Talk of political competition predominantly centers around Democrats and Republicans. They get the vast majority of press coverage and win the vast majority of partisan elections. Sometimes voters don’t even realize when independent candidates are in a given race because they are rarely in the news or voters don’t believe they have a chance of winning.
But what is much less widely known is why independents have such a hard time winning seats. There are currently only two officeholders in the federal government who are independents: Senators Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King from Maine (although since they caucus with Democrats, they are sometimes not considered “true” independents). The state level sees some more success¹, but apart from that independents rarely take office in partisan elections.
So what accounts for these differences, and why are independent candidates so rarely successful?
What is an Independent?
It is best to first discuss what exactly being an independent means. The usual definition that people mean by it is being completely unaffiliated with any party, otherwise known as an NPA or “No Party Affiliate” (some states refer to these voters as “unenrolled”). But others use the term to refer to third-party candidates as well, such as the Libertarian or Green Parties. Some people mistakenly register with the actual Independent Party or Independence Parties when they are really looking to become NPAs. There is a wide range of these third parties, but some of the more well-known ones don’t have recognized state affiliates in every state. What criteria states use to recognize a third party as an official party varies from state to state, and some of them are simply termed “political groups.”
Some states also have their own unique parties and designations. Vermont has the Vermont Progressive Party, which has been fairly successful for a third party in winning seats in their state legislature. Alaska has a unique designation for some voters called “undeclared.” An “undeclared” voter is not an NPA, but a voter who has not made explicitly clear what party affiliation they want (if any). These “undeclared” voters could technically be Democrats or Republicans, but they can also be a third party or NPA. They just haven’t made a specific choice.
How Many People Consider Themselves Independents?
Gallup research at the beginning of this year indicated that roughly 42% of Americans called themselves independent, with 29% saying they are Democrats and 27% saying they are Republicans.² (Don’t focus too much on the actual values, but in their relation to each other.) Research over the years has routinely reported that a large proportion of the population considers itself independent.
Each state, of course, varies in how many people register with Republicans and Democrats and how many people register outside of those affiliations. In some states, independents make up a plurality or even a majority of the population. At least nine states have at least a plurality of voters that are unaffiliated with either major party (I say “at least” because not every state tracks voters’ partisan affiliations)³. Massachusetts, for example, had 54.05% of voters registered as “unenrolled” in February 2017.⁴ In states where they aren’t the biggest group, they may still make a substantial proportion of their respective voter populations.
Some of the Difficulties Facing Independents
Voter Turnout: So if there are so many people that call themselves independents, why do we not see more independent officeholders? One reason involves voters’ political behavior. Generally speaking, independents turn out at lower rates than Republicans and Democrats do, and especially less than the ardent partisans of both parties⁵. As a result, less of the natural base for independent candidates are available in many races and those candidates have to pull more voters from the two parties. Remember, however, that this is a general rule of thumb: each race is different and has other nuances affecting it.
Competition: Independents generally have a tougher time winning if there is both a Republican and a Democrat in the race instead of just one of them. Yet it is not unprecedented, as seen in the chart below on independent U.S. Senate candidates.
As information from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics shows, independents have been able to win in that kind of environment. Still, there are countless other instances where independent candidates haven’t even come close, both in races with a Democrat and a Republican and races where just one major party is represented. By and large, most elections will see voters turn to one of the two parties.
Infrastructure: The infrastructure of independent political organizations also greatly differs from those of the two major parties. Republicans and Democrats have their national, state, and local level parties, as well as a lot of other Republican and Democratic organizations such as the Senate Leadership Fund (Republican) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
Independent organizations, on the other hand, do not have such a sprawling, cohesive network. They do have some similarities, however. The most prominent national independent political organization is Unite America, which has some state affiliates and local chapters assisting in getting unaffiliated candidates elected at various levels of government. (In fact, Unite America just hosted its first-ever Unite Summit featuring independent candidates from across the country.) There are also some independent Super PACs. But the independent network is not as robust as the Republican and Democratic ones.
Money: Funding is another problem. Gargantuan amounts of money are pumped into elections, with campaigns for many offices getting more and more expensive over the years. Significant proportions of this money are through wealthy donors. Most of the big-name donors, however, are affiliated with either of the two major parties. There are certainly independent donors, or at least those who would consider independents. But many of them will only provide funding if they believe there is a good chance of winning. Since independents rarely win office, many donors are hesitant to get monetarily involved.
Ballot access: Ballot access is also an issue. To get on the ballot, some states will require a certain amount of signatures from registered voters for a candidate to qualify and/or pay a filing fee. In some states, the number of signatures required of independent candidates unaffiliated with any party is way higher than it is for Republicans and Democrats. The sheer climb necessary in these cases can stop candidates from even having their names listed on the ballot, let alone win a race. Here are a couple examples:
· In Texas, Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate need 5,000 signatures or can pay a $5,000 filing fee to become official candidates.⁶ Independent candidates, on the other hand, have no option to pay the fee and must receive signatures equal to 1% of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. By the 2014 result, independent candidates for U.S. Senate need 47,183 signatures to get on the ballot.⁷
· In Indiana, Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate need 500 signatures from each congressional district in the state for a minimum total of 4,500.⁸ Unaffiliated candidates need signatures equal to 2% of the previous secretary of state election. By the 2014 result, independent candidates for U.S. Senate would need 26,700 signatures.⁹
This is not a comprehensive list of issues facing independents, but some of the major ones.
Independents Can be More Competitive Than Most People Realize
Despite the issues facing them, independents still do manage to get elected or at least be competitive. There is one independent governor in the country right now, Alaska’s Bill Walker. The former Republican won the office in 2014 on a Unity ticket with his Democratic Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott and is up again for re-election this year. Other strong independent candidates with a chance to win are running all over the country as well, several of them for statewide offices.
Other recent independent candidates that have won relatively recent elections include:
· Angus King won 51.13% of the vote in the 2012 U.S. Senate election in Maine, with both a Democratic and a Republican candidate in the race.
· Angus King also won 35.37% of the vote in the 1994 gubernatorial election in Maine, with both competitive Democratic and Republican candidates.
· Lincoln Chafee won 36.10% of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial election in Rhode Island, with both competitive Democratic and Republican candidates in the race.
· Jesse Ventura won 37.00% of the vote in the 1998 gubernatorial election in Minnesota, with both competitive Republican and Democratic (officially Democratic-Farmer-Labor in Minnesota) candidates.
Some other recent campaigns are notable even if they came up short. Here are a couple of examples of independent candidates who garnered a large proportion of votes or came close to winning:
· In the 2010 Maine gubernatorial election, independent Eliot Cutler lost by only 10,000 votes to Republican Paul LePage (37.6% to 35.9%). The Democrat, Elizabeth Mitchell, came in a distant third. There were two other independent candidates who took around a total of 6% of the vote. If these other two independents were not in the race, Cutler potentially would have been the independent governor of Maine.
· In the 2014 U.S. Senate election in Kansas, independent Greg Orman took 42.5% of the vote to the 53.1% of the winner, Republican Pat Roberts. While not exactly a close divide with no Democratic challenger, that is still a solid showing for an independent.
So will we start seeing more independent candidates in office with rising antagonism toward both the Democratic and Republican Parties? Perhaps in the near future, but so far that hasn’t happened much despite widespread dissatisfaction with the two major parties. We’ll have to see what results the next few general elections hold.
- Ballotpedia. “Current third-party and independent state officeholders.” https://ballotpedia.org/Current_third-party_and_independent_state_officeholders
- Jeffrey M. Jones. Gallup. “Americans’ Identification as Independents Back Up in 2017.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/225056/americans-identification-independents-back-2017.aspx. January 8, 2018.
- Independent Voter Project. “State-by-State Primary Elections Map.” https://www.independentvoterproject.org/primary_map
- Massachusetts Secretary of State. “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts — Enrollment Breakdown as of 02/01/2017.” http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/elepdf/enrollment_count_20170201.pdf
- Leonie Huddy, et. al. February 2015. “Expressive Partisanship: Campaign Involvement, Political Emotion, and Partisan Identity.” American Political Science Review, Vol. 109, №1.
- Texas Secretary of State. “Republican or Democratic Party Nominees.” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/candidates/guide/demorrep2018.shtml
- Texas Secretary of State. “Independent Candidates.” https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/candidates/guide/ind2018.shtml
- Indiana Secretary of State. “2018 Indiana Candidate Guide.” https://www.in.gov/sos/elections/files/2018%20Candidate%20Guide.Final.pdf. pg. 29.
- Indiana Secretary of State. “2018 Indiana Candidate Guide.” https://www.in.gov/sos/elections/files/2018%20Candidate%20Guide.Final.pdf. pg. 32.