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Friday, April 30, 2010

Independents in Elections

Florida Governor Charles Crist has announced that he will drop out of the state's Republican primary for the US Senate and instead seek the seat as an independent. In our chapter on political parties, we discuss the fate of third-party and independent candidates. In a New York Times blog post, I connect this analysis to Crist:

Polls show a lot of unhappiness with both major parties. But don’t expect an independent surge in November. At no time over the past half-century has either the House or the Senate had more than a couple of independent or third-party members.

There is currently no reason to think that the 2010 election will produce anything different. The dominance of the Democrats and Republicans stems in part from the mechanics of the electoral process.

Ballot access poses a big hurdle: it can be difficult and costly for other kinds of candidates to get on the general election ballot. Then they find it tough to get campaign money. The major parties have well-established fundraising networks, including contributors seeking to curry favor with incumbent politicians. Those on the outside have nothing comparable.

They also have to contend with the “spoiler” image. Voters worry that, by supporting a minor candidate, they could be helping a major-party candidate that they dislike.

In 2000, Ralph Nader drew votes from Al Gore, thus tipping Florida to George W. Bush — a result that most Nader voters probably did not intend. Six years later, a Republican senator from Montana got “Nadered” by a Libertarian, and his loss enabled the Democrats to take control of the Senate.

Of the few victorious off-brand candidates, most have not been true independents at all, but Republicans or Democrats carrying on a factional struggle. In 1970, New York State elected James L. Buckley as a Conservative. He won because many Republicans saw him as a more faithful representative of their party than incumbent Charles Goodell. Once in the Senate, he caucused with the G.O.P.

Governor Crist is hardly avatar of independence. He was very happy to receive the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and was looking forward to the support of the party establishment. He bolted only because rank-and-file primary voters were about to reject him with a thump.

His decision to run as an independent is not the tip of the iceberg. It is a lonely chunk of ice with very little beneath.