Election 2010: Independents Face Obstacles

The most popular party in U.S. politics? None at all.

July 8, 2010 -- Forget the Tea Party. To the extent there is a third party in American politics, it is no party at all.

More Americans call themselves independent than Republican or Democratic, according the newest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

And yet no Congressmen and only two Senators call themselves independents. There are have been no independent Governors since Jesse Ventura, the professional wrestler turned Minnesota politician who left office in 2003.

A small but notable bundle of candidates aims to change that this fall.

Backlash against President Obama's policies among conservatives helped create an energized base for the grassroots Tea Party candidates, who have won Republican primaries over more establishment and politically moderate candidates in races around the nation.

Two politically-moderate refugees from the energized conservative base of the Republican party are mounting high-profile campaigns for statewide office this year. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist pulled out of the Republican primary there rather than lose to the more conservative Tea Party-favored Marco Rubio, former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. And in Rhode Island, former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, who was defeated in a 2006 bid for reelection to the Senate, is now running for governor as an independent.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, Tim Cahill, the State Treasurer who was elected as a Democrat, is now running for governor as an independent.

Of the three, Crist probably has the best chance of winning. He already has a bully pulpit as governor, and is barely ahead in polls in a three way race in Florida. Chaffee, given his Rhode Island political pedigree – he would be a third generation governor – is thought to have a chance there.

But don't look for a new era of political independence, say political scientists. For starters, there are procedural hurdles to building name recognition and fundraising outside of the party system.

"These guys… are not coming out of the blue," said Walt Stone, a Political Science Professor at University of California at Davis, who wrote a book on the dynamic of third parties after Ross Perot's run for the presidency in 1992. "They have name recognition, records to run on and followings in their states. That's different than someone running de novo as an independent."

That would also describe Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who spent 18 years as a Democrat in the Senate before losing his party nomination ahead of the 2006 election. Lieberman went on to run as an independent, and, with help from the Republicans then in the White House, appealed to moderate and conservative voters to keep his seat.

Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and runs the political prognostication website Sabato's Crystal Ball, said the polls showing large numbers of independent voters are just plain wrong.

"It is popular to say that one is independent," said Sabato. "But If you go beneath the surface, you find that those people vote almost identically with people who come right out and say they're either Democrats or Republicans."

"It represents one of the fairly rare periods in which independents outnumber either Democrats or Republicans, reflecting the disaffection with both parties that accompanies economic discontent," said Gary Langer, ABC News' director of polling, who calls the disaffection voters have for government the "Frustration Index." Right now it is exceptionally high at 67.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans identify themselves as independent, 24 percent as Republicans, 32 percent as Democrats.

But when voters are asked which party they lean to, the numbers change dramatically – 51 percent are Democrats or lean toward Democrats, and 43 percent are Republican or lean Republican. That leaves only about 5 percent of the population that is truly independent.

That small group is so disengaged they just don't care about politics, according to Stone.

"Some people say they're independent because they just don't give a damn. Its like asking a non-football fan who they want to win the game on Sunday," said Stone. That person might not even know who is playing."

For an independent candidate to be successful, said Stone, "he or she would have to create enough of a constituency between the two parties."

Every race has its own local issues, said Stone, but by and large there is not enough of a truly independent constituency to support that third party.

When the hyper-partisan election season kicks in, people become equally concerned with keeping a certain candidate out of office as they are with electing the candidate for their favored party. Independents are often viewed as long shots and so are particularly susceptible to voters not wanting to "waste" their ballot on a losing candidate, according to Stone.

Crist and Chaffee hope that frustration with Washington and with the parties will help them convince voters that a vote for an independent is not wasted.