Independent Candidates & The 2018 Election: What We Learned

A debrief report by Unite America

During the 2018 election cycle, Unite America endorsed and supported 30 credible independent candidates running for office at the state and federal level across the country. Over 400 total independent candidates ran for office, earning over 8 million votes, yet few were elected to serve. Our debrief report contributes to the public debate on the viability of independent candidates while providing actionable recommendations to independent leaders who run for office in the future.

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The stated desire and desperate need for a third force in American politics to bridge the divide between the two major parties has never been more clear. More registered voters now identify as independent than at any time in the last half-century.  Further, 68% of Americans believe the two parties poorly represent the American people, and that a third party is needed.

Yet voters remain reluctant to elect independent candidates in sufficient numbers capable of significantly impacting our politics. In 2018, 431 independent candidates appeared on general election ballots for state or federal office. Only 14 were elected –– and none to Governorships or to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Amid unprecedented tribalism and polarization, the 2018 election primarily served as a referendum on President Trump. In a wave year, Democrats won a record number of seats, including a majority in the U.S. House — putting a broadly desired check on the President and his party.

While the 2018 election may have served its purpose in addressing a symptom of our ailing democracy, little can be said of any progress toward electing leaders to address its root causes –– leaving many voters just as concerned about our future. A December 2018 poll conducted by Unite America found that more New Hampshire voters identified political dysfunction (73%) and a lack of unity (67%) as major threats to our country than affordable healthcare (65%), the national debt (56%) and terrorism (53%).

Reflecting & Learning

The 2012 cycle saw Republicans lose seats in both chambers of Congress and come short in winning back the White House. In response, the Grand Old Party produced an “Autopsy Report” which, among other recommendations, suggested the party refine its policy focus on cutting taxes, better engage growing Hispanic communities in key swing states, and invest more in digital and data infrastructure.

The Democratic National Committee undertook a similar project after the 2016 election, although the results were not published. Commentators and interest groups weighed in too, each with their own reports touching on two fundamental questions: Should the party embrace the bold, progressive policy ideas coming from its left-wing? Should base-building be focused on the rising number of minority voters or on the white working class voters who helped elect President Trump?

In this report, Unite America reflects on the 2018 cycle in the same spirit of introspection with a focus on our own movement –– the independent movement.

On one hand, more independent candidates than ever before ran for office, and more votes were cast for independents than at any other time in recent history. On the other, only 14 independent candidates were elected, six incumbent independent legislators lost re-election campaigns, and many credible and qualified independent candidates received single-digit percentages of the vote, including nearly every independent candidate running for statewide office.

While one would assume that growing disgust with the two major parties would create a ripe operating environment for independent candidates, we found the opposite to be true in 2018. In high-stakes elections that are increasingly impacted by the national political environment, voters opted to vote against the party they liked least –– rather than reject the two-party system as a whole and try something new. This trend is likely to continue, suggested Unite America adviser and USC Professor Dan Schnur, so long as “the most visible voice in our politics (President Trump) is one forcing a binary choice.”

The 431 independent candidates who ultimately stepped forward and the 8,039,020 voters who cast ballots for those candidates have much to teach us about the future of independent politics. To that end, our report focuses on three essential threads:

  • FIRST, what key challenges can explain election results for independent candidates in 2018?

  • SECOND, how can independent candidates be more competitive in the future?

  • THIRD, what best practices have independent campaigns identified?

This report is informed by more than 40 polls conducted during the 2018 cycle, focus groups with voters, multiple convenings of independent candidates and their teams, survey feedback from advisers, volunteers and candidates, as well as Unite America’s efforts over the past two years.

We hope this report will provide a comprehensive view of the challenges and opportunities faced by independent candidates, inform organizations and movements keen to support independent candidates in the future, and provide actionable recommendations and insights for independent leaders who run for office in 2020 and beyond.

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The 2018 election cycle saw a rise of independent voters and candidates amid both a “blue wave” that lifted Democrats to victory and a growing tribalism within the electorate that threatens the very functioning of our governing institutions. The bipolarity of the political system may have forced voters to reject many competitive and credible independent candidates out of simple fear and mistrust for the political party they like least. The first section of this report highlights these trends which shaped the 2018 political environment in which the independent candidates we analyze operated.

The second section presents a thesis on the most significant challenges independents face, including a wide gap between voters’ stated desire for a third option and their willingness to vote for one; limited brand equity in the term “independent” or in “process arguments”; and the lack of a “base” from which independents can draw support. This section also identifies conditions under which independent candidates may have a better chance, namely, when they (i) run in two way races, small districts, and/or under favorable electoral rules, and when they (ii) have as much brand equity (i.e. name identification) as candidates from the two major parties.

The third section offers recommendations for movements and organizations keen to support candidates outside of the two major parties in the future. Most importantly, priority must be placed on building a new, values-based identity capable of capturing the attention of an “Exhausted Majority” of Americans looking for a new alternative. Leveling the playing field with structural rule changes and improving access to tools, talent, and resources will be critical as well.

The fourth section offers eight best practices offered by independent candidates who appeared on the ballot in 2018. These suggestions — ranging from messaging, thoughts on how to break through in the media marketplace and how to allocate resources — provide the most actionable insights for future candidates.  

The conclusion synthesizes Unite America’s role during the 2018 election and offers a vantage point from which to view a way forward in our tribal politics.

Key Learning #1: There is a significant gap between voters’ stated desire for an alternative and their voting behavior.

Pre-election polling demonstrated a strong interest in voting for independent leaders — often over 70% — and favorability towards specific independent candidates. Nationally, the desire for a third party has never been higher. Yet 2018 proved to be a tough year for credible independents, who lost competitive races at all levels of government. We identify at least three core ideas that can help explain the difference between what voters say they want and what they ultimately cast ballots for:

First, social desirability bias explains why many voters report an openness to voting for an independent candidate or a desire for a third party even if they are unlikely to ever support one.

Second, party labels provide a useful heuristic to voters in indicating a candidate's general policy priorities, leaving a significant gap for independent candidates to close over the course of their campaign. Further, explaining why the political system is broken and how one independent candidate on their ballot can make a difference was difficult for independent candidates in 2018.

Third, agreement with the idea of voting for a third candidate in a poll does not reflect how intensely one believes in that assertion. Ultimately, moderates tend to believe in moderation much more moderately than activists on the ideological extremes believe in their brands of liberalism and conservatism.  Partially as a result of a lack of intensity, even well-grounded support for independent candidates tends to evaporate by election day, as voters’ partisanship becomes hyper-charged.

Key Learning #2: The “independent” brand does not carry any meaningful, built-in support on the ballot.

The independent” brand is at best an empty vessel that each individual candidate and campaign must define on their own. Independent candidates who rely solely on their ballot designation and do not run robust campaigns usually earn only one to three percent of the vote.

Critically, voters require concrete, assertive stances on the issues that affect their lives, rather than only commentary on the obvious malfunctioning of a polarized, party-driven government. The ability to find a singular contrast issue to compare with the incumbent and/or other opponent(s) has propelled a number of successful independent candidates to office.

Key Learning #3: Independent voters are nowhere near a cohesive voting base for independent candidates.

A majority of independent voters lean towards — or even have strong affiliations with — one of the two major parties. Even those who believe we need a third party do not agree on what that third party should be; only about a third of these voters desire a “party of the center.” Post-election polls even showed independent candidates in some key two-way races lost amongst independent voters.

In the political environment as it exists today, there is no evidence of a cohesive coalition of voters simply waiting for the opportunity to cast their ballots for leaders who run outside the parties and broadly promise to rise above petty partisanship to solve problems.

Key Learning #4: Two way races are exponentially better than three way races.

Independent candidates in two way races begin with a significantly larger support base. Voters from the party without a candidate on the ballot often view the independent as the best way to cast a ballot against the party they like least. A growing literature suggests that negative attitudes towards the “other” party are stronger than positive attitudes towards one’s own party.

Candidates in two way races still face significant challenges, including motivating voters not to skip the election on their ballot when they don’t see a candidate from their preferred party as well as building a coalition in districts which often significantly favor one party, either because of self-sorting of the electorate or partisan gerrymandering.

Key Learning #5: Favorable electoral rules may help, but are not silver bullets.

Ranked Choice Voting is an alternative voting method that allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference so that voters can choose their preferred candidate without fear of “wasting” their vote or “spoiling” an election.  

In Maine, Ranked Choice Voting was used for the first time to elect federal candidates in 2018. State Representative Marty Grohman (I) ran a credible campaign for the first congressional district, earning 9% of the vote. Pre-election polling and post-election focus groups suggest that Ranked Choice Voting did not significantly change the electoral outcomes because previously identified hurdles (i.e. voter psychology, brand identity and lack of competitive infrastructure) prevailed.

Ranked Choice Voting did not persuade voters to vote for Representative Grohman if they did not already know who he was, nor did Ranked Choice Voting propel Representative Grohman further than most other independent candidates; instead, it helped at the margins for the relatively small number of voters who would have otherwise voted for a major party candidate out of fear of wasting a vote or spoiling an election.

In Vermont, Independent Representative Ben Jickling earned 25% of the vote in his successful re-election campaign. Ten states use multi-member districts in a variety of formats, allowing voters to choose one candidate in elections in which multiple win. If the challenge for independents is that only a narrow set of voters — those not represented by either political party — are willing to vote for them when both major parties are on the ballot, multi-member districts may provide a unique political opportunity.

Top-two primaries offer independents a path to victory if they can advance through primaries in slightly partisan districts.

Independents running for state legislature have also fared far better in smaller districts, where it is easier to personally reach and persuade a larger percentage of voters.

Key Learning #6: Strong candidates with favorable political dynamics can take advantage of unique electoral opportunities.

In 2018, Angus King was re-elected in a three-way race to a second term as an independent to the United States Senate; he previously served two terms as Governor. A well-known public television host, Senator King won his first statewide race in 1994 by only 7,878 votes.

Jim Roscoe, a former Democratic state representative, won in a heavily Republican Wyoming district by finding a contrast issue his community cared deeply about. By pointing out a vote the incumbent legislator took to permit the sale of public lands to the state, Rosce drove a wedge between him and his opponent on a salient and local issue that had a tangible impact on people’s lives.

Previously, Governor Jesse Ventura (MN) won a close three-way election in 1998 and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK) won as a third, write-in candidate in 2010. Governor Bill Walker (AK) won his race in 2014 when the Democratic nominee joined Walker as his lieutenant governor candidate on a “Unity Ticket.” Each time, these candidates were able to build name recognition and a personal identity as strong — or stronger — than the political parties and their nominated candidates.

What independent candidates will need to do in the future

Legislators who have served independent of the two major political parties have demonstrated the power to bridge the growing partisan divide and advance common-sense solutions that improve the lives of their constituents. Therefore it remains a worthwhile endeavor to recruit, train, and support courageous leaders who run outside of the two major parties.

As the key learnings suggest, the biggest challenge independent candidates face is tapping into an initial, built-in base of electoral support as do major party candidates. A second challenge is that independents lack competitive electoral infrastructure capable of electing them, even in favorable electoral conditions. Finally, independents must overcome an electoral system with rules generally written to benefit candidates from the party establishment.

Outlined below are three critical tasks for both independent candidates and movements supporting them to address.

Task #1: Build an identity

Leading research by Drew Westen, Dr. Liliana Mason, Jonathan Haidt, More in Common, and many others demonstrate the role emotion, strong political identities, and shifting belief systems play in dividing the country into polarized tribes. These tribes are powerful political forces capable of using social pressure and ethos appeals, often not rooted in fact or reason, to mobilize voters. Most believe these trends are self-reinforcing and will grow more powerful over time. Therefore, any future candidates or institutions looking to compete with the two major parties must invest significant energy in understanding these forces and developing their own identity that can transcend existing ones.

A new identity must not simply propose “centrist” policy positions; more importantly, it must characterize a new type of leader — or coalition of leaders — committed to a set of values and offer a fundamentally new direction for our politics.

Task #2: Level the playing field

A number of proposed electoral reforms could help both the electability of independents as well as  improve governance in other ways. After its successful implementation in Maine, Ranked Choice Voting has seen increased interest within the political reform community and would eliminate the spoiler argument, a critical messaging challenge for independents. Multi-member districts — in which independents have won in Vermont — could also help level the playing field.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, recently wrote:

“Right now our politics is heading in a truly horrendous direction — with vicious, binary political divisions overlapping with and exacerbating historical racial divisions. If we’re going to have just one structural reform to head off that nightmare, ranked-choice voting in multimember districts is the one to choose.”

Yet, there are at least five specific ways in which state constitutions, laws, and regulations make it harder for independent candidates to compete with major-party endorsed candidates: First, ballot access requirements are often higher for independent candidates. Second, in many states, party committees often can raise funds in unlimited amounts and make contributions to candidates in their party, while independent candidates do not have access to a similar mechanism.  Third, nine states use Straight Party Voting, which allows voters to check one box or pull a single lever to vote for an entire slate of party members. Fourth, sore loser laws prohibit potential independent candidates from running in general elections. Fifth, the identification of party affiliation of candidates on ballots provides candidates from the two-major parties an inherent and very valuable branding advantage over leaders running unaffiliated from any political party. Legislative advocacy, as well as carefully designed legal challenges, will be required to tackle these obstacles.

At the presidential level, ballot access and the role of money are especially important. In California, for example, a third party or independent presidential candidate must collect 196,000 valid signatures in 105 days after nominating his or her Vice Presidential nominee. Independent candidates are also not allowed to participate in the presidential Clean Elections campaign finance program. Opening debates to third party and independent candidates would also meaningfully level the playing field.

Task #3: Improve Infrastructure

Both political parties have built data platforms that append and enrich voter data in real time. Their networks of activists and staffers pick up on key themes and tactics, carrying them from one election to the next. Donor lists are built from work done by previous candidates and organizations.

The primary focus of Unite America’s efforts in the 2018 cycle was building competitive electoral infrastructure to support 30 endorsed leaders who were identified as credible, aligned, and viable candidates. The efforts of the movement included raising both “hard” and “soft” dollars, mobilizing volunteers, building a brand, driving media attention, connecting campaigns to operatives and vendors, and providing data infrastructure.

Independent candidates identified grassroots volunteers and early financial resources as the two most valuable assets in building capacity within their own campaigns. Therefore building a more robust supporter network must remain an essential task for organizations keen to support independent candidates.

Best Practices from 2018 independent candidates

One challenge for independent candidates is that the insights and data collected from cycle to cycle are often lost. We surveyed over 30 independent candidates who ran in 2018 to ask what they learned and what advice they would pass along to future candidates. In those surveys, candidates identified engaged volunteers and early money as the most critical components of their campaign infrastructure. They also offered insights into how independents can develop a strong platform, overcome the spoiler argument, and share their message with voters and the press. Topline recommendations include:

  • TAKE ISSUE POSITIONS. Many voters are sympathetic to “process arguments” that blame the two party system and gridlock for a lack of progress on issues that matter to them, but are ultimately unpersuaded by these arguments alone. Critically, independent candidates must take bold, differentiated policy positions and offer concrete ideas that would positively impact people’s lives.

  • HAVE A PLAN TO GET TO A TWO WAY RACE. While independents can, and have, won three way races, those instances are rare and usually rely on a candidate having exceptional name recognition and personal brand identity. Any independent campaign strategy should include working to position the candidate as the most viable and electable alternative to the incumbent or incumbent party, to “flip the script” on the traditional spoiler argument and instead pressure the other party to not run or meaningfully support their own candidate.

  • INVEST IN GROUND GAME. Independent candidates rely heavily on persuading voters, so investing resources in a strong ground game is critical. State legislative candidates noted candidate door-to-door canvassing as the best way to reach and engage voters. Statewide candidates suggested investing more resources in paid, regional staff capable of building capacity within campaigns.

  • BUILD PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE PRESS. The partisan media environment demands building personal relationships with local reporters and commentators, in part to overcome the conventional wisdom that third candidates are not viable or out of the mainstream. Nurturing these relationships, telling a compelling personal story, and having concrete policy ideas are critical to capturing the public’s attention through earned media.
  • SPEND RESOURCES EARLY TO ENSURE RECOGNITION. Independent candidates have the burden of proactively demonstrating they are viable candidates. This must be done early in the race before the media, pollsters, and voters begin to conceptualize the race as a two-way competition. Therefore independent candidates should spend financial resources as early as possible to legitimize their campaign, build their name recognition, drive up their poll numbers, and prove their electability.

  • REJECT THE PREMISE OF THE SPOILER ARGUMENT. Especially in three way races, the toughest messaging challenge is the “spoiler argument” which holds independents will only throw the election to one major party candidate or the other. Independents must turn this argument on its head, noting that the only way to “spoil” a rotten system is to vote for the same types of partisan candidates who have gridlocked government. They can also point to the fact that less than 2% of races are spoiled by independent candidates and that new electoral reforms like Ranked Choice Voting are capable of preventing unintended outcomes.

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