Many voters say they are “independent,” not affiliated with either party.
You might think both parties would court them avidly, giving them extra weight in elections.
The reality is that they have surprisingly little political leverage. Is there a different and more effective political leverage option?
A New Name for Independents
The replacement for independent voters may be political “switch hitters,” a term borrowed from baseball – batters who are effective from either their or right sides when they bat opposite a left- or right-throwing pitcher.
The critical difference is that an independent voter operates outside of the political stadium; the switch hitter plays every day inside of the political stadium.
Why Independent Parties Fail
There are multiple reasons why even a well-organized and funded independent party will not prevail or even have a significant effect in presidential elections.
- The Electoral College system wherein the state winner takes all.
- No prize for winning even 20% or more, but less than a majority, of a state’s vote.
- Voters tend to vote for apparent winners.
- Lack of major funding for television commercials.
The relative political power of independent voters is a myth. Try something that is politically realistic and potentially effective. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran for the office of president on the independent third-party Bull Moose ticket – he lost to Woodrow Wilson. In 1992, Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote and zero Electoral College votes.
Each state decides third-party access to the presidential ballot. The US Supreme Court has made it difficult for states to prevent independent third-party access to the ballot by prohibiting virtually impossible criteria. It is now easier for an independent candidate to be on the ballot, but independents and third-party candidates remain political orphans.
The political reality: when Democrats vote for Democrats, and Republicans vote for Republicans, and independents vote for independent candidates, the long-established Democratic and Republican political parties always win.
How Do Voters become “Independent”?
A potential independent voter must leave the warm nest of either the Democratic or Republican parties established by their parents and social groups. The young generation independent voter is inculcated to be a partisan voter. Leaving one’s party affiliation traumatic, similar to leaving one’s organized-religion affiliation. It’s much easier to be an independent if one had no long-standing political affiliation in the first place.
Still, some people do change. Perhaps they are motivated by disgust with the established parties. Perhaps they are swept away by a particular candidate or issue. A few change affiliations because they change their basic political outlook.
Is there a pure independent voter? Probably not. The independent voter is either Democrat- or Republican-leaning. There may be 5% of voters who meet most of the independent voter criteria checklist, notwithstanding the voter statistics arrayed below.
The markers used by voter research agencies are reasonably consistent:
- Moderates, 47%; liberal, 29%; conservatives, 24%.
- Party leaning: independent, 20%; Democrat, 45%; Republican, 33%.
- Most recent affiliation tally: independent, 36-42%; Democrat, 32-36%; Republican, 23-26%.
Why do political polling statistics find that independents are a dominant political force? Political statistics are inconsistent, or skewed, for several reasons, from one-time shocks to ticket splitting because of particular candidates, rather than changed partisanship.
To me, this strongly suggests those who say 40% of voters are independent are vastly overestimating. Maybe Ross Perot’s 19% is the highest mark for the independent voter.
The Message to Independent Voters: Focus on Substantive Issues, Not Winning the Oval Office
The message for independents is partially good news. Don’t quit now. Abandon presidential leverage expectations, focus on substantive issues for the common good, and achieve well-defined strategic objectives by stratagem and stealth.
Independents should consider becoming political party switch hitters who can focus on beneficial, substantive issues from within either established political party. How can they leverage their votes to compel the president, and Democrats, and Republicans to question and resolve their dysfunction? Politics is not an end in itself. It is the vehicle by which government is achieved. A government that understands that the US is in peril; one that can create national good feeling, constructiveness, and competency that is based on mutual respect and stability.
The strategic objective is in the collective American gut: small and large businesses that provide jobs for those who are able and willing to work; use government regulatory power sparingly to promote love of country among classes; continue to attract and welcome qualified immigrants who enhance our productive capacity and will become US citizens; and have the capacity for global leadership that is backed by constrained military power.
How can beneficial change be implemented?
Use the electronic internet infrastructure, present and future, in place of the traditional political organization that requires many personnel and much money to operate. The key concept: do your own thing; tell your selected political party what your thing is. Aggregate substantive concepts and ideas, and array them on the Internet. Note that rescuing a dog from a well will receive more than one million hits overnight. This phenomenon can be used to auction switch hitters and their policies to the highest bidders, whether Democrat or Republican.
Political leverage is achieved by letting state and local parties know that you and your switch-hitter colleagues have a substantive agenda and that, if most of your ideas are incorporated into their agenda, your vote will be theirs.
Remember the critical concept
- Independents play in the parking lot, outside the political stadium
- Switch hitters come up to bat every day.
Richard Friedman was chair of the National Strategy Forum/Chicago. He has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Counselor to the American Bar Association Committee on National Security.