When major party candidates are faced with the prospect of running against an independent candidate, they are often faced with a dilemma they are not prepared to deal with. Our political system has evolved (or devolved) to the point where it encourages the two-party system, and campaigning is generalized by popular battleground issues.
Independent candidates challenge this paradigm, as many have political views that do not fall within the traditional "left-right" scale.
Greg Orman's independent campaign for U.S Senate in Kansas, for example, highlights the 5 main strategies major-party candidates try to incorporate when running against independent campaigns. Most of these have been employed fairly successfully, yet currently serve to fuel the perception that major-party candidates are out of touch with today's voters.
1. Ignore the Independent and Hope They Go Away
This seems to be the number one go-to strategy when dealing with an independent: hope that their cause has an early fizzle.
A week after Greg Orman submitted his petition to be certified for the November ballot, Chad Taylor (D) challenged incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R) to a series of 105 debates -- one in each county in Kansas:
“I challenge Senator Pat Roberts to debate me in each of Kansas’ 105 counties. It is our civic duty to the people of this state to stand side-by-side and answer their questions thoroughly so they can make an informed decision about their candidates for U.S. Senate. I owe it to the voters to let them know where I stand and Pat Roberts owes it to them to defend his voting record over his 47 years in Washington, DC." -- Chad Taylor, 08/06/2014
Not a single mention of the independent candidate in the entire press release.
Acknowledging the independent before they are on the ballot only weakens the majority party position. Even mentioning that there is another alternative out there may cause some voters to look closer at who this alternative is.
2. Keep the Independent Off-Message and on the Defensive
Most independents run for office because they have a deeply felt and well-thought-out message. In debates against independents, it has been a long-running strategy to try to keep the independent engaged in every topic other than their message.
Other than funding, this is probably the most effective strategy used to marginalize the independent candidate.For instance, H. Ross Perot ran on a fundamentally anti-NAFTA, anti-special interests platform in 1992, and yet in each of the public debates, the major-party candidates kept him engaged and off-balance in topics to keep him from spreading his fundamental message.
The result was a Perot that was caricatured as a bumbling idiot throughout the debates -- instead of a successful businessman with a valid message. Probably Perot's only salvation was his quick wit in response to the major-party candidates, but that wasn't enough to convince people of his message.
Today is no different.
Orman's message is simple to grasp: Washington is broken, career politicians are a large part of the problem, and it will take common-sense, business-minded politicians willing to make tough, nonpartisan choices to fix it.
From the very beginning of the campaign, Orman has had on his webpage a section outlining his position on popular political issues. Yet his opposition has consistently implied that he has no platform and is only running an "anyone but ... " type campaign.
3. Associate Independents with the "Enemy"
Our entire electoral process is so defined by the clear-cut boundaries of "liberal" and "conservative" that no one knows what to do when a candidate encompasses parts of both ideals. Greg Orman considers himself to be "fiscally conservative" and "socially tolerant." This doesn't fit into any pre-determined paradigm.
In response, candidates for the major parties try to convince voters that the independent candidate is no different from the candidate of the opposing party. A recent news article stated:
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts sought Wednesday to undercut an independent candidate’s appeal to unaffiliated Kansas voters by declaring that the challenger is a liberal Democrat...
This is not without irony.
Roberts faced a very bitter primary battle with tea-party candidate Milton Wolf. The odd result is that tea party members seem to be more likely to support Orman than Roberts due to Orman's platform of term limits and fiscal conservatism.
This creates an interesting phenomenon: Voters are more "okay" with a candidate that can transcend party lines than politicians are willing to admit. An honest and reflective look at this by politicians could result in a substantial depolarization of politics.
4. A Vote for the Independent is a Vote for the Other PartyThe role of independent candidates as "the spoiler" is a hard role to shake. Right now in Kansas, there is a considerable level of truth to this, but with an interesting twist.
Public Policy Polling recently found that in a head-to-head showdown, Orman would soundly defeat Roberts while Taylor is still lagging behind by 4 percentage points.
In a three-way race, Roberts is still solidly in the lead with Taylor and Orman evenly splitting the moderate vote. In this case, the major-party candidate Taylor is playing the role of spoiler to the independent campaign.
For maybe the first time in the state's history, some local Democratic leaders are calling on their own party's candidate to exit the race and there is speculation that national organizations could soon pressure Taylor to drop out as well. This is also coupled with several key Democratic endorsements for the independent, including one candidate for U.S. House.
5. When All Else Fails, Outspend the Independent
The better funded candidate wins 91 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post. This puts independent campaigns at probably their worst disadvantage -- the lack of "endless" party funds and PACs in a critical election.Roberts entered the home stretch of this election cycle with a war chest of nearly $2 million -- almost an insurmountable amount of funding for a historically "safe" seat.
Taylor showed almost no cash on hand in his most recent FEC filing, bringing extra attention to his lack of viability. Orman's campaign has promised to not accept PAC money, yet has still shown remarkable fundraising ability.
The real question is what kind of campaigning all this money will purchase. The bitter Republican primary has left voters with a sour taste for negative campaigning.
Will the issues actually be discussed? We can only hope.
Where Does This Leave the Voters?
Forty-two percent of voters self-identify as independent, a reflection of an electorate unwilling to be placed into a locked system of political ideology.
The issues our country is facing are more complicated than liberal or conservative "quick fixes" could cure. This is especially true when a large part of the problem is the bipartisan Utopian belief that any political quick fix could possibly do any good.
The reality is that hard choices need to be made by the next several congressional sessions -- choices that will affect the lives of millions of citizens.
Independent campaigns have been discouraged by the past 100 years of the electoral process, yet the two-party system has created a Congress with the lowest approval rating ever recorded. Now is the time for independent candidates to make a difference in the political process.