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Why Previously Independent Candidates Had to Pick Sides

by Grant Oster, published

Recently, various news services exploded with the fact that retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson has only been part of the Republican Party for less than a year. They questioned his “fitness” to be a candidate if he had been an independent just until October 31, 2014.

However, those who had been awaiting Dr. Carson’s pursuit of the presidency were aware of his party switch. It was even hailed as a signal that Dr. Carson would pursue the 2016 presidency.

The real question is, why did previous nonpartisans such as Dr. Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders feel the need to shift from independent to the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively?

Dr. Ben Carson and the GOP

Dr. Carson was born to a family of mostly Democrats, but turned Republican under President Ronald Reagan because he felt the party resonated more with his personal values. However, under the Clinton administration, he switched to being an independent. It was not because of President Clinton, but rather the behavior of GOP members.

“I just saw so much hypocrisy in both parties,” he said.

Dr. Carson switched parties in 2014 as a “pragmatic move.”

“I have to run in one party or another. If you run as an independent, you only risk splitting the electorate,” he explained.

Dr. Carson did not feel like his values aligned with the Democrats, so for him that left only one option.

Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in United States history. He is currently serving in the U.S. Senate, but he registered in the 2016 presidential election as a Democratic nominee. He wanted to run as an independent, but practical reasons constrained him.

Bernie Sanders says, “If we were serious about winning this election [...] I had to do it within the Democratic primary caucus process."

"What I did not want to do is run as a third party candidate and help elect some right-wing Republican. I did not want responsibility for that,” he added.

So Sanders, much like Dr. Carson, found nonpartisanship impractical.

Why is Nonpartisanship Still Impractical?

As of 2015, 45% of voters self-identify as independent of the two major political parties. The Democrats' lead has steadily decreased, making the balance between independents leaning to one party or the other almost perfect. However, the numbers of those independents are quite high -- still over 40% for each side. This would leave less than 20% as the target electorate for any independent or third-party candidate.

What is constraining potential independent candidates, such as Dr. Carson and Bernie Sanders, from running as such is the partisanship that they know will limit their platforms. It has become second nature to think in terms of two parties, so much so that many candidates prefer to capitalize on the split-nature of the electorate. This idea of automatically voting with a party rather than a candidate feels embedded into the election system.

As independent voters gain strength in the electorate, they will hopefully be given more of a chance to vote for candidates outside the two major parties. Independent voters are the key to fair elections, as close to the democratic ideal as possible.

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