Is There Really Any Traction For An Independent Candidate In 2016?

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump reacts during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Cali... Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump reacts during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) MORE LESS
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Even before former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) ended his brief and rather un-energetic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign was dropping hints that he might pursue an independent presidential candidacy instead. And he confirmed that interest in his Tuesday press conference making his withdrawal from the Democratic contest official:

Saying he is still considering an independent run, though — for which he said he was confident he could get more support than he did in his quest for the Democratic nomination — Webb pointed to an increasingly disillusioned middle in the country that is hungry for a different kind of candidate.

“Poll after poll shows that a strong plurality of Americans is neither Republican nor Democrat. Overwhelmingly they’re independents,” Webb said. “Our political candidates are being pulled to the extremes. They are increasingly out of step with the people they are supposed to serve.”

Webb is ignoring the abundant evidence that a majority of self-identified “independents” are functionally either Democrats or Republicans, with another chunk of “independents” not much bothering to participate in elections. But still, is there any possible traction for an indie candidate in 2016, whether it’s Webb or campaign finance reform crusader Larry Lessig or (despite his pledge to the contrary) Donald Trump?

Perhaps. But if it exists the indie electoral gold is not sitting there in the middle of the road where earnest centrists tend to sit until they are run over by fast-moving ideologues. It’s among voters who are actively alienated from both parties not because the Democratic and Republican parties are “extreme” but because they tend to exclude points of view deemed incompatible by the parties — but not by these voters.

In an important National Journal article earlier this month, John Judis described these voters as “Middle American Radicals,” a surprisingly hardy cohort of non-college educated middle-class white voters who have been at the center of a variety of insurgencies against the two-party orthodoxy, from George Wallace’s campaigns to Ross Perot’s, Pat Buchanan’s, and — yes — Donald Trump’s. They are increasingly found in the ranks of Republican voters, but they have never internalized the economic views of GOP elites, particularly liberal immigration laws, multilateral trade agreements and “entitlement reforms” affecting Social Security and Medicare. And they are instinctive “wrong track” voters, particularly in difficult economic times, who have little use for politicians or the governmental institutions they run.

Until 2008, Democrats spent an inordinate amount of time and energy pursuing a regularly declining percentage of downscale white voters in their native habitats, especially the South, the border states, and the Midwestern “Rust Belt.” The emergence of an Obama coalition built on young and minority voters has more recently made historically low percentages of white non-college educated voters tolerable. But this year it’s Republicans who should be worried about this vote, with Trump galvanizing opposition to immigration reform, entitlement reform, and — very soon — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even embodying a kind of militaristic non-interventionism that seems appealing to “wrong track” voters as well. Take a look at Ron Brownstein’s recent article on Trump’s strong position with non-college-educated Republican voters in almost every state where polls have been taken and you’ll see how well his act has played.

The bottom line is that of all the major demographic categories, non-college-educated white voters are probably the least attached to the two parties. That’s not true of all of them, of course: union members among them are often stubbornly loyal to Democrats, while conservative evangelicals are strongly bonded to the GOP. But Middle American Radicals are, as they have often been in the past, a prime target for anyone fantasizing about a third party.

If so, is there any candidate who could theoretically mobilize them, other than Trump?

Probably not. On paper, Jim Webb might fit the bill. He so embodies the Scots-Irish Appalachian segment of this demographic that he quite literally wrote the book about them. He has a strong military record and an equally strong record of opposing stupid wars. And he’s shown loyalty to the white working class in ways that accentuate the demographic’s issues with the contemporary Democratic Party, from hostility to affirmative action to a refusal to demonize the Confederate flag.

But aside from Webb’s conventionally liberal overall record, there’s a big problem with him going indie with a white working class base: the one time he ran for office, in Virginia in 2006, he won with the same urban-suburban coalition secured by big-city civil rights lawyer Tim Kaine a year earlier. That’s not to say the Scots-Irish Appalachian voters in Southwest Virginia Webb seemed to yearn to represent were completely invulnerable to Democratic appeals: Northern Virginia tech exec Mark Warner won that region solidly in his 2001 gubernatorial base, mainly via a sophisticated economic argument based on the idea that technology might help the stricken region full of dying traditional industries leapfrog more successful neighbors. But for whatever reason, Jim Webb could not win them over.

Still, Republicans have more to lose than Democrats to the happy feet of downscale white voters in 2016, whether or not an independent candidate is in the field. Mitt Romney won 61% of this demographic in 2012 and still lost. A July ABC/Washington Post survey showed a Trump independent candidacy holding Jeb Bush to 34% among white non-college educated voters. Anything remotely like that would doom Republicans to defeat. And beyond that, Democrats worried that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders (or for that matter, Joe Biden) can’t duplicate the 44th president’s performance among the Obama coalition may be looking towards white working class voters newly hostile to conventional GOP economic policies with new interest as well.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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