1. Opinion

Column: Independent voters are the reindeer who could change politics

Ron Fournier
Ron Fournier
Published Aug. 20, 2018

For years as a political reporter in Washington, I wrote about the public's disgust with the U.S. political system and predicted the rise of a third party and outsider presidential candidates. I railed against the Republican-Democratic duopoly and chased the mythical "white knight" who would put country over party — and then put the two major parties out of business.

I was hunting a unicorn when I should have been herding reindeer.

While a viable third party is as elusive as a horned horse, there exists a rare-but-real creature in American politics that can systematically dismantle the status quo: the independent. Untethered to the two major parties, growing in sums and significance, independent candidates and officeholders are the reindeer of American politics.

If these creatures can be corralled into controlling coalitions in legislatures across the country, including the U.S. Senate, they could find a powerful leverage point to break the partisan fever.

Their time has come. Nov. 6 could be independents' day.

More than 40 percent of voters self-identify as independent, according to Gallup. In more than half the states that register and report voters by party, independent voters outnumber one or both of the two major parties.

Voter frustration is mounting under President Donald Trump, the second-straight anti-establishment candidate whose presidency failed to deliver positive and durable change. Yet the political duopoly continues to dominate Congress and state legislatures. Only two of the 535 members of Congress and 27 of the 7,317 state legislators are independent.

Why are there so few independents elected when there are so many independent voters? The single greatest barrier to change is the question of viability. People don't want to waste their vote. With an angry electorate and more-competitive independent candidates, that may soon change.

"The question of whether independent candidates can win elections will inevitably turn to whether independent leaders can make a difference once in office," reads a new report by the Unite America Institute, which is affiliated with the Unite America movement that aims to level the playing field for independent candidates. I am a spokesman for the group.

Having left Washington for my hometown of Detroit two years ago, I have been drawn back into politics by the pragmatic elegance of Unite America's mission. Rather than attempt to start a third party from scratch, the group is targeting states where a small number of elected independents can create disproportionately influential governing coalitions in narrowly divided legislatures.

In the U.S. Senate and 31 state legislative bodies, just five or fewer independents could be the fulcrum upon which the balance of power rests. The strategy can work. For this year's elections, Unite America has endorsed two dozen independent candidates and is helping them compete against Democrats and Republicans by providing financial resources, a grass-roots community and campaign tools such as voter data. To build momentum for November, more than 200 independent elected officials, candidates, strategists and other key leaders gathered in Denver this past weekend for the first-ever Unite Summit.

It will take small herds of reindeer in every state to change political behavior — to make conversation and comity the norm; to make and protect election reforms; to end the parties' zero-sum games; and to force the parties to slay sacred cows and tackle intractable issues.

But, eventually and incrementally, this may be the path to radically re-center American politics.

Ron Fournier, a former reporter, editor and publisher, is president of Truscott Rossman, a Michigan public relations firm. Unite America is a client.

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