Election 2008

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Jose Luis Magana/AP
Bob Barr

Election Basics: The Independent Vote

October 28, 2008
by Liz Colville
An independent candidacy is often one of the most provocative factors of a presidential election. 

The Deciding Factor

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Independent candidates and their supporters can be a deciding force in an election, even if they don't win. When Ralph Nader ran on an independent ticket in 2004, the editors of The Nation and others claimed that Nader had snatched votes away from the Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Before Nader even officially announced his candidacy, the Nation addressed an open letter to him, warning:

“The context for an independent presidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was a real base for a protest candidate. The overwhelming mass of voters with progressive values … has only one focus this year: to beat Bush. Any candidacy seen as distracting from that goal will be excoriated by the entire spectrum of potentially progressive voters."

In 2008, the independent candidates may yet have their roles to play. Voters are expressing dissatisfaction for the Republican Party, associated with the Bush Administration, and the Democrats, linked with the current economic crisis because of the regulation leniency that accelerated during the Clinton Administration. The National Review noted Clinton's early support of deregulation in a 1993 article.
For background on the importance of third-party candidacies, the History Channel provides a chart of presidential elections with notable third-party or independent campaigns. These include Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive ballot in 1912 (this was the second time he ran for president, and this time, he failed) and Nader’s campaigns on behalf of the Green Party line in 2000, and the Independent line in 2004.

The Independent Voter in 2008

“About three in 10 Americans identify themselves as ‘independent,’” stated the Washington Post. In 2007, the paper published results from a poll in a project called “The Independents,” viewable online, which includes some revealing statistics on the types of voter under the Independent umbrella. The page also includes the PDF of the full poll, graphs and related articles such as “Independents: Who and How Many?
In a 2006 Time article, political commentator Joe Klein names the centrist (or “realist”) platform as growing in popularity for American voters—as well as for more politicians, including figures like Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a pro-life Democrat from Nevada.

Meanwhile, Sens. McCain and Obama have been plenty conscious of this demographic, and both have been vying for independent voters as they try to distinguish themselves from the Bush Administration and from one another. As John P. Avlon noted in the Wall Street Journal in October 2008, "There are now six states where independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats—the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire as well as New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts."

Avlon adds that the Democratic and Republican candidates are pulling in independent numbers for quite different reasons: "Mr. McCain's credibility with independents comes from his principled independence and record of forging bipartisan coalitions. Barack Obama's appeal to independents is rooted in his promise to transcend the left/right, black/white debates. He beat Hillary Clinton 2-1 among independents."

The Independent Candidate in 2008

Ralph Nader, as in 2000 and 2004, is running for president as an independent this year, ignoring protests from publications like the Nation, mentioned above. With a goal of raising $4 million by Election Day, Nader is already nearing that number and has outfitted his Web site with narratives on his positions on agriculture, affirmative action, climate change and more. This past week, he also beat the record for number of campaign stops in one day with a "blitz" of Massachusetts, a state that has supported him amply in the past.

Bob Barr, while not technically an independent, is running as a libertarian presidential candidate and has gained some attention for his potential ability to draw Republican voters away from the McCain-Palin ticket. While Barr's potential appeared to some to have peaked in the summer, the candidate argues that he has seen a surge in rally attendance and Web site visits since the economic crisis hit. Barr, a former Republican congressman, told Politico, "It is not just ammunition against McCain, but against both candidates, because it so graphically illustrates the fact that both of them are Big Government candidates."
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