I know many may question that assertion. But given past history and what is happening in this election, it would not be surprising if a new candidate enters as an independent through the Americans Elect process, which is holding the first online, nonpartisan nominating convention for the presidency in June and will have ballot access in all 50 states in November.
The introduction Monday of President Obama’s budget deal, which is dead on arrival, is only the most recent reminder of the polarization that exists in Washington and the prioritization of politics over serious policy development among our elected officials.
Obama’s budget lays out his election-year priorities and draws clear ideological lines between his party and the Republicans, as he announces his support for massive tax hikes for the wealthy and for large financial institutions, additional stimulus spending to create jobs, and an extension of unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. And while Republicans criticized Obama for failing to tackle politically difficult issues such as entitlement reform and debt and deficit reduction, they in turn will almost certainly fail to address these issues in a reasonable and responsible way.
The mood of the country is toxic. Congressional ratings are at an all-time low. Just 13 percent approve of the way Congress is doing its job while 84 percent disapprove, according to the Washington Post/ABC poll released last month. Three quarters disapprove of the performance of Republicans in Congress, and 62 percent disapprove of Democrats’ performance in Congress. And Rasmussen Reports found that just 5 percent of voters feel that Congress is doing an excellent or good job, while 70 percent say its job performance is poor.
Dissatisfaction with the state of our country is at record levels. Seventy-eight percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way they are currently being governed, according to Gallup. In 1992, when Ross Perot ran for president—the last centrist candidate to make a serious run as an independent—58 percent were satisfied, while 39 percent were dissatisfied. Despite the relatively high satisfaction among voters compared with today, Perot still received 19 percent of the vote in 1992, given a campaign that was at best quirky.
Indeed, history shows that an independent candidate moves quickly to the top in a three-way race for president. Perot jumped from 9 percent in February 1992, when he entered the race, to 28 percent in April, and he led the race by June, when he had 37 percent of the vote. At his peak, in June 1992, the Political Hotline calculated that he had 284 electoral votes, while George Bush had 158 and Bill Clinton had 16.
John Anderson, who ran as an independent in the 1980 presidential election, was also very competitive. Anderson’s support reached 40 percent in March 1980, with Ronald Reagan at 34 percent and Jimmy Carter at 20 percent. Anderson also led the race at various points in the first four months of his candidacy. His run was stymied only by money and the difficulty of getting on the ballot in all 50 states, two central impediments to any independent candidacy in our current political system and two issues that Americans Elect has addressed.
A recently completed Americans Elect survey found that voters favor, 58 percent to 13 percent, having an alternative presidential ticket that is independent of the Democratic and Republican parties on the ballot in 2012. Sixty-six percent say it is important for an independent to run for president.
Generic support for the parties is relatively low, at about one quarter, the data show, and support for a generic independent is about at the same level of support. Twenty-four percent said they would vote for an independent, bipartisan unity ticket, while an almost identical number, 26 percent, said they would vote for either a generic Democratic or a generic Republican ticket.
When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s names were used explicitly, support for an independent was still at 25 percent, as one quarter said they would vote for “an alternative unity ticket with a Democrat and a Republican as president and vice president,” while the rest of the respondents were split evenly. Support for the two major candidates moved up to 37 percent for Obama and 38 percent for Romney, only a very modest 12- or 13-point lead over an unnamed, independent challenger.
These extraordinary findings are confirmed by other data. Sixty-one percent of Americans say they want to have an independent choice for president in 2012, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in early November. And in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last month, 68 percent say they would definitely or possibly consider voting for an independent with whom they agree on most issues in 2012.
A recent USA Today analysis of state voter-registration statistics shows that both the Democratic and Republican parties have been losing registered voters since the 2008 election, while the number of independents has grown rapidly during this time. More than 1.7 million voters have left the Democratic Party since the 2008 election, and the number of registered Democrats has declined in 25 of the 28 states that register voters by party. The number of registered Republicans has declined in 21 of the 28 states that register voters by party.
Meanwhile, the number of independent voters is on the rise, increasing in 18 of the 28 states that register voters by party. More than four in 10 voters now identify as independents, with between 41 percent and 46 percent of voters identifying themselves as not being aligned with either of the two major parties.
Historical evidence also shows that a third presidential candidate will not simply “spoil” the election for one of the two major party candidates. Perot drew voters evenly from Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Republican candidate George H.W. Bush during the 1992 election. Thirty-eight percent of his voters said they would have voted for Bush had Perot not been on the ballot, and 38 percent of his voters said they would have voted for Clinton, while 24 percent said they would not have voted had Perot not won, according to the exit polls.
Perot succeeded in drawing both candidates toward the center to focus on the issues of the debt and the deficit, two issues that otherwise almost certainly would not have gotten the degree of attention they did during the campaign and after but for Perot’s effort.
The Perot campaign illustrates a critical point: that the impact of an independent candidate on the ultimate outcome of an election is determined primarily by how that candidate positions himself or herself, not by his or her political-party affiliation.
More recent data also support the conclusion that a centrist, balanced Americans Elect ticket will draw evenly from both the Democratic and Republican parties and will not spoil either candidate’s chances.