By Luke Brinker
Americans Elect is an independent group aiming to transform presidential politics in 2012. The group, which has already gained ballot access in 13 states (including California), will allow voters to sign up online to select their own presidential nominee next year. The group’s rules stipulate that the presidential nominee must select a running mate of the opposite party to fill out the ticket.
With the caveat that the hurdles confronting a third party candidacy are formidable (even in 1992, when Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the popular vote, he managed to win not a single electoral vote), recent trends suggest that 2012 may be a year for a group like Americans Elect to perform.
Three data points on the above chart are especially salient. In 1968, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace garnered 13.5 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes as an independent, 30 percent of voters identified as pure independents. The next significant independent candidacy was that of Rep. John Anderson of Illinois in 1980. In a year when 30 percent of voters identified as independents, Anderson won 6.6 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. Finally, billionaire Ross Perot made waves with independent runs in 1992 and 1996. He performed best in 1992, winning 18.9 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. That year, about 38 percent of voters considered themselves independents.
As disillusionment with Washington mounts, it’s unsurprising to read that voters are increasingly abandoning the two parties to register as independents, as USA Today reports today. An estimated 25 percent of voters have opted to register as independents (which is not the same as merely identifying oneself as an independent). The most recent Gallup poll to track partisan identification found that 35 percent of voters identified as independents – almost as high as in 1992, and above independent affiliation in 1968 and 1980. Given its elite array of backers, Americans Elect could well be poised to translate those numbers into real support for an independent ticket in 2012.
Recent history suggests that “success” for a third party usually means altering the national debate or earning more than a handful of percentage points at the ballot box. More likely than not, history will repeat itself if a significant independent mounts a bid in 2012. But in light of the fundamentals of voter sentiment, it would be foolish for either the Democrats or Republicans to dismiss Americans Elect out of hand.