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Barriers remain too high for Independents

by Alan Markow, published

Is there anyone less popular today than a sitting politician?  Well, yes.  Someone else’s politician.  Today’s generalized numbers about Congress, the President, Democrats and Republicans go out the window when it comes to your local guy or gal. 

Despite numbers so low they are threatening to crack the crust of the earth, parties are not threatened with replacement by Independents because people don’t vote for parties.  They vote for individuals.  And almost to a person, those individuals are safe from replacement.

Political incumbency is the best job in the nation.  According to a scholarly work published by the University of Kentucky, incumbency plays a major and increasing role in the success of candidates.  The power wielded by political position is the ultimate siren song of electoral success.  And behind that power is the growing influence of money.

More than $400 million was contributed to California politicians during the 2008 elections -- better than 85 percent of it to the two major parties, according to  In business, these numbers would be called a “barrier to entry” because they represent the hurdle any newcomer would have to overcome in order to get in the game.  When you wonder where all the Independent candidates are, you have to “follow the money” to find the answer.  The barrier to entry is simply too high for most of them.  And even the wealthiest of candidates cannot overcome the deep pockets of party politics.

But, there’s also the matter of too little interest at the micro level.  Sure, only 15 percent of the public thinks the U.S. Congress is doing its job.  But those figures do not translate into the beginning of a movement toward a third party, or even toward more than the current two Independents serving in Congress.  In fact, with Joe Lieberman retiring in 2012, we’re likely to be left with only Vermont’s outspoken Senator Bernie Sanders with an “I” beside his name.

When it comes to local representation, most people are happy to “stay with the one who brung ‘em.”  The poor job by politicians is the fault of someone else from some other district or state.  We know our representative is okay, and, with the exception of scandal, illness or death, or retirement, we don’t want to make a change.

In other words, the so-called Independent movement is, thus far, all talk and no action.  And it’s likely to stay that way.  There’s simply no room financially for someone outside of the two-party system to make it anywhere beyond the most local level, and there’s little interest by the public in replacing their local guy.

Any Californian who seeks to unseat an incumbent in either the state legislature or at the federal level must begin with a base of funds that includes support by a powerful state or national party.  The only alternative is personal wealth, and even that (as proven by California’s unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senatorial hopeful Carly Fiorina) cannot guarantee electability.

Those who believe that there is a growing movement toward a third party at the presidential or state levels will need to show some evidence very soon of real candidates gathering real funds to make such a run.  As of today, it does not appear to be happening.

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