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Running to Win: Independent Q&A with Bill Hillsman, Part 1

by Kymberly Bays, published


Independents are poised to make an impact on multiple races this fall, on national, state and local levels. Americans identifying as independents are at a 70-year high.

But what comes next?

In a new book, Independents Rising, long-time independent organizer Jacqueline Salit recounts major independent and third party campaigns throughout the past 20 years. She also examines political critics and the nature of the independent voter surge.

Heavily involved in the execution of several independent campaigns throughout the past two decades, Bill Hillsman, author of Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Race at a Time, CEO of North Woods Advertising and founder of Independent Voters of America, has behind-the-scenes experience of capturing the independent spirit of voters.

He recently shared his own thoughts on independent politics with Independent Voter Network.

You can also find this interview over at Independent Voters of America.

Independent Voter Network: What does it take for an independent to run today? Specifically--for president?

Bill Hillsman: It takes a lot of money, because of the problem of ballot access. That's the one thing Americans Elect got right. Because the two parties throw so many barriers in the way of independent and third-party candidates, just getting on the ballot is extremely difficult. In the absence of a all-funded organization like Americans Elect, you need a candidate or a campaign with a whole bunch of money who can pay for effective signature drives in each of the states.

Also, performance in debates is crucial. If you don't have access to debates, then you don't get the bumps they provide. But now the two parties, with corporate funding, totally control the access to and rules for the presidential debates. The rules for inclusion in presidential debates were changed after [Ross] Perot's did so well in 1992. First, the two parties took the debates out of the control of the League of Woman Voters. Then, they made it a corporate sponsored event. All this was totally by design, the design being, to not allow another Ross Perot to capture the voting public's imagination.

Because independents come from all over the spectrum politically, what can be done to unite or appeal to a majority--from an ad point of view? What kind of message would resonate with unaffiliated voters?

Hillsman: The single best way to coalesce independent voters is this: it doesn't matter who is in the White House, it doesn't matter who is in Congress. There is absolutely no accountability for our government and no productivity from it. There is no room for compromise, because of the extreme partisanship of both parties. And as things get exponentially more partisan each election cycle, it's been proven time and time again that compromise is impossible. When compromise is impossible, both sides refuse to be accountable, and absolutely nothing is getting done. That's the argument I would use.

I don't think you necessarily need to put together everything you'd like to do in office or write out full position papers. The fact is, until there is a plurality of independents in Congress-- or some other way of making our elected officials accountable to the voters again instead of the parties they serve-- nothing will get done anyways. Voters are looking for honest people with an open mind to serve in Congress. So independents can get elected simply on that basis. However, the ultimate way to get something done is for individual independent candidates to win elections. If you double the number of independents in an election, then double that in the next election cycle, and then double it again the next election cycle, you'll eventually have power.

What about in a closely divided Senate, for example if Angus King wins in Maine?

Hillsman: When I served as Communications Director for independent Senator Dean Barkley during the lame-duck session of the 107th Congress, the Senate was practically split 50-50, and I was amazed at the power one Senator could have. If the Senate becomes close to that again after this election, Angus King will be in a similar position. I've always wondered why, especially in the Senate, more centrist members from both parties don't come together and vote as a bloc. In many instances, they would be the most powerful voting bloc in Congress, with the ability to pass or defeat any bill, and the ability to bring some real accountability to the process. There are conservative Democratic Senators from, say, Nebraska or North Dakota who have nearly nothing in common with their more liberal counterparts, like the Senators from California or Hawaii-- but a lot in common with moderate Republican Senators. There's a number of senators who are more centrist in nature and who could control the "sensible middle" ground.

But then, I know what their party would do to bring them back into line. Their own party would bring great retribution upon them. They would get lousy committee assignments, reductions in power, reductions in the budgets they control. That's how both parties maintain discipline.

The most insidious parts of campaigning comes down to political parties and political consultants. They don't really care about their candidates. They really don't care about voters. They don't care about who gets elected. They care about keeping political power. They care that candidates are in line with what their political party wants to do. The consultants know their real clients are the parties. Candidates come and go. Consultants take the long view for their business. So they don't do what's in the best interest of candidates-- even their own-- they do what makes sense for their party and what the party and the party's pollsters tell them to do.

What sort of strategy should candidates be looking at? In your book you mention creativity, using the internet effectively and fundraising. Is it possible to use "the system" to your advantage?

Hillsman: For an independent, you can't use the political system as it exists now to your advantage until there is an established national campaign structure or some sort of fundraising structure for independents. Independent candidates are all on their own in their races-- each candidate has to build his or her campaign and raise their money from scratch. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Most independent voters don't want to be part of a party. Instead what you can do is get them to coalesce around a cause or a candidate.

There are differing opinions on this, though. For instance, Ross Perot thought what you had to do to get elected as an independent or third-party candidate was build a national party. Jesse Ventura-- who actually won-- thought his most important job was to be a good governor, not to build an ongoing political party. If people wanted to build the party using him or around him, that was fine. But he didn't see it as his job to build a political party.

Should independents be focusing on ballot access or local races, starting now, to yield a viable candidate for 2016?

Hillsman: What you describe sounds to me like tasks for a political party. I think first and foremost you need to find candidates who know the issues and know how to be effective when running in an election, people who can at least get campaign wheels running.

If we're looking at becoming a party, well, that's what the Green Party has been trying to do for 20 years. Their approach has been to try to attract attention as a national party, but to get people elected at less than the federal level. They tend to concentrate more on grass roots approaches and getting people elected to county boards, school boards, park boards and city councils. But they are still far from becoming known as a competitive third party to the Democrats and Republicans.

I think independents, just because of the number of us, have greater potential to do something in larger elections. But I believe it's less about organizing as a party, and more about coalescing around a candidate. It all starts with the right candidates, there is really no other way around it. There's no other way to victory in major races, in my mind.

Can independents win?

Hillsman: It's certainly possible. In some states, moreso than others, independents can win. In certain states it's not all that hard to get on the ballot. There are affordable ways to do it. Victory, though, depends on candidates raising the resources they need, and frankly, to get the professional campaign and communications help they need to win.

In our experience, if you can get a candidate at or above 20-22%, it becomes about keeping the momentum going. If you can get them to the low 20s, you can get them to 30%. And if you can get them to 30%, it's not all that far from 33%-- which is the point, in a close election, where anything can happen. At least, that's always been our strategy. Independents have to realize, that in a plurality election, they don't have to get 50% + 1 vote to win.  If it's a close election, they need to get only between 35%-40% to win. That's achievable.

And right now, independent candidates can get between 12-15% of the vote just by saying 'I'm not either of these two other guys, and Democrats and Republicans suck'. In many places, that's worth between 18%-22% of the vote right there. So the next step is to get into the high-teens to low-20's. If you can get to low-20's, you're not that far from 33%.

Most effective independent candidates run a populist campaign. Populist campaigns are about momentum. Independent candidates running a successful momentum campaign late in the election have a decent chance of overtaking the frontrunner and pulling off an upset. We've done it, so we know it's possible.

How do you build momentum around an independent candidate?

Hillsman: You have to have enough resources to do what your campaign plan says needs to be done. And again, debates are important.

In the 2009 campaign for Governor of New Jersey, we had Christopher Daggett versus [Republican] Chris Christie and [Democrat] Jon Corzine. Largely as a result of Chris Daggett's plan for the state, which he laid out in detail, and because of his very strong performance in the debates, Daggett reached into the low-20's in some polls. But we just didn't have the resources to capitalize on it.

New Jersey is an expensive state to campaign and win in. You have to buy ads in the New York City and Philadelphia media markets. Corzine was spending about $40 million to try to get reelected and Christie was spending more than $25 million. We had a campaign plan to get Chris Daggett elected with between $6-9 million, which should have been relatively easy to raise in a state like New Jersey. The campaign only got to a little above a million. That just wasn't enough to have a shot in a state like New Jersey.

Also, in New Jersey, once the Republicans figured out that the voters hated Corzine so much they really wanted him out, they also understood that any anti-Corzine vote that didn't go to Chris Daggett would go to Chris Christie. So the Republicans unleashed a vicious attack campaign against Chris Daggett, like nothing I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot). They used call-ins to talk radio, TV ads, everything they could find…just unrelenting media attacks. We had no resources to fight back with, and Daggett's numbers plunged to single digits. We saw it happening, but there was nothing we could do about it-- we had spent the money the campaign could raise getting him within striking distance.

But the lesson is, there is certainly enough pent up interest among people for different candidates, for an alternative to Democrats and Republicans, that if candidates either have or can raise what we call critical mass-- enough resources to effectively execute their campaign plan--they can compete in even these expensive states. The voter demand is already there.


Read more insights from Bill Hillsman and on the independent voter movement over at Independent Voters of America.

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