Arguably the biggest campaign story of the week (although his own dawdling on the subject had rendered it somewhat anticlimatic) was the decision by Florida's Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, to abandon the GOP primary and campaign for the office as an Independent.
Crist became the fourth prominent Independent bid of the 2010 electoral cycle. He followed a trio of gubernatorial candidates: Massachusetts state treasurer Tim Cahill (a former Democrat), former Rhode Island U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee (a former Republican), and Maine attorney Eliot Cutler (a former Democrat).
It is, when viewed through the lens of recent history, highly unusual for there to be this multitude of legitimate non-partisan contenders. In the past decade, only two statewide Independent candidates have successfully claimed the offices they sought. Both of those, for what it is worth, had major caveats: Bernie Sanders was, though an Independent, the default Democratic nominee when he ran for the Senate in Vermont in 2006. Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman's win in 2006 over Ned Lamont was possible because the GOP nominee never successfully launched, allowing Lieberman to cobble together a narrow victory by retaining a fraction of the Democratic vote while owning the GOP vote.
These elections, one and all, appear to be quite different. The nonpartisan quartet in this cycle will be dealing with organized opposition from both the GOP and the Democratic Party.
So, how successful could they be?
One could make the argument that if an Indie candidate were to break through, this would be the year for them to do so. The majority party has taken a beating over the last sixteen months. In the first Daily Kos State of the Nation tracking poll taken after Inauguration, the Democrats had a favorability spread of +21. This week, that spread was a much less robust negative 12 (41/53).
What is unique about this sizeable drop in Democratic free-fall in favorabilities is that it has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in Republican favorability. Indeed, far from it: what was a net negative favorability of 23 on Inauguration Day is now a net negative of 33 points (32/65). So, while voter esteem for the Democratic Party has gone from good to bad, voter esteem for the GOP has gone from bad...to worse.
This would seem to open the door for a third option.
But will it?
Not everybody is sold. New York Daily News columnist Errol Lewis, for example:
If Americans voted purely with their heads and not their hearts, the candidates running as independents in high-profile races around the nation would have a better chance at the polls this year.
But in these tough and turbulent times, voters are searching for stability, consistency, sympathy and reassurance - and that will work to the benefit of established Democratic and Republican candidates.
Current polling data, which of course is subject to a myriad of changes before November, seems to dispute Lewis' thesis:
- A McLaughlin and Associates poll taken immediately before Crist's announcement had him leading a three-way tabulation, taking 33% of the vote, versus 29% of the vote for Republican Marco Rubio and 15% of the vote for Democrat Kendrick Meek. It is worth noting, however, that the pollster in question (Jim McLaughlin) did express strong doubts that Crist could hold that position.
- The most recent poll out of Massachusetts shows Tim Cahill running second (with 29% of the vote), within striking distance of incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick (who sat at 34%). Patrick has led most 2010 polling, although he has struggled to garner a significant plurality. In the half-dozen polls released in 2010 pairing Patrick with Cahill and GOP nominee Charlie Baker, Patrick has done no better than 35%, while Cahill has done no worse than 21%.
- Probably the Indie contender in the best position is Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee. Since he announced in early January that he would be seeking the office of Governor as an Independent, he has either tied or led in every poll conducted in the state's gubernatorial race. Interestingly, the heavily-blue state of Rhode Island has not elected a Democratic governor since 1992, when Bruce Sundlund was elected as a Dem.
- While there has been scant polling from the state of Maine, this is a state that has demonstrated an appetite for Independent candidacies in the past. Independent Barbara Merrill nabbed 22% of the vote in 2006 (holding Democratic incumbent John Baldacci to just 38%), and Independent Angus King managed to win election in 1994, and then re-election in 1998, against legitimate contenders from both parties. Maine was also, for those who like their presidential history, the state that came within just fifteen thousand votes from giving Ross Perot his only electoral vote in 1992 (Perot actually came in second in the state's 2nd CD, winning 33% of the vote). Furthermore, a late 2009 poll from PPP (PDF file) tested the strength of a nameless third party candidate in Maine. The generic Indie candidate logged 18% of the vote.
It is possible, though unlikely, that all four of these candidates could emerge victorious in November. For an Independent candidate to be successful historically, they needed some combination of climate, money, and name recognition. All of these are apparent in each of these races. Given the omnipresent "wasted vote" principle, however, it is at least as likely (and perhaps more so) that the quartet listed above will go zero-for-four in November.
Should that occur, they will fall into the traditional role of Independent candidates: that of spoiler.
Cahill is the candidate most clearly positioned to play this role, which is why GOP nominee Charlie Baker has levelled most of his early fire on Cahill, and why Cahill is running a playbook that has clear connectivity to the one recently waged by Republican Scott Brown. Cahill and Baker are locked in a mano-a-mano struggle to attain the ticket to a November victory--a singular anti-incumbent candidate. As long as the anti-Patrick vote is split two ways, Governor Patrick can cling to that narrow path to victory wherein he is re-elected with around 40% of the vote. With neither of his rivals anywhere near standing down, Patrick is, despite being an incumbent in an absolutely abysmal climate, sitting in an enviable position.
There are other, more traditional, spoilers elsewhere. Assuming he can stay out of severe legal trouble (and that is not the safest bet in Nevada), Tea Party candidate Scott Ashjian might prove to be a lifeline for embattled Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Meanwhile, Minnesota, like Maine, is a state willing to at least flirt with Independent candidacies (perhaps Jesse Ventura rings a bell?). No less than seven nonpartisan candidates are considering bids in what is bound to be a close race for Minnesota Governor.
At present, there are two nonpartisan officeholders among the 585 men and women who either serve as state Chief Executives or in Congress (well...three, if you count Crist). That number may very well hold steady after the 2010 election cycle has come to a close.
One thing you can count on, however, is that these Indie candidates will add a layer of intrigue to the 2010 landscape, and could provide game-changing textures to races from coast to coast.