Monday, September 28, 2009

Could 2010 Be the Year of the Independents?

Summary: Democrats aren’t expected to do as well in 2010 as in recent years. But could that actually help independent candidates?

Back in July, we asked “how bad will 2010 be for Democrats?” The answer we found was essentially a mixed review.

Basically, Democrats are in trouble on the state level across the country. Budget problems that came to each state with the recession have led most incumbent Democratic governors and lawmakers down a road of dangerous re-election prospects.

But on the federal level, things don’t look quite so bad. Despite their recent growth in popularity, the GOP still isn’t trusted by the majority of Americans on some of the nation’s most pressing issues. It’s been the conservative base that’s become more comfortable with their own party again, not swing voters.

In other words, a strict two-party system would probably lead to a successful year for Democrats on Capitol Hill, but probably not a successful 2010 in state governments.

Of course, the United States only has a loose two-party system in which independents and third party candidates are completely free to run for office.

So could that make a difference?

According to an article on Politico today, it could. Independent candidates are set to run serious campaigns for governor in at least six states that typically swing Democratic between 2009 and 2010.

In New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is seeking a second term in November, polls suggest an independent candidate is carving a sizable portion of voters out of his hide…voters will go to the polls to choose among Corzine, Republican Chris Christie, andindependent Chris Daggett, a moderate former Republican who once worked as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tom Kean.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey released last week, Daggett is trailing in third place with 13 percent of the vote — well behind the two major party nominees but a significant portion for a non-major party candidate.

More important, the survey found that Daggett is capturing 15 percent of the Democratic vote, compared with just 7 percent of the GOP vote, in a race where the embattled Corzine can’t afford to lose much Democratic support.

“It’s Democrats who are disgusted with Corzine but who can’t quite bring themselves to vote for Christie,” noted Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling.

Daggett attributes his showing at least in part to frustration with both the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The level of distrust of both parties is very high,” Daggett told POLITICO. “You’ve got an opportunity for an independent candidate to run a different kind of campaign.”

The volatile political environment, some strategists say, is fertile ground for nontraditional candidacies.

“My guess is when there is a pox on all of your houses, people in some states are more willing to vote for an independent,” said one top Democratic strategist who is a veteran of governors’ races. “It’s a piss-poor environment, and a number of people are looking for someone new.”

Other states with strong independent campaigns already shaping up include Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Other states that could see credible third-party or independent candidates still to come include Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine.

My guess is that we won’t actually see any independent candidates win. Simply put, independents don’t have the party infrastructure and network of base donors and activists that the two major parties do. Like it or not, it is a major factor to consider.

However, independents do have reasonable organization in some states - Minnesota comes most to mind - and independent candidacies do appear to be the best option for a new slew of swing voters who are disappointed in the heavily-burdened Democratic Party, but are still reminded of the Bush years too much to put their faith in the Republican Party yet.

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