Can Independents Disrupt the Duopoly in 2018? Three things to watch on Election Day.

The trend lines of our politics continue to point toward a major disruption of the two-party system, as party identification collapses and the desire for a new option rises. Just take a look at these two charts, as compared by Lee Drutman of New America:

What’s more, a major new study called “Hidden Tribes” recently found that the source of our political divisions are really among two hyper-active, hyper-polarized groups split roughly evenly between far left and far right that collectively comprise just 14% of the electorate. “It often feels as if our national conversation has become a shouting match between these two groups.” Most voters, on the other hand, fit within the “Exhausted Majority” (67%).

On the study, David Brooks wrote: “This is not a 50–50 nation. It only appears that way when disenchanted voters are forced to choose between the two extreme cults.” Axios’ Mike Allen added: “Good news for third-party dreamers: two-thirds of Americans have had it…and yearn for something new.”

However, while voters say they want a new option, the Washington Post’s Dave Wiegel argues: “There’s little evidence of them actually choosing one.” Wiegel points to incumbent independent Governor Bill Walker who suspended his campaign last week, as he faced no clear path to re-election in a three-way contest. (Walker was first elected in a two-way race on a “Unity Ticket” in 2014.)

The great political paradox of our time is that while both parties have negative approval ratings, many voters are hesitant to support an independent for fear of electing the candidate from the party they really dislike. That’s the poison of “negative partisanship” mixed with the perverse incentives of our first-past-the-post voting system.

No doubt, the psychological barriers to challenging to the two-party duopoly are real and significant, but they are surmountable — especially within states that have favorable electoral rules, by candidates with strong personal brands, and in down-ballot races where grassroots campaigns can overcome structural disadvantages.

In fact, the 2018 election offers several opportunities for independents to not only win key elections, but also break ground in new states and within narrowly divided legislatures where they can control the balance of power. By proving the possibility of a new way, the success of these independents (see below) will help open the floodgates for a movement whose time has clearly come.

BY THE NUMBERS: There are 470 independents running for state legislature, US Congress or Governor in 2018 — up from 347 in 2016 and 341 in 2014. Unite America has endorsed 5 statewide and 24 down-ballot candidates, and put another 18 candidates “On Our Radar.” Serving in office currently are Today, in office. there is one independent Governor, two independent U.S. Senators, and 275 independent state legislators. See our map.

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Electoral Reforms Break Open the Duopoly?

  • Top-Two Primaries (CA, WA): Steve Poizner, running for California Insurance Commissioner, and Ann Diamond, running for Washington State House, both won their “top-two” primaries in August — guaranteeing two-way races on Nov. 6th. No “spoiler” to see there. Poizner won every major newspaper endorsement in his state and leads the polls. Diamond outraised her only opponent and is running competitively.
  • Ranked Choice Voting (ME): Independent State. Rep. Marty Grohman (I) is running for U.S. House in Maine’s first Congressional district. Under Maine’s new Ranked Choice Voting system, voters can rank the three candidates according to preference. Votes are tabulated in such a way that guarantees a majority winner. This system also removes any kind of “spoiler” effect. Grohman, who left the Democratic Party last year, was most recently endorsed by the US Chamber of Commerce.
How “Ranked Choice Voting” allows voters to cast their ballots without fear of “spoiling” the election.
  • Multi-Member Districts (SD, MD): Cory Ann Ellis (SD) and Ray Ranker (MD) are both running in districts where voters can choose more than one candidate. In Ray’s district, Republican voters will only have two Republicans on their ballot for three open seats. Outside of a binary election, independents may have a greater opportunity to win votes.

2. Can the “Fulcrum Strategy” Take Hold?

  • An Independent Caucus (ME): Twenty independent candidates are running for State House in Maine, including three incumbent legislators. Unite America is supporting eight. If partisan control remains roughly equal after election day, an independent coalition of five or more will hold the balance of power. Who is the next Speaker? What are the new rules? It could be up to the independents to decide.
  • A Single Swing Vote (AZ): Kathy Knecht won election to her school board in Peoria, AZ three times as an independent. Now, she’s in a two-way race against an incumbent Republican to become the first independent to serve in the Arizona State Senate. She’s out-raised and out-polled her opponent. If Kathy is elected, and if Democrats pick up 1–2 seats in the chamber, it could produce a 15–14–1 (or 14–15–1) balance of power, making Kathy the single swing vote in the chamber. She’s already fielding calls from incumbent legislators about their preferred committee assignments.
Over 100 Democrats (blue), Republicans (red), and independents (white) came together to help launch Kathy Knecht’s independent campaign for State Senate in Arizona.
  • A Cross-Partisan Coalition (AK): In 2016, two independents elected helped flip control of the State House from thirty years of Republican rule to a new “bipartisan governing majority” of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They succeeded in passing bipartisan fiscal reform. Those two independents, along with a Republican member who became an independent, are running for re-election. Unite America is supporting them alongside a first time candidate to defend and grow this cross-partisan coalition in Alaska.

3. Can independents take root in new states?

  • Two-Way Races (CO, NM): In more than a third of state legislative races, there is only ONE major party candidate on the ballot, due in large part to partisan gerrymandering. For Paul Jones and Thea Chase in Colorado and for Jarratt Applewhite in New Mexico, that means avoiding a three-way contest. Jones is running in a dead heat (44%-45%) against a Democratic incumbent in one of the most closely divided state house seats in the country. It’s been over 100 years since an independent has been elected in Colorado.

Independents Not Backing Down

The independent candidates running in three-way, statewide contests are climbing a steeper hill, but some are seeing late momentum — and none are backing down from giving voters a new choice.

  • Neal Simon | US Senate, Maryland: A mid-October poll found Simon surging by 10 points to roughly 18%, with incumbent Senator Ben Cardin falling below 50%. Simon has raised over $1.5 million for his campaign.
  • Terry Hayes | Governor, Maine: Polling recently reported by FiveThirtyEight found Hayes up by 6 points. Far from a “spoiler” that siphons votes from just one party, her support comes from 9% of Republicans, 7% of Democrats, and 11% of independents.
  • Greg Orman | Governor, Kansas: In a new ad, Orman takes on the naysayers: “Some say I’m a spoiler. I say, how can you spoil a rotten system? … If there was another candidate with my experience, I wouldn’t worry as much, but my two daughters will grow up here, and I won’t back down.”
  • Craig O’Dear | US Senate, Missouri: After turning in 22,000 signatures to get on the ballot and having a strong first debate (watch his introduction), Craig was excluded from the second. He writes in the Kansas City Star: “Independents are not represented in our political system or government, even though 43 percent of Americans identify that way. Independents deserve representation.

Like movements throughout history, ours will begin at a local/state level, then scale nationally; it will happen slowly, then all at once. So regardless of what happens on Election Day, we will remain on this path — thanks to the courage and conviction of independent candidates who are blazing the trail (including many amazing leaders not listed here), and all those who are actively supporting them.

If you are disappointed and disgusted by the state of politics, this is our chance to change the system together.