The Uses of Independent Power: What Happened on Election Day and Why

This is my post-election column where I analyze the impact of independent voters who came out in force last Tuesday, almost 34 million of us. Huge. The stats and takeaways are at the end of this column, dear reader, so if you prefer to cut to that chase, scroll on down.

Suffice it to say that independents are swinging between cycles of disruption and cycles of stabilization, all the while searching for systemic changes that will take us to new ground. Independent rather than partisan ground. That’s the essence of my post-election story, which actually began in late October, two weeks before Election Day.

I was in Los Angeles for a lecture, a memorial lecture, in honor of Bonnie Reiss. Bonnie, who died in the spring at the age of 62 of lung cancer was the irrepressibly hopeful and deeply loved ally of and advisor to Kennedys and Schwarzeneggers, a retinue of reform-minded “kings and princes” across the proverbial aisle.

Lucky for me, she was also a friend and a mentor, who artfully wove the new arbiters of independent political power, myself included, into her orbit. She liked doing out-of-the-box things with out-of-the-box people. I loved her for that.

The lecture — Bonnie had insisted that she did not want a memorial — was designed to be a public rendering of the state of the political divide in America, just before the midterms. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who inspired, named and funded an institute at USC where the event took place — gave a moving and oftentimes hilarious tribute to her, her years in his administration while he was governor, and their personal friendship.

This included the story of how she admonished him for refusing to put “Teddy Kennedy for President” posters on his car when Teddy was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Arnold, a Republican who drove a Jeep Cherokee, which he described as “a Republican car,” turned down the request from his then-girlfriend Maria Shriver, Teddy’s niece.

Bonnie had a profound, almost intuitive connection to the 44% of the country who today consider themselves independent voters.
Jackie Salit, President of Independent Voting

Bonnie was outraged and insistent — you don’t say no to your girlfriend, she pointedly told him.  Apparently, Arnold acquiesced, but admitted to us that he parked his car three blocks away from Gold’s Gym which he visited daily, so none of the Republican body builders there would see his Jeep thus adorned.

The point of the story, though, was that Bonnie had stood up to him without regard to the consequences, in support of her friend, Maria, and in support of the politician in whom she deeply believed. For Bonnie, it made no difference that Arnold was a Republican and Teddy a Democrat. She didn’t see the world in those categories.

In this respect, Bonnie had a profound, almost intuitive connection to the 44% of the country who today consider themselves independent voters.

Of course, the memorial lecture was taking place in a political environment in which those partisan categories had become etched in stone, deeply so.  The day before the event, the story of the pipe bombs mailed to Barack Obama and eleven other Trump critics, had hit the news cycle, and this room of California movers and shakers was visibly on edge.

The lecture was set up as a panel discussion on the political divide, introduced by Arnold’s uber-smart political advisor and aide, Conyers Davis, and moderated by Carla Marinucci of Politico, one of the very few journalists I follow on Twitter.

The panel consisted of Schwarzenegger; David Axelrod who managed Obama’s political campaigns and moved with him to the White House as chief advisor; and Steve Schmidt, Republican-turned-independent commentator and previously a chief strategist for the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008.

Left to Right: Carla Marinucci, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Axelrod, Steven Schmidt.

Marinucci deftly focused the discussion on the latest news, and Schmidt, who is rumored to be in conversations with Starbucks founder Howard Schultz about an independent presidential bid in 2020, issued a near-jeremiad against Trump. Painting a picture of a violent and lawless society driven by a maniacal and unaccountable autocrat, he wasted no time in exhorting the crowd to rise up and defend our democracy before it was too late.

To be sure, he had a way with his words, and he raised the fear factor in the room by a significant margin, unselfconsciously mirroring the tactics of his main target.

“Really?” I thought. “The guy who helped convince John McCain to put Sarah Palin on his ticket?” I wanted to stand up, wave my arms and point this out but I sensed this would be frowned upon.

Schwarzenegger, thankfully, was having none of it. He reminded the audience that when he came to the U.S. in 1960, he bore witness to the following events: We assassinated a sitting president. We assassinated the country’s major civil rights leader. We assassinated a man who was the likely next president. There was a riot outside of the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

I was struck by his use of the term “we,” as in we, the people, taking responsibility for our country’s state of affairs, however wretched. That is entirely missing from today’s political discourse, where blame is always on the “other” and there is no collective responsibility to be taken.

No doubt, it takes an immigrant to bring such a wholesome American insight to the table, yet another argument for a liberal immigration policy.

But Arnold wasn’t prepared to leave it at that, as some kind of salve or comfort that things aren’t as bad today as they were then. He was insistent that during his tenure as governor of California, a state that was mired in dysfunction and polarization, he focused on changing the process of politics and elections itself.

“We got up off the couch and said I’m going to do something about it. I think this is what we need to do. So, we had done the redistricting reform in California. And we did open primaries.  So we did something about it!” he forcefully explained.

It was a poignant moment.  Strangely enough, the audience was subdued in response.  Then, it occurred to me that almost everyone was surprised to hear a concrete set of steps to walk us back from the abyss.

Part of what made Schwarzenegger’s two-part plan seem so stunning—opening the primaries to independent voters in a nonpartisan election and taking the power to draw district lines out of the hands of those who might benefit from those decisions—is that they are such mundane fixes.  They simply require a new process, a transfer of some power from the parties to the people.  No small thing, these days.  But perhaps one part of the cure.

We got up off the couch and said I’m going to do something about it. I think this is what we need to do.
Arnold Schwarzenegger

At the end of the session, Marinucci called for two audience questions. One came from a Hispanic young man who wanted the panel’s views on identity politics and the presumption that certain racial groups belonged to one party. The panelists did a delicate dance around this one.

The other question was mine. I asked the panel to comment on the scale of the disalignment from the parties, the 44% who identify as independents. Why was this happening and could this community of voters become a force for engaging and solving the problems of the political divide?

What was most striking was not the answers given by the panelists (distress with the system was causing it, no one had much to say about how to mobilize this force), but the response of the audience to the question. A line of people gathered to thank me for asking it, for bringing the 44% into the room, for opening a door to a new set of possibilities. I was gratified and it made me feel that I had given something to Bonnie. And to the 44% who want to be recognized as who they are.

Independent voters came out in force two weeks later, grabbed the system by the lapels and gave it a good shake. Independents comprised 30% of the electorate on Election Day, up from 28% in 2014. The increase in the number of independents who cast ballots as compared with the last midterms was 38%, whereas Democrat/Republican voting rose by 25%.

While the parties were dedicating themselves to “bringing out their base,” independents chose to be a major part of the equation in 2018.

What did these unpredictable independents do? They broke for Democratic candidates by 12 points. In the last midterms, they broke for Republicans by 12 points. In other words, there was a 24-point swing over 4 years’ time.

The voters who elected Barack Obama in 2008, then took away the Democrat congressional majority in 2010, backed the GOP and then Trump through 2016, changed the make-up of the federal government yet again. They also put a number of governorships in the blue column.

While the parties were dedicating themselves to 'bringing out their base,' independents chose to be a major part of the equation in 2018.
Jackie Salit, President of Independent Voting

The impact? A check on the White House and a two-party balance on Capitol Hill for the first time in 8 years.

But there’s more.

There was a sweep for key political reform initiatives in six states, including nonpartisan redistricting in Michigan, Colorado and Missouri with votes between 61% and 71%. Restoring felon voting rights won in Florida with 64%.

Remarkably, the typical drop off in totals from top-of-the-ticket voting to initiative and referendum voting did not occur. In Michigan, 96% of those who voted for Governor also voted on Proposition 2 (nonpartisan redistricting). In Colorado, 98% voted at the top and in the reform contests.

In Florida, where the results are still being counted for governor and senator at the time of this writing, votes on the felon rights question totaled less than 5,000 fewer, and the results were decisive.

Though none of the official exit polling probed the voter makeup for the reform proposals, the turnout by independents combined with an across-the-board clamor for systemic change drove these victories. The percentages of “yes” votes rival those of the term limits movement of the 1990s, which swept every state that allowed statewide initiatives by totals as high as 77%.

For now, independent voters can be pleased with the results. Not because we want to be Democrats, but because overall we felt more aligned with sending their candidates to Congress. Many independents had the additional intent of defeating one-party rule and containing President Trump.

Independent candidates, meanwhile, had a tougher cycle. While Angus King and Bernie Sanders— self-identified independent senators from Maine and Vermont, respectively, who caucus with the Democrats — were re-elected, the new wave of independent candidates were shut out.

Statewide independent candidates in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Georgia, and New Mexico had significant and highly qualified independent candidates, but they did not win, instead polling between 2% and 15% of the vote.

The new wave statewide independent candidate who came closest to getting elected was Steve Poizner, running for insurance commissioner in California, who came within two percentage points.

It is worth noting that California is a nonpartisan, top-two system state (the reform written by the Independent Voter Project and propelled by Schwarzenegger, Independent Voice, and a coalition of reform forces) with a system that eliminates the so-called “spoiler” factor, which Democrats played this year for all it was worth.

In New York, two worthy tickets won ballot status for new parties, the Serve America Movement (SAM) and the Libertarian Party.

In many respects, the election produced the standard outcome of midterms where the party in the White House loses control of one or both houses. If there was a wave, it was neither blue nor red. Nor was it purple, the color sometimes used to denote independents, as if we are a blend of the existing parties or ideologies, rather than something altogether different.

It might have been an independent or reform wave, in which voters of many persuasions used the tools they currently have available to chart a different course, even as they took steps to create some new ones.

Naturally, the Democrats and Republicans are now analyzing and evaluating their outcomes, their strategies, and their prospects for 2020, with prospective candidates jockeying for position. Very little energy will be given by anyone to governing in a productive way.

The independents, while neither a party nor a unified force, have produced a range of leaders and power centers in our “becoming” movement. These leaders, activists, and organizers need to be talking with one another now, honestly looking at what strategies worked and what didn’t, exploring how to strengthen and develop our movement, and how best to use the ample power independents demonstrated in this election.

Photo Credit: Alexander Kalugin / shutterstock.com