We Need Independent Campaigns For President
And we need reforms to make them more viable.
Hillary Clinton’s main opposition for the Democrat party nomination — so far — comes from Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. How he’s running for president highlights the power of our two political parties — and the problems that poses. Though Senator Sanders proudly refers to himself as a socialist and an independent, he’s decided to run as a Democrat — a party that, until recently, he had no formal affiliation with beyond his decision to caucus with them in the Senate.
Few political pundits believe Sanders has any hope of upsetting Secretary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. As a result, his campaign is seen, at least in part, as an effort to make sure the issues that he cares about like income inequality, tax fairness, and maintaining the social safety net are a part of the Presidential dialogue. Senator Sanders probably made the calculation that only by framing his candidacy as a counterpoint to Hillary Clinton’s would he be able to obtain credibility — and the media coverage — that is vital to the success of any campaign.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign could be described in the same manner. Senator Paul has taken great pains over the last several years to round the corners of his Libertarian political philosophy to make himself more palatable to rank and file Republicans. As Politico wrote of his presidential quest, “Rand Paul used to be libertarian. Now he describes himself as “libertarian-ish.” It’s hard to see that transformation as anything more than a political calculation born out of necessity, though certainly a reasonable one. Winning a national election independent from either major party in the system we have is considered impossible. It’s for that reason that we now have these two candidates seeking major party nominations, even though their politics align far better with a minor party or an independent campaign for the presidency.
It’s not hard to see why they’re doing it though. Major party candidates enjoy significant structural advantages in the Presidential selection process. Rooted in the belief that only major party candidates have any hope of winning, the press devotes almost no time to introducing independent or minor party candidates to the electorate. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Devoid of media attention and exposure, the oxygen that fuels any campaign, candidates that haven’t pledged fealty to a major party remain unknowns, and barely register in public opinion polls. And even if the press took them seriously, they’d still miss out on most of the exposure and coverage granted candidates throughout the process — especially with the fixation on the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries, where they wouldn’t be competing. In fact, the media circus surrounding the whole primary process would pass them over entirely.
The lack of a party label can make it hard to cut through in other ways. When I ran as an Independent in Kansas this past fall, national media coverage of our race typically obsessed with the question of which party I would caucus. To me our campaign was about getting past the false choices presented by the two parties and the hyper-partisanship in Washington. It wasn’t about joining one tribe or another. That question, however, was the lens they were using to define my candidacy. And when the press is confined to thinking about politics solely through a Red/Blue frame, it’s not surprising that candidates conform.
There are other, more concrete challenges that an independent candidate faces. When we started our campaign, it was hard to find experienced political staff and consultants willing to take a risk on a campaign outside of the political parties their careers were built on. On most big races, senior staff positions are competitively sought after — in our case, it took months just to find a talented campaign manager who would take a chance on us.
Beyond that, the rules themselves offer real obstacles. Current campaign finance laws make raising money particularly hard for independents — and even harder by comparison to their major-party counterparts. Changes to campaign finance rules in last winter’s bi-partisan “Crominbus” bill helped further entrench the power the two major political parties. Under those rules (which have since been adjusted upwards for inflation), an individual can give up $801,600 to the political parties each year — and $1,603,200 in a campaign cycle — but only $5,400 to an independent candidate running for federal office. The parties can then run “hybrid” ads with their candidates to spend that money on behalf of their chosen candidate or fund get out the vote efforts in support of those candidates. The effect is that party candidates can raise nearly 300 times more from an individual donor than an independent candidate can.
Meanwhile, just getting on the ballot in some states requires independent candidates to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures. And the two major parties also control who gets to participate in the Presidential debates. Having taken this process over from the League of Women Voters in the 1980s — when that group wasn’t compliant enough for the major parties — an unelected panel of Democrats and Republicans now make all decisions regarding Presidential debates. Myself and a group of other business, military and political leaders from around country recently launched a push to change these rules because they unfairly limit access for candidates — and as a result, they limit choices for voters.
If the media knew a candidate was going to be part of a presidential debate, and seen by millions of viewers across the country, they’d get the media coverage — the profiles and analysis and commentary — that is currently limited to major party candidates. As voters we’d be introduced to not only new candidates, but also new ideas and new points of view. We’d be in a position to reject some of the false choices that the two-party system has presented us with. And we might even feel compelled to vote for someone who isn’t wearing a red or a blue uniform. Candidates like Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders should be able to make it on that stage without bowing to a political party.
Years before launching my campaign as an independent, I briefly joined a major party and explored running for senate under its banner. It was a learning experience. I quickly found that if you’re seeking to actually change things in Washington, making yourself beholden to a party won’t work. When you run as a candidate in either party, there are special interests you’re forced to please and litmus test positions you’re expected to hold. Innovative thinking, genuine problem solving, and compromise are discouraged. When I ran as an independent this past fall, I was able to do so on my own terms, and talk about real ways that we could change the status quo, instead of bowing to the demands of the powerful special interests that hold sway in both parties. We rejected money from PACs and lobbyists to maintain that independence. But there were still plenty of structural hurdles to running as an independent, and extrapolating those hurdles across 50 states makes them nearly impossible to overcome without fundamental reforms.
The status quo is oftentimes very difficult to change, and those with something to lose are keenly aware of what’s at stake. But ask yourself a question: in a country where 43% of the people are politically independent, should candidates automatically feel like they need to be funneled into one party or the other to have a voice? Should an independent socialist like Bernie Sanders or a libertarian like Rand Paul really be forced to run as part of a major party just to be a relevant part of the debate? Wouldn’t changing the rules for things like ballot access and access to presidential debates — to let independent candidates be viable and competitive — be a better course of action?
Of course it would be. While Sen. Sanders and Sen. Paul may be very different from one another in their politics, they share stark ideological beliefs that likely separate them from many of the voters in their respective party primaries. But more than that, their respective campaigns highlight the need for reforms to our system to allow for candidates to run as who they are.