Until We Change the Rules, The Media Won’t Take Independents Seriously

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd raised an issue that is getting more and more attention from the media: the record proportion of voters who call themselves independents – and their lack of a voice in the upcoming presidential election. Here is part of the transcript…

CHUCK TODD:

The growing number of voters who don’t affiliate with either major political party is reshaping our political system perhaps more than you may realize. How? Let’s take a look at this.

The largest political party in the United States is no longer a party at all. In fact, check out those stats: 45% of Americans now identify as independents, according to our latest polling. That compares to just 27% who call themselves Democrats and 20% who say they are Republicans. What does this mean across the country?

Well, take a look at this. The number of unaffiliated registered voters has grown rapidly. In the 31 states plus the District of Columbia where voters have to pick a party when registering to vote, unaffiliated or no-party voters are now the leading political party in 12 of those states. And in a few of them, they’re a majority of all registered voters.

Let’s take a look at one swing state in particular, the state of Florida. It’s perhaps the most crucial battleground state in 2016. The number of voters who now register as “other” has grown by a million in the last ten years. Compare that with the Democrats who only grew by 300,000 and the Republicans who grew by just 200,000. But even as the numbers of Americans identifying as independents have grown, we haven’t seen a jump in the number of independent candidates.

Certainly none that are actually gaining traction because they’re not in the race. Let me bring in the panel to discuss. Chris, you and I have ferocious debates about what the independent number means and all this stuff. The fact of the matter is, I do believe that voters — even if they agree with the left or agree with the right — don’t like to belong to those two parties right now.

CHRIS CILLIZZA:

I think especially now because they see the two parties essentially as engaging in a prolonged food fight with one another. So even if you identify with the principles of one party or the other, and this excludes the bases of both parties — sort of the loose partisans — you don’t like the tactics of either party.

But one thing I will say, not to rain on this parade like it did yesterday on July 4. But most people like to say they are independents. Most people when they vote very traditionally vote for one or the other. Now there are a hardcore group of independents. The question is how big actually are they? It’s not 45% of the public.

CHUCK TODD:

I am stunned that there hasn’t been a semi-significant independent candidate…. Bloomberg’s not really flirting with it. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, I think would like to be recruited to do it. I think he is sort of semi-interested. But there isn’t a Ross Perot. There isn’t somebody out there that I thought given this political environment would show up.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

But I think, you know, independent candidates just don’t do well. And…even though a person declares himself an independent, they still typically vote one way or the other. They typically lean to the Democratic Party or lean to the Republican Party.

Let’s take a closer look at the statements here.

First, Todd has it right. Something very significant is happening. As Cillizza says, Americans are disgusted by the “prolonged food fight” in which the parties are engaging.

But the notion that independents are Democrats or Republicans in disguise, that they say they’re independent but really aren’t and, as Parker says, “they still typically vote one way or the other [D or R]” – that notion is dead wrong.

Of course they vote D or R. They don’t want to waste their vote, and, under the current system, the D or R candidate is the only one with a chance to win, or even significantly affect the policies of the winner. The reason an independent can’t win the presidency is that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has set rules that keep an independent off the stage. And if you can’t get into the final fall presidential debates, you can’t get elected.

By a two-to-one majority, Americans want the rules changed so that an independent can get into the debates.
By a two-to-one majority, Americans want the rules changed so that an independent can get into the debates. That’s the finding of a survey by Peter D. Hart that was part of the report of the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Debate Reform, issued last month.

Voters overwhelmingly agreed with this statement:

The rules for a third-party candidate inclusion should be relaxed so that it is easier for them to be part of the debate. Even if it is unlikely that they will win the presidency, it would make the major candidates respond to their ideas.

Now back to Chuck Todd. He says he is “stunned that there hasn’t been a semi-significant independent candidate” in the race. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is an actual independent, is running as a Democrat. Rand Paul and Donald Trump, who you would think would be independents, are running as Republicans. Why?

The answer is actually not so stunning. These candidates know that they have no chance to win as independents because the Commission keeps independents out of the final debates. They’ve got more chance running against Hillary Clinton or a huge gang of Republicans.

In an article on medium.com, Nick Troiano, who ran as an independent, participated in the lone debate in Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district in 2014. He lost. But, in his piece, he extols a system that gave him a chance:

As evidenced by my own campaign, participation in a debate won’t guarantee an independent can win an election and won’t eliminate the many other obstacles standing in the way. But it can guarantee a level playing field for an exchange of ideas worthy of our democracy, and worthy of the participation of well-respected national leaders who are (as you’re reading this) still sitting on the sidelines.

Troiano is absolutely right. It’s time for the Commission on Presidential Debates to allow another participant on the stage – and revitalize American democracy.

Editor’s note: This article originally published on Presidential Debate News on July 6, 2015, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.