Without McCain, Will Independents Turn Out?

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

U.S. presidential politics took an odd turn this year. Facing a candidate with full support of the establishment, John McCain tried to win the Republican presidential nomination by appealing to non-Republicans. In several major primaries, McCain actually pulled over half of his support from voters who described themselves as independents, Democrats or moderates.

It almost seemed that McCain was running for the nomination of a party that was not quite the Republican Party. Let's call it the Republican-Independent Party. And lo and behold, swarms of new voters, tired of the traditional two-party tango, responded. The boost in turnout in presidential primaries this year was mostly due to McCain. Where he didn't contest races, such as Iowa and Delaware, turnout dropped despite George Bush's big spending.

Where will these voters go, now that their choices have been narrowed to the heir apparents, George Bush and Al Gore? California exit polls found that four in ten voters think Gore is too liberal. A similar proportion think Bush is too conservative.

This is one of the dilemmas of our politics -- limited choice at the polls. Major elections usually have only two viable choices, but those candidates can't possibly cover the full spectrum of opinion that grows increasingly complex in modern America.

Don't expect other races to generate excitement. Most elections aren't even competitive for two parties, let alone three. A dirty little secret of our national politics is that in 1998, more than seven in ten U.S. House races were won by landslides and two in five state legislative races didn't even have two major party candidates.

McCain's audacious move to capture the Republican flag by appealing to independents and reformers has revealed a gaping ideological hole in the American political spectrum. Certainly Bush and Gore will attempt to capture their votes. But their "dance to the center" just reinforces the perception that politicians will say anything to get elected.

Even if Gore and Bush succeed, it often will be because many American citizens feel duty-bound to hold their noses and vote, even if for the "lesser of two evils." But that will not fill the ideological void.

Never in recent memory has there been a better time for the emergence of independent candidates and new parties. Unfortunately, Ross Perot's Reform Party has imploded over factional infighting, and smaller parties like the Libertarians and Greens are not well-positioned to capture the votes of many restless independents.

So where will they go? One has the sense of a tribe wandering in the desert, looking for water, waiting for a leader who can lead them to the oasis. Instead, they will probably atrophy, like grapes withering on the vine.

Voter turnout is likely to decline. Already less than half of eligible voters voted in 1996, and less than a fifth of young people now vote. Can a democracy long survive without voters?

Our turnout -- embarrassingly low by the standards of most of the world's democracies -- receives a bump when candidates like McCain, Ross Perot in 1992, and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura in 1998 are part of the program.

Sadly, such cross-cutting candidacies don't happen more often because the rules of the game have been rigged by the major parties to silence legitimate voices. For instance, the criteria for participation in this fall's presidential debates have been established by -- you guessed it -- Republicans and Democrats. They are determined to keep other contenders -- and the independents who might be mobilized by them -- on the sidelines.

Already Bush and Gore are flashing their attack knives for Campaign 2000: The Sequel. Indeed some may be entertained by their machinations and by watching two leopards try to change their spots to win those voters mobilized by John McCain.

But we think a lot of people are going to miss that senator from Arizona.

[Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director. They are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999).