In the 1992 presidential primaries, a third-party candidate led Republican incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Democrat contender Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton by a healthy margin. His name was Ross Perot, a somewhat bigger than life Texas billionaire who captured the interest of Americans and upset the two-party establishment norm.
Perot was a late entry into the battle, yet with only five months until the election, polls were ticking 39% for the quirky Lone Star maverick versus 31% for Bush and 25% for Clinton. Managing to get his name on the ballot as an Independent, Perot won 19% of the popular vote, as Independents rose up in defiance to send a message that neither dominant party represented their American interests.
That was an American wild card few saw coming.
In today’s political climate, as Democrats and Republicans harp only on polarizing issues to appease their base, Independents are on the verge of another uprising.
Who Are These Independents Anyway?
When political discourse turns to the independent voter in America, most assume these folks are affiliated ideologically with Republicans or Democrats and not the free agents that they claim to be. And they would be correct, according to Pew Research:
“An overwhelming majority of independents (81%) continue to ‘lean’ toward either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Among the public overall, 17% are Democratic-leaning independents, while 13% lean toward the Republican Party. Just 7% of Americans decline to lean toward a party, a share that has changed little in recent years.”
What turns voters away from the two major parties? Disillusionment. In 2016, 39% of voters identified as Independents. But after a particularly brutal primary season, it became clear Democrats rigged their internal system against popular socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), progressive Dems began to distance themselves from the anointed Hillary Clinton.
Simultaneously, establishment Republicans, attempting to thwart the will of GOP voters and observing the inability of party leadership to pass legislation with a super-majority on The Hill, were inspired to seek a new label and began identifying as Libertarian (which saw a 3% boost) or Independent.
A further breakdown of these unconventional types shows more men than women claim Independent status – or 56% — and are younger than partisan voters, with only 37% aged 50 and over. They tend to be interested in racial and gender equality, moderate fiscal policies, religious tolerance, legalizing marijuana, and LGBTQ issues.
Overall, the number of those now identifying as Independent has reached 42% — a healthy number that both major parties should be scrambling to attract.
Yet, it appears that pandering to their extreme right and left bases is where the party bosses are focusing.
As House of Card Games Go
As America’s elected leaders continue chiseling away, increasing with impunity the divide between the right and left through inaction and dangerous and abusive rhetoric, they again ignore a bloc of people who may be on the brink of an insurgence.
In the 1992 election, Perot appealed to Democrats and Republicans: He was against the Gulf War and NAFTA and promised to reduce the national debt. Bush had reneged on his promise to “read my lips, no new taxes,” and Clinton was saddled with an unpopular wife, sex abuse and infidelity accusations, and the damning Whitewater scandal, with neither camp paying much attention to the diminutive Texan. A grave mistake.
Perhaps Independents are off the radar, as they are less politically engaged than registered Democrats and Republicans and have a poor habit of skipping out on voting altogether. That relegates the pontificating and political centrist ideology to the stack of ineffectual cards where the Joker routinely resides.
Yet Democrats and Republicans would do well to heed the ill-fated contest of 1992, else the 59th quadrennial presidential election on Nov. 3, 2020, might just be a repeat.