Deficits and debt, rising health care, housing and higher education costs, Social Security shortfalls, environmental and energy concerns, failing public schools, deteriorating infrastructure, stagnant job growth and wages: all issues we know our elected representatives must address – but either can’t or won’t.
Americans are increasingly frustrated with a system that can’t find the political will to solve anything. The two national political parties are stuck in the rut of hyper-partisan bickering, choosing to point fingers, seek political advantage, and blame the other party for all that ails the Republic instead of finding common-ground solutions to the many problems we face.
One response to the partisans’ failure to lead has been a mass defection of voters from both parties. Their “pox on both their houses” declaration has made “unaffiliated/independent” the fastest growing voter segment nationally – as high as 42% of all registered voters (and even higher in several states).
With so much frustration with the two major parties and with so many voters moving into the unaffiliated/independent column, why haven’t there been more independent and third-party candidates winning elections or at least building viable, competitive campaigns?
In fact, a few independents have been running viable campaigns – but far too infrequently and in far too few places relative to their registration advances.
In Kansas, I helped the independent candidate, Greg Orman, run a highly competitive campaign for the U.S. Senate in a very Republican state (he led in the polls up until election night). We benefited from several favorable factors: a damaged and vulnerable incumbent who survived a primary challenge from the right, a weak Democratic candidate (who eventually dropped out), and Greg was a very good retail and wholesale candidate with some significant personal resources.
Granted, those electoral stars won’t often align to help independent candidates become viable. But those opportunities could become much more frequent once the variety of systemic structural and institutional roadblocks for independent candidates begin to fall.
While the two major parties don’t agree on much, they do agree they don’t want any more competition at the ballot box.
It’s important to note that many unaffiliated/independent voters, however, while not wanting to formally associate with a party, still tend to stick with one party or the other come the general election. Cultural and historical habits often drive voting loyalties, if not formal party membership.
So, while an “independent socialist” and an “independent libertarian” can both call themselves “independent,” they likely have little politically in common other than their distaste for belonging to a party.
While the registration numbers may show a growing, underserved “middle,” the numbers can be deceiving. To be competitive, independent candidates have to create coherent, compelling messages that can attract and hold enough support from across the spectrum and pull significant support from both parties in a general election.
This doesn’t mean a national independent platform or fixed agenda. Instead, it means each independent candidate needs to find the ideological sweet spot for their district or state. Until independent candidates figure out how to find and secure their unique “base,” the Democrats and Republicans will continue their chokehold on most elections.
A few hard lessons for independent candidates that were reinforced this cycle:
Voters don’t know what “independent” means
Voters have a pretty good idea what the “R” and “D” behind a candidate’s name means. An “I”? Not so much. Party ID gives voters an almost instant understanding of a candidates’ basic worldview. The “I” is a blank slate.
Being a blank slate also gives opposing partisans the opportunity to define you. Or even easier, simply raise questions and doubt with voters about who you are. “Who is this so-called ‘independent?’ Who do they really work for? They don’t stand for anything… you can’t trust them…” Faced with doubt and uncertainty, voters will go with the devil they know if they’re not yet sure where the independent may align.
Lesson learned: Define your campaign early, both on what you support, but also forcefully on what you oppose before the partisan candidates have a chance to do it for you.
Starting a campaign from scratch isn’t easy.
Effective campaigns are difficult to start up in the best of circumstances. Parties make it a LOT easier – particularly for first-time candidates. Independent candidates don’t have access to party resources like candidate trainings, best practices and issues research, national/local polling, professional campaign services, or access to party donors.
The parties’ campaign committees help their candidates find capable staff and consultants who can build political, finance, and field operations. Party candidates have access to voter histories and can tap into coordinated voter ID, advocacy, and turnout efforts. Party candidates get established pre-built precinct organizations, volunteer lists, and distribution channels (phones, door-to-door, more).
Independent candidates? Not so much. One of the more frustrating challenges for independent candidates is finding capable political staff to get a campaign’s political, field, finance, and communication operations up and running.
Virtually everyone involved in national professional politics chooses a partisan side — and sticks with it throughout their careers. There is no deviation from that partisan path. Do so and risk never working again as a paid political consultant.
Lesson learned: Find a capable independent political consultant (or one who’s been given clearance by party bosses) who can get started early to build an effective staff and campaign plan.
Raising independent campaign money is hard work
Raising money for a campaign is hard enough when you belong to one of the major parties. With an “I” behind your name, it becomes much more difficult.
First, most reliable political contributors are all-in ideologically for one party or the other. Most folks who’ve tuned out politics — many of the same donor targets who are most likely to want an independent voice in the system — don’t have a lot of history with political donations and are hesitant to spend money on anything connected to politics.
Independents, by their very label, don’t neatly fall into tidy right/left, red/blue categories.
Third, the nationalization of federal campaigns is making “outside” money even more influential to the point that candidates are becoming secondary, proxy players to the process. The outside, partisan-affiliated big money players battle it out over the airwaves supporting their favorite D or R candidate, often outspending the candidates by wide margins.
Lesson learned: Line up friends, family, and fellow travelers to help with early money. Find clear issue distinctions to attract voter and donor groups. Fight to become relevant as quickly as possible (once you’re labeled a “spoiler” or a “fringe” candidate the battle for attention, support, and money will become nearly impossible). Money is often the first test of a candidate’s viability. Know the amount you need to raise to reach the viability threshold and how you’re going to get there. “Hoping” the dollars will come after you launch the campaign is not a strategy.
There are huge financial disadvantages for independents to attract outside money to support them. To date, most of the so-called “education” committees and Super PACs have been created to help candidates of one party or the other. But there are more and more true believers (some with deep pockets) who want to help competitive independents. Become relevant early, demonstrate support and a path to competitiveness and money will flow to those select campaigns that prove they’re viable.
A few other campaign lessons learned and hazards to anticipate:
Accept from day one that your campaign will be dismissed, ignored, and belittled by the parties, the press, and most voters — until you force them to pay attention. It doesn’t matter how important your message may be. Until you prove your electability, no one will give you the time of day.
Of course you need the media to help drive that credibility and viability (for supporters, more coverage, and more donations). But the media is not in the business of making your candidacy serious… you are. Make yourself relevant and the media will cover you.
Accept that if your message has any resonance, one party (or both) will try to co-opt it. Richard Nixon’s political advice to candidates to appeal to their base in the primary and then scramble to the middle in the general election still holds true. Once a mainstream independent gains any modicum of support, start betting heavily that one party or the other will do their best to steal his or her centrist/independent message for themselves.
The “system” does not like independents
Many in the media, most political insiders, academics, business leaders, and power brokers have all concluded that the current partisan-oriented system works well (enough). They will be quick to explain and defend that system, arguing that elections work best with two capable parties battling it out for voters’ hearts and minds.
Some will label independent candidates as frivolous, unnecessary, and nonviable “spoilers” at best (the harshest criticism coming from the weaker of the two parties worried about mainstream independent candidates siphoning off “their” support).
So why should anyone care about viable independents?
Why should we care about viable independent candidates having a chance at winning elections? After all, our two-party political system has served the nation mostly-well for a long time. And it’s very unlikely a competitive third party will emerge anytime soon as there are simply too many structural disadvantages for a new party to get a national foothold.
The rationale for a strong independent movement and viable independent candidates is not about needing or wanting to kill the political parties. Instead, it’s about getting the parties back in the business of seeking solutions instead of playing politics.
A centrist counterweight can force the parties’ extremist elements to compete for voters in the middle. Independent campaigns can also help boost voter participation by offering more options to those voters often disappointed with limited partisan choices in general elections (which will, in turn, cause the successful candidates to more broadly appeal to their constituencies).
Importantly, because of the close split between the parties for majority control of the U.S. Senate and House and many state legislatures, electing just a few independents could provide a powerful fulcrum of the middle to force the parties into action. If neither party had enough votes to capture a majority, a few independent United States Senators would be able to create a problem-solving “caucus” of the middle which could demand both parties to the legislative negotiating table to get things accomplished.A centrist counterweight can force the parties’ extremist elements to compete for voters in the middle.
Additionally, aided by some common-sense primary election reforms, viable independent candidates could also foster much greater competition within legislative districts, requiring successful candidates to compete for ALL voters’ support – not just the loudest voices of their party’s primary voters. (Sadly, a great many legislators in closed primary election states effectively win their seats when they win their primaries, as their districts are so decidedly weighted toward one party or another.)
Finding competitive, viable independent candidates will not be easy. The game is rigged against them. But there is a great deal of activity in the independent movement across the country.
While we weren’t ultimately successful in the Kansas U.S. Senate race, we proved that a funded, highly-capable candidate — given the right political circumstances — can be very, very competitive. There will be other electable independent candidates in the elections to come. And those candidates will enjoy the benefits of a increasingly well-mobilized support network that is getting stronger, smarter, and better organized every cycle.
National organizations like the Centrist Project and the Independent Voter Network are just two of the important groups helping piece together the building blocks of the necessary resources, networks, and funders for independents to compete and win in select districts across the country. Others will be getting together in 2015 in preparation of waging competitive campaigns in 2016 and beyond.
Competitive independent candidates can lead to greater voter participation, more competitive elections, and ultimately force more cooperative legislation. My hope is that the lessons candidates and consultants continue to learn from the strong campaigns of the past will help encourage more independent candidates to run — and win — in the elections to come.
Jim Jonas is a political consultant for independent candidates and causes. His firm, JKJ Partners is based in Denver, Colorado. He most recently served as lead consultant and campaign manager for Greg Orman’s independent campaign for the United States Senate in Kansas in 2014. Contact him at [email protected] or @thecenterwins.