On election night 1992 — my first as a voter — I watched the returns in great dismay as it became evident that Bill Clinton would capture the White House. As I sat Smokey Joe's listening to my mostly liberal Penn classmates talk about Clinton's mandate to change the course of the country I shook my head: this was no Clinton victory — it was the Perot plurality.
Perot had captured 19% of the popular vote, including decisive totals in Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — states where Clinton won by single digits and Bush had won in 1988. In my despair, looking at the way national politics were being re-aligned by a candidate with no hope of winning but with the power to determine the winner, I was certain that the US was headed into three party chaos.
And in the end, I was right — sort of. In 1992, the Perot 19% was a pretty fair approximation of the size of the independent pool — voters who have no party loyalty and who can — and do -- move from cycle to cycle. That election showed the growing split in American politics — wedged between the so-called "party faithful," there existed a segment of the populace happy with the candidates of neither party yet lacking a viable alternative outside of them.
By 2002, the pool was around 23% of the electorate, and it was this block, voting in the wake of 9/11, that bucked the historical trend of the White House's party losing seats in off-Year elections. It was this same block that created the waves of 2006 and 2008 that first took Congress from the GOP, then the White House. Just 2 years later, dissatisfied with Obamacare and the democratic machinations to pass it, these same voters handed the Republicans historic gains.
In each case it was the movement by Independents that moved the numbers — the parties alone, for all of their structural strength and embedded advantage, can simply not deliver a win on their own anymore. The true power in American general elections is now held by an ideologically diverse, circumstantially volatile, and impossible to predict pool of voters loyal to no party brand.
Most estimate this pool of independents to be in the 27-30% range now, and it is growing. It is, for all intents and purposes, the new American Independent Party, a group that has tremendous power, but one major weakness.
First lets look at its power. In 2010 this block showed just how volatile American politics are, as they roundly repudiated the party they just anointed 24 months ago. In 2008 independents broke 2 to 1 for Obama; in 2010 the results showed a near 2 to 1 split for the GOP. The shift took 21 months since the Inaugural — not even long enough for the new extended unemployment benefits to run out.
The results over the last two decades make it clear: the Parties can pick the field, but Independents will pick the winners. Consider it this way: if the Democrats are going to get roughly 38% come hell or high water and the GOP gets 35%, who is really electing leaders?
The answer is the people in the middle, because neither party can sway the other's hard-core base in any significant way nor has come close to building a majority coalition without at least 60% of the independents coming with them.
So in the end, it is these independents who are making the last call on who will lead us — a power that is amplified in Presidential races.
But they have a HUGE weakness — they have almost NO say amongst whom they get to choose. Because of closed primaries in many states, and because of the nature of presidential politics at large, the vast majority of independent voters are often left with the choice between the evil of two lessors — and no, I didn't just misspeak.
That is the lesson both parties seem totally unwilling to grasp: the middle wants you to do the right thing, do it modestly, and let them watch the game. They don't want the far right to have its way and they don't want the far left to have its way.
That is why, especially when one side has gotten a little carried away with consolidated power, they always move to divide power between parties at the branch level — like they did in 1994, 2006, and again in 2010. It's why candidates like Howard Dean and Mike Huckabee do great with the party faithful yet are doomed in a general — the middle is terrified of extremes.
Without the ability to nominate moderate candidates on a grand scale, the middle does the best it can — it forces the two thieves to work together in search of a less corrupt bargain (sorry, honest is too strong a word).
This inability to nominate also shows why they are so volatile — they only get to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, so they wield that power in a way that demands they be heard. Look at 1994 to 1996 — the same Independents who put Newt in the Speaker chair punished the GOP for nominating a name from the past rather than a leader for the future. If the GOP of 2012 reverts to the 2004 model, they will watch Obama take the oath again in 2013. The American Independent Party knows what it wants and has no issues with changing its mind — fast.
So while the President thinks independents in 2010 acted out of unfounded fear and the GOP thinks it acted out of a newfound love for all things conservative, the AIP is acting out of rational self interest, and in the only way it can and really be heard — at the ballot box.
The day of the "Party Machine" and two party dominance may have not yet totally passed, but this much is clear: the day when the Parties could elect their guys based on get out the vote efforts and brand promotion alone is over; the true power in American politics now lies in the hands of the American independent party.
So as you listen to the bluster and the posturing that seem to be an perpetual sport in American life these days, remember this simple fact: no matter what is said in the primaries or at the conventions, no matter what the faithful say or demand, the process is merely setting the table for the swing voters to chose the meal. And the candidate that most closely aligns himself with this swing block — even at the expense of his own Party's priorities — will win the day.