With the ranks of self-identified independents swelling across the country, and, hence, renewed media attention devoted to the group as a bloc, a number of recent studies and commentaries have questioned received notions of the independent voter, arguing that 'the independent voter' is little more than a myth. This position holds that, since a large percentage of independent voters "lean" toward one major party or the other, and vote in a manner consistent with that preference, independent voters are in effect no different from "weak" partisans of the duopoly parties. To put this in other words, when made to choose between the Republican and Democratic Parties independents tend to side with one over the other, whichever that one may be for a given individual. However, this does not necessarily imply partisanship on the part of the voter, but it does suggest that independents are not an ideological monolith. To gauge the independence of independents, the crucial question is where their preference lies and how they vote, not when they are forced to choose between the lesser and greater of two relative evils, but rather when they are offered a choice between a Democrat, a Republican and someone else – a third party candidate or even another independent, imagine that. That this may not be immediately apparent is likely just one more effect of bi-partisan bias in academia, the media and polling organizations.
Certainly, though, one of the more perplexing paradoxes of two-party politics is the chasm between the number of people who describe themselves as independents and the number of people who vote for candidates other than those representing the Republican and Democratic Parties. There are numerous potential explanations of this contradiction. It is supposed that many voters are simply not as independently minded as they think they are; or that they practice a form of defensive politics by voting for the lesser of two evils, or against the greater of two evils. Yet many people say they would support or even consider voting for a "viable" third party or independent candidate for office, if there were one. This is the infamous viability hurdle.
There are at least two conditions to the perception of viability, both of which presuppose name recognition of the candidate in question: 1) others deem the candidate worthy of consideration, and 2) the individual agrees with this estimation. Bipartisan, duopolist bias then introduces the additional supposition that only representatives of the Democratic and Republican Parties are viable candidates for office. But there is some amount of resistance to this presumption. This year has witnessed a growing discontent with both Democratic and Republican leadership and a decline in identification with both of the major parties. The rise in independent identification has been documented by numerous polling organizations over the course of 2009, and is already apparent in voter registration rolls. These developments have certainly figured into the political calculus of the many independents who have launched or are currently exploring promising campaigns for office at all levels of government. The elections of 2009 and 2010 will thus put independents to the test.
Take the Northeast, for instance. Though it is considered a Democratic bastion, the region has an independent streak. In the last thirty years, Maine has had two independent governors and Connecticut has had one (kind of). Both Vermont and Connecticut have sitting independent Senators. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg withdrew from the Republican Party and registered as an independent. In New Jersey, independent candidate Chris Daggett has raised a significant amount of money and obtained a place in the state's gubernatorial debates. There is wide array of gubernatorial candidates lining up for Maine's 2010 contest, among them independents Alex Hammer and Sam Bailey. Sitting legislators in New Hampshire are reportedly considering independent runs for office next year. Lincoln Chafee is running for governor of Rhode Island as an independent. There is speculation that state Treasurer Tim Cahill is planning an independent run for the same office in Massachusetts. And this trend is not confined to the Northeast. Jana Kemp has launched an independent campaign for governor in Idaho and Trevor Drown is exploring an independent run for Senate in Arkansas.
If these candidates can capitalize on the public's discontent with the two-party system, and voters, in turn, resist falling prey to the steady diet of duopolist propaganda fed to us by the major parties and their enablers in the mainstream media, independents could dispel the myth of 'the myth of the independent voter' in 2009 and 2010.
[Guest post for The Hankster.]