On election night 1992 – my first as a voter – I watched in marked horror as the unthinkable happened: Bubba won. As I sat Smokey Joe’s (that’s right, I was the West Philly Bush vote) listening to my mostly liberal Penn classmates talk about Clinton changing the course of the country I shook my head. This was no Clinton victory – it was the Perot plurality.
I thought I had witnessed the birth of permanent third party – it would later elect navy seal/professional wrestler/conspiracy nut Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota, a move marginally saner than electing Sen. Stuart Smalley, but I digress.
Perot had captured 19% of the popular vote, including decisive totals in Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania – states where Clinton won by single digits and Bush had won in 1988. In my despair (comforted by the fake ID and the luke warm beer), I was certain that the US was headed into three party chaos.
And in the end, I was right – sort of. In 1992, the Perot 19% was a pretty fair approximation of the size of the independent pool – voters who have no party loyalty and can move from cycle to cycle. That election showed the growing split in American politics – the segment of the populace happy with the candidates of neither party yet lacking a viable alternative outside of them.
By 2002, the pool was around 22% of the electorate, and it was this block, voting in the wake of 9/11, that bucked the historical trend of the White House’s party losing seats in off-Year elections. It was this same block that created the waves of 2006 and 2008 that first took Congress from the GOP, then the White House.
Most estimate this pool of independents to be in the 27-30% range now, and it is growing. It is, for all intents and purposes, the new American Independent Party, a group that has tremendous power, but one major weakness.
First lets look at its power. In a week, this block will show just how volatile American politics are (pay attention my fellow Elephants – more on this later) as they repudiate roundly the party they just anointed 24 months ago. In 2008 independents broke 2 to 1 for Obama; this year’s polling data all show a near 2 to 1 split for the GOP. The shift has taken 21 months since the Inaugural – not even long enough for the new extended unemployment benefits to run out.
Consider it this way: if the Dems are going to get roughly 38% come hell or high water and the GOP gets say 35%, who is really electing leaders?
The answer is the people in the middle, because neither party can sway the other’s hard-core base in any significant way nor has come close to building a majority party without at least 60% of the independents coming with them.
In the end, it is these independents who are making the last call on who will lead us, and it becomes more so, in broader electoral base elections (gerrymandering has allowed for majority party districts), but significant in almost every contested race. That is their power.
But they have a HUGE weakness – they have almost NO say amongst whom they get to choose. Because of closed primaries in many states, and because of the nature of presidential politics at large, the vast majority of independent voters are often left with the choice between the evil of two lesser – and I meant that the way it was written.
And that is the lesson both parties seem totally unwilling to grasp: the middle wants you to do the right thing, do it modestly, and let them watch the game. They don’t want the far right to have its way and they don’t want the far left to have its way.
That is why, especially when one side has gotten a little carried away with consolidated power, they always move to divide power between parties at the branch level, just as they look poised to do next week.
Without the ability, to nominate moderate, rational candidates on a grand scale, the rational middle does the best it can – it forces the two thieves to work together in search of a less corrupt bargain (sorry, honest is too strong a word).
This inability to nominate also shows why they are so volatile – they only get to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, so they wield that power in a way that demands they be heard. Look at 1994 to 1996 – the same Independents who put Newt in the Speaker chair punished the GOP for nominating a name from the past rather than a leader for the future. If the GOP of 2010 reverts to the 2004 model, they will watch Obama take the oath again in 2013. The American Independent Party knows what it wants and has no issues with changing its mind – fast.
So while, the President thinks it is acting out of fear and the GOP thinks it is acting out of a newfound love for all things conservative, the AIP is acting out of rational self interest, and in the only way it can and really be heard – at the ballot box.
Next Tuesday it’s the Donkey’s turn behind the AIP woodshed. The Party that understands why this is first will avoid the trip in 2012.
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