The Recipe Independent Reformers Need to Sweeten The Fetid Brew of Two-Party Elections

Deep in their cups after November 8th, lamenting the rolling tragedy that was this election season, the realization will settle in: “We could have won this one.”

“This was a winnable race. The opponent was so flawed. The people are so mad. We could have elected a worthy American to be president. Someone all Americans can believe in. We could have….”

They will stare longingly at the numbers. According to Real Clear Politics average of polls, 63% of the people think the country is on the wrong track. Green shoot economic news has no effect. Unfavorable ratings of 55% nag the other candidate. That candidate cannot be trusted, or worse, is seen as unfit by a plurality of Americans. Two-thirds of the country says the 2016 presidential election is a crucial one. Most were looking for real change in their president.

Analyzing this data, it’s obvious we must be talking about Republican feelings toward Hillary who is trending toward a win despite this brutal campaign. This whole soup tastes bad to conservatives because the party knows that in this year of change, a Wikileaks challenged Hillary Clinton was beatable. Obviously the de facto incumbent Clinton—whose enduring legacy is explaining why we should trust a leader who boasts “[b]oth a public and a private position…”on the crucial issues—represents anything but change.

But Republicans nominated an unworthy Donald Trump, whose searing campaign is daily shredding the party and its connection to a broad swath of Americans. Still he maintains a psychic bond to his base—causing a painful duck and cover for down ballot Senate and House candidates, only outdone by the Trump two-step executed every day by top Republican Paul Ryan. Insider conservatives believe a quality Republican could have won this race by expanding from this core to the broad restless electorate.

This fetid brew may be causing a national Republican tummy ache, but for Independent reformers, it’s pure poison. Both major party nominees are historically flawed. This was the chance to finally put someone in office who the 43% of voters unaligned with democrats and republicans, and our frustrated boosters within the parties, can rally around.

With a strong candidate and real backing, Independent reformers could have broken the electoral dam in 2016. And we blew it.

There’s plenty of blame to hurl around. Laws and regulations—gerrymandering, ballot access, debate rules and campaign finance—prop up a failing two party system.  The din of polarized and reactionary new and old media eroding citizen trust in government and candidates.  And a right/left 1% whose batting average financing successful reform efforts is, to be kind, subpar.

For the real cause, we need look no further than our own dedicated, but challenged, community of operatives, advocates, and funders who are slowly prying open a pathway for new candidates to run beyond the two-party system.  The independent reform movement is echoing the ingrained desire of voters for candidates and issue frames beyond what the two parties offer. Yet, the tools we reformers deploy for making real political change are tragically weak in the three areas that matter most— Candidates, Infrastructure, and Fundraising—cementing a chronic inability to press the advantage during even the ripest presidential cycle.

This fetid brew may be causing a national Republican tummy ache, but for Independent reformers, it’s pure poison.
Kahlil Byrd

Candidates. Independents are addicted to fielding weak, windmill tilting candidates who don’t connect, are resource-poor, and have little chance to win.  At the helm of Americans Elect in 2012, in the trenches as a newborn full-time reformer, something always puzzled me: the field’s constant harkening back to the halcyon days of Ross Perot. He cut through with common sense business man statements about budgets (both deficits and balancing them), won 19% of the vote, and his policy ideas flowed into a centrist Clinton Administration. This was considered a high water mark for independents.

But, when reviewing the tapes of Perot, you see someone who was, well, kind of strange.  His quirky talk, erratic campaign, and unique look launched a thousand parodies and provided career rocket fuel for “Saturday Night Live’s” Dana Carvey.  Cut to it, people couldn’t imagine this peculiar man as their president. Too many of our candidate offerings match this general description.

Aiming toward 2018, we must systematically recruit, cultivate and financially support high-quality independent candidates for voters to back for mayor, House, Senate, Governor, and someday president. Further, we must ensure that if these newcomers win they will strive to help build the movement, instead of slamming the door behind them.

Infrastructure. Reformers’ second hurdle is a lack of consistent infrastructure to, every two years, boost independent candidates and bipartisan organizations. Just after a presidential election, the two parties either focus on constant improvement by deep diving into what went wrong or breathe in victory’s fresh air by deploying people and policy into government from the swelled chest of a winning campaign.

No such template exists for Independent reformers after each predictable election defeat. The ballots cast, we toilers slink back to bleak corners to nurse wounds, our organizations broke and depleted.  Instead of seeing our work within the long arch of a greater movement, we take each loss personally and find it increasingly difficult to mount up for the next round.

After each election we should be: aggressively polling to figure out in which states the ripest opportunities exist for independent candidates; building robust collective data-bases of voters, funders, workers and potential candidates to prep for the next two year election cycle; and identifying, preparing and financing operatives and organizations that will lay the groundwork for wins every time American’s cast their ballots.

Fundraising. Finally, reformers struggle to make change because of anemic and inconsistent fundraising networks.  Each cycle a loose and too small bipartisan posse of funders migrates to hot efforts or candidates—$40 million for Americans Elect, $12 million for Mayday Pac, millions each for IE’s supporting Senate runs for Greg Orman in Kansas in 2014 (loss) and now Maine Sen. Angus King in 2012 (win). They spend aggressively on these ideas or races but fail to recognize their position as part of a national community dedicated to improving the country through smart investment.

These funders have the best intentions in mind. But often their money comes with strings, or is targeted for their personal agendas and poorly thought through pet projects. However well meaning and dedicated, these financier generated ideas tend to fall apart at the execution stage. Investors start out excited when they like an idea within a specific sector or are impressed with a team. Then when things get rocky, as they always do in politics, they pull their money as aggressively as they jumped in. Further, regardless of how wealthy the individual, they predictably conclude there is never enough personal money to move the needle, so they typically under-invest.

Balancing a small and fickle set of funders, reformers are often left in a lurch, unable to iterate and ripen the strongest ideas year-over-year in the spirit of true innovation. This creates a downward failure spiral. Instead of smart, coherent long-term strategy, financiers of independent politics are by definition the cliched “kids gathering around the soccer ball.” This funding deficit combined with poor judgment is effectively crippling the movement.

What’s needed is a national bipartisan matrix of steady-state investors creating a “Silicon Valley” for bipartisan political reform. Reformers must provide a clear vision and roadmap about major political transformation for investors to follow. Investors must bring dedicated financial resources and energy to this cohort of leaders focused on solving public problems and guiding the United States out of the current morass of political dysfunction. This must be a constant and dynamic marketplace where investors can trust the information they receive about vetted strategies and organizations, and entrepreneurs know that investors are committed to sticking around through the complete change journey.

And if we think opportunities to win are not real, look no further than a few recent just-out-of-reach-offerings: newcomer Evan McMullin’s current presidential campaign (particularly his surge against Trump in Utah), Orman’s 2014 Senate effort in Kansas, or Nathan Fletcher’s 2013 campaign for mayor of San Diego. Each featured a high-quality candidate, inspired advocates with their possibility and message, and connected deeply with independent voters. Each struggled because they were hopelessly outmatched by the outside money and infrastructure of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Knowing that with the right person a 2016 presidential win was within our grasp is a cold wind for reformers. The brunt of which we must now plainly face to find sustained success in the future. A well-financed independent reform movement, with the right infrastructure, support, funding candidates and organizations with integrity, vision, and experience, could have sweetened the fetid brew this election became.

Turn away from this template, and we will drink this swill stew for the next two elections and beyond.