Many people talk about independents as though they are a coherent group in America, but independent voters and candidates are all over the map—politically and geographically.
Although the “independent” label suggests a high-minded detachment from partisanship, the great majority of independents lean toward one party or the other. In a New York Times op-ed yesterday, political scientists Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov estimate that about 36 percent of independents lean toward the Democrats and 42 percent toward the Republicans, while the remaining “pure” independents pay little attention to politics and vote infrequently.
Like independent voters, independent candidates come from across the political spectrum. Some are to the right of the GOP and some to the left of the Democrats, while others position themselves in the intermediate space between the two major parties or wage personal campaigns promising to be above politics. Even when they lose, they may still have a decisive impact, depending on where they draw their votes and whether they hurt Democrats or Republicans the most.
This fall, independent candidates may determine the outcome of at least four races for governor. Each case is different. In three states—Maine, Kansas, and Alaska—the independents seem likely to hurt the Democratic candidates and potentially throw the election to the Republicans. In one state, Rhode Island, the effect may go the other way.
The most interesting case is Maine, where voters have tried to prevent independent “spoiler” candidates from determining electoral outcomes after the Trump-like Republican Paul LePage was elected governor in 2010 and then re-elected in 2014. In both races, LePage failed to win a majority, while an independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, split the non-Republican vote with a Democrat.
To try to ensure that elections reflect the will of the majority, Maine voters enacted a system of ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank-order candidates on their ballot. If no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes, there is an instant run-off. The candidate with the least support is dropped, and voters who chose that candidate have their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate. The procedure is repeated until one candidate has a majority. The system allows voters to pick independent and third-party candidates, while still preserving a majoritarian outcome.
But while Maine voters passed ranked-choice voting and indeed reaffirmed it in a second referendum, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it violates a provision of the state constitution regarding the election of the governor. So although Maine is using ranked-choice in elections for Congress this fall, it is ironically not using that system in the election that provoked its adoption—and, once again, independent candidates for governor may affect the outcome.
According to Jim Melcher, professor of political science at the University of Maine, the state’s voters are ticket-splitters and have repeatedly supported independent candidates. In 1975, the state elected an independent candidate, James Longley, as governor. Longley was a conservative populist, unlike the current senator from Maine, Angus King, who fits into the category of an “intermediate” independent. In another time, King might have been a Rockefeller Republican, but he now caucuses with Senate Democrats. Melcher says that statewide elections in Maine have consistently had strong independent candidates since the early 1990s.
In this year’s gubernatorial race, the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Janet Mills, faces Lieutenant Governor Shawn Moody, who is following along in the footsteps of LePage, though he is less inflammatory. Two independents, State Treasurer Terri Hayes and economic consultant Alan Caron, are also running. Both are examples of intermediate independents, but they’re closer to Mills than to Moody on the major issues. One of the big questions concerns the expansion of Medicaid that the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved but LePage has refused to carry out.
Hayes, in fact, used to be the Democrats’ assistant minority leader in Maine’s House of Representatives, though she was chosen as state treasurer primarily with Republican support. She’s running as a “clean elections” candidate, using the funds provided under Maine’s public finance law.
The Maine governor’s race hasn’t had much polling. In early August, a Suffolk University poll found Mills and Moody in a dead heat at 39 percent each, with Hayes and Caron together drawing about 7 percent, and 15 percent undecided. Hayes has also released results from a late September poll paid for by her campaign showing Mills at 41 percent, Moody at 33 percent, and her own support at 10 percent. In a tight race that may well have a low turnout, Hayes and Caron could play the same role that Cutler did in the two previous elections, handing the governor’s chair to the Republicans.
In Kansas, like Maine, the gubernatorial race is for an open seat after a period of Republican extremism that has increased the chances of a Democratic victory—if it weren’t for an independent candidate. Under Republican Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas cut taxes sharply, precipitating a fiscal crisis and radical retrenchment in funding for schools and other services. This year, in keeping with that radicalism, the Republican nominee is the right-wing firebrand Kris Kobach. Meanwhile, the Democrats have nominated State Senator Laura Kelly, a moderate who has collected endorsements from prominent Kansas Republicans, including former Governor Bill Graves and former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum. Kansas is a pick-up opportunity for Democrats only because the Republican Party in the state has moved so far to the right that it has alienated many of its own traditional supporters.
But independent candidate Greg Orman may throw a wrench in that effort. Orman, who made his money in private equity, is running a self-financed campaign in Kansas for the second time. Four years ago, when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Pat Roberts, the Democratic candidate was in such a weak position that he withdrew to give Orman a better shot. Orman wouldn’t say then whether he would caucus with the Democrats or Republicans in the Senate and was unwilling to take positions on key issues. Although polls had suggested he could win the Senate race, Roberts trounced Orman on Election Day, in part because Republicans had a strong get-out-the-vote effort that an independent candidate with nebulous views could not match.
Orman this year looks like he’s playing the role of a classic spoiler. The polls show a tight race between Kobach and Kelly. According to a Public Policy Polling survey from mid-September, Kobach is at 39 percent, Kelly at 38 percent, and Orman at 9 percent.
Alaska, the third state where Republicans are benefiting from a split between an independent and a Democrat, is a special case because the independent candidate is the incumbent governor, Bill Walker. After losing the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010 to Sean Parnell, who went on to win the governor’s race, Walker teamed up in 2014 on a successful independent ticket with the Democratic nominee Byron Mallott, an Alaska native leader who agreed to run as Walker’s lieutenant governor. This year the governor’s race was shaping up as a three-way race with Walker running for re-election against the Republican Mike Dunleavy and Democrat Mark Begich, a former U.S. senator. With Walker and Begich splitting the non-Republican vote, Dunleavy has been favored to win.
But the whole race was shaken up this week when Mallott resigned as lieutenant governor as a result of what Walker characterized as an “inappropriate overture to a woman.” At the time, Walker and Begich were in talks to resolve the issues between them. Whether they can overcome their differences and join forces against the Republican Dunleavy isn’t clear.
Independent candidacies, of course, don’t always hurt Democrats. In Rhode Island, the incumbent Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo has had low approval ratings and fended off a challenge from a progressive in the Democratic primary. She faces Republican Allan Fung but appears to be benefiting from a Trumpian independent candidate, Joe Trillo, who has generally been pulling about 7 percent in polls, though one survey in October showed him with 17 percent. Raimondo may well be able to win with only a plurality of around 45 percent.
If other states follow Maine and adopt ranked-choice voting—and if Maine itself is able to overcome the obstacle preventing the use of ranked-choice in gubernatorial elections—independent candidates wouldn’t be the spoilers and wild cards they are now. But in the current system, the practical effect of independent candidates is often to undermine the purposes many of their supporters want to achieve. There are two ways to deal with this reality. One is the long road of electoral reform, the ideal solution. The other is for independents to face up to the real-world consequences of their candidacies and their votes. If you're running a hopeless campaign that will take down the candidate whose views are closest to yours, whose work are you really doing?