Saturday, November 5 2011, 2:02 PM
There is broad dissatisfaction with our two-party system, and a strong desire for an independent candidate or candidates to run next year. Polling done by the Washington Post last week shows that more than six in ten Americans want an alternative, and additional polling that I have done shows that only a quarter are satisfied with the choices the two-party system offers.
While the bulk of the attention in the last two years has focused on the Tea Party on the right and, more recently, on the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left — each of which could theoretically try to launch a candidate for President — that’s the wrong place to look for a fresh face.
In American presidential politics, there is a broad group in the middle who could well be called a new silent majority. This 50% to 60% of the electorate wants consensus, conciliation and a constructive approach to problem solving. And it is this group that an independent candidacy for President can best address.
So many people are looking for alternatives because credibility of the two main political parties and of government institutions have almost hit rock bottom. The Washington Post poll shows that the Democratic Party’s rating is its lowest since 1984 at 48% favorable, 46% unfavorable. The Republican Party’s rating is even worse; a majority is unfavorable (53%) and just 40% are favorable. And by 61% to 32%, voters favor the idea of an independent candidate running for President against the Democratic and Republican Party nominees.
New York Times polling shows that our government has virtually no credibility. Eighty-nine percent of Americans say they distrust government, 84% disapprove of Congress and 74% say the country is on the wrong track. In 1992, the last time there was a viable presidential independent candidacy, Gallup polling showed that voters were satisfied with government, 58% to 39%. Now, voters say they are dissatisfied, 81% to 19%.
This is not simply another cycle of discontent. We’re dealing with historic levels of frustration.
In Gallup polling, 69% of respondents say they have little or no confidence in the legislative branch of government, an all-time high. Fifty-seven percent have little or no confidence in the federal government to solve domestic problems, which exceeds the previous high of 53% recorded last year. And a majority (53%) has little or no confidence in the people who seek or hold elected office.
President Obama is not faring much better than Congress. Rasmussen Reports polling has Obama’s approval at 44%. Washington Post/ABC News polling released last month shows that just 35% approve of both his handling of the economy and of creating jobs, and 42% approve of his handling of taxes.
However, there is just as little enthusiasm for the Republican presidential candidates as there is for Obama, which comes as little surprise when one looks at how quickly primary voters have churned through frontrunners. Mitt Romney, the most moderate of the major contenders, has been fending off a line of conservatives, from Rep. Michele Bachmann to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to businessman Herman Cain. Yet according to the Times survey, about eight in 10 primary voters say it is still too early to tell whom they will support, and only four in 10 say they have been paying a lot of attention to the 2012 presidential campaign. No Republican candidate had support greater than 25%, and about one in 10 Republican primary voters say they would like to see someone else nominated.
Remember, the first primary voting starts in just two months.
Thus, it is clear that the public’s discontent is broad-based and widespread, from Obama and the Democrats on the left to the Republicans and their presidential candidates on the right. The emergence and influence of the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the rise of Tea Party candidates in the Republican primary are all part of the larger sentiments of dissatisfaction and dysfunctionality within the electorate.
The polarization of the two parties has left a wide open gap in the center for a third presidential candidate. A group that I am working with, Americans Elect, is in the process of obtaining ballot access in all 50 states for a centrist, bipartisan ticket. Americans Elect has no issue agenda, and no candidate has been nominated yet through its online process. It is simply dedicated to offering a nonpartisan, centrist alternative. Polling my firm conducted for the organization showed that 57% believe there is a need for a third party, and 58% favor having an alternative presidential ticket that is independent of the Democratic and Republican parties on the ballot in 2012.
While Americans Elect itself is merely dedicated to opening up the process, it is possible to outline the kind of approach and issues such a candidate would necessarily address.
Such a candidate would have to appeal to the broad, moderate middle of the electorate and speak to the concerns of the vast majority of frustrated Americans with common sense solutions. He or she would need to take the best ideas from both sides of the aisle and work together to achieve compromise and conciliation.
The debt-reduction supercommittee and its approaching deadline raises a challenge an independent candidate would have to address: balancing the budget. While Speaker of the House John Boehner acknowledged Thursday that a bipartisan agreement reached by the supercommittee will have to include some new tax revenue, it is a long way from reaching a deal. The so-called $4 trillion “grand bargain” that Obama and Boehner reached last summer, which also involved raising revenue, came undone as quickly as it came together.
We need a fiscal plan developed that puts us on a path to reducing our debt and deficit while encouraging entitlement reform and cuts in defense and discretionary spending. Neither party is seriously addressing these issues; an independent candidate who did so, without an overlay of petty partisanship, would strike a chord.
He or she would have to put forward a plan that emphasizes fiscal discipline, fiscal prudence, holding the line on taxes and, most of all, creating jobs and stabilizing the economy. He or she should embrace a free market, pro-growth agenda and outline comprehensive plans to create employment opportunities, enable entrepreneurship and aid business creation.
Further, this candidate would have to put forth a rational energy policy that promotes energy independence through offshore drilling and incentives for greater development of nuclear power, while encouraging conservation by requiring utilities to produce more energy from renewable sources. This candidate should embrace practical ideas for education and health care reform, such as a coordinated effort at the federal and state levels to improve our science education, as well as investments in medical innovation and health insurance exchanges.
These are consensus positions that address challenges that our nation faces, challenges that an independent candidate (and, indeed, any candidate) must tackle. They are positions and challenges that neither side is taking and addressing because of the narrow ideological blinders that each party has adopted.
Lastly, there’s an intangible quality that our theoretical independent presidential candidate needs to have: apolitical candor. Politicians emerging out of our two-party system inevitably lapse into reading a script; they hit upon all the necessary interest-group approved talking points, insert a clumsy joke or anecdote and attack the other side.
In our savvy age, Americans can see right through this style. They are hungry for someone who is willing to take risks and make mistakes if, in the process, he or she expresses unpopular truths.
It would be a mistake to see the widespread dissatisfaction of the American electorate in narrow political terms rather than a complete breakdown in confidence in the political system and government itself. Voters across the ideological landscape are expressing their broad desire for change to make a system that doesn’t work more responsive. The opportunity for a third party presidential candidate has never been greater.
Schoen, chief strategist for Americans Elect, is author of “The Power of the Vote” and “Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System.”