With our “first past the post” plurality voting approach to picking leaders, the American election system erects significant barriers for independent or third party candidates to be consistently competitive.
French sociologist Maurice Duverger is credited with noticing the pattern of plurality elections in single-member districts. The pattern strongly reinforced the dominance of the two major parties. Writing in the 1950s, Duverger posited it as a systemic tendency. More recent political scientists picked up and expanded this theory and started pushing it as “law.”
But how does “Duverger’s Law” explain the statewide election of independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), Gov. Jesse Ventura (Minnesota), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), who first ran for Congress as a Socialist? The answer is that unaffiliated candidates can, and do, break through the two-party-only credibility hurdle if they are able to establish realistic viability in a timely way.
I saw this firsthand in 2014 when managing Greg Orman’s independent U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas. Our first polling in May suggested that we were irrelevant, our numbers in low single digits, badly trailing both the incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts and the presumed Democratic Party nominee. Strategic early television ads that highlighted Orman’s compelling message spurred a rapid rise in both public and private polls, however, and Orman surged into second place. This allowed us to flip the script on exclusionary partisan politics to become the alternative to the incumbent by late summer. Achieving that tipping point would ultimately drive the Democrat to suspend his campaign and propel independent Greg into front-runner status. Though Roberts prevailed in the end, Orman’s 2014 effort won 42% of the vote and proved that Duverger’s Law can be modified to the benefit of an unaffiliated candidate if that candidate can attain viability early enough and become one of the two legitimate candidates left standing late in an election.
Americans want their votes to matter. While they may tell pollsters early in a campaign that they support a particular candidate, they tend to narrow their choices as Election Day approaches to only those candidates they think have a chance of prevailing. Generally, those choices are exclusively a Democrat or a Republican -- but not always. This is what makes Duverger’s observation merely that: an observation, a rule of thumb, but not an immutable law of politics.
So how would this play out in a national presidential campaign if there were three truly viable candidates in which the independent has enough early support, resources and credibility to make it onto the debate stage?
First, because of the Electoral College, the presidential campaign should be thought of as 51 individual campaigns. And that’s where it gets interesting. For a competitive independent, the “purple” battleground states would be in play. Certainly, the partisan proclivities of some states would fall under the classic Duverger spell and squeeze out an independent. However, a well-resourced unaffiliated candidate could apply a modified Duverger approach – finding early voter strength to become the competitive alternative candidate on a state-by-state bases. This would push either the Republican or Democratic candidate into the “spoiler” role and force a choice for voters that included the independent candidate.
The Smith research found that, without much prompting, 29% of voters indicated they would vote for an independent if their candidate couldn’t win their state’s electoral votes but the independent could. That’s a pretty impressive base line. Imagine what that number would look like with a significant expenditure of paid media behind it, with the cable news talking heads inevitably picking up the narrative. Many voters would be forced between voting for the independent or wasting their vote by backing their preferred party’s candidate. In an environment where we seem to be more animated by a fear of the other party rather than a love of our own party, a vote for an independent seems likely.
Second, imagine the bump if a nationally credible independent actually made the presidential debate stage. The debates are a platform that can make or break candidacies. They led to a near doubling of Ross Perot’s support in the 1992 presidential election. In 1998, it catapulted Jesse Ventura from a distant third into the thick of a Minnesota gubernatorial race he managed to win.
A national candidate achieving 15% support by September makes the national debates and instantly gets in front of at least 80 million American voters. This candidate has the forum to become not just an interesting alternative but a truly viable option who can further modify Duverger’s theorem in state after state. It’s not that far-fetched. In 2016, little-known Libertarian Gary Johnson reached 13% in a Quinnipiac Poll in September.
There is little argument that the two dominant political parties have enormous advantages over third party and independent candidates when it comes to voter and media attention and the ability to get on the general election ballot, raise money, make the debate stage, find campaign talent, and more. But a modified Duverger’s Law shouldn’t dissuade or discourage prospective unaffiliated candidates from jumping in.
In these hyper-partisan times, it should encourage credible independents to throw their hats into the ring. The great re-sorting of American voters is well underway, and as more and more of us become frustrated with the dysfunctional duopoly, a great opportunity exists for an independent to demonstrate that a reimagined, updated Duverger’s Law can be his or her best friend.
Jim Jonas is the executive director of the Colorado-based National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers.