After Tuesday’s big win for Barack Obama in the North Carolina Primary, it’s obvious that the Illinois Senator and John McCain will win their respective parties’ nominations and that strong campaigns by both men will leave very little room for fringe appeals.
With Michael Bloomberg and Ron Paul both ruling out minor party runs, the remaining odd-ball candidates stand no chance of generating significant popular support. The list of current and potential contenders has a depressing “round-up-the-usual-suspects” feel to it, with retreads or no-names like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Bob Barr, Wayne Allyn Root, Mike Gravel, Chuck Baldwin and even Allen Keyes throwing their clown hats into the third-party circus ring (though Dr. Keyes already suffered the ultimate indignity of losing his bid for the nomination of the Constitution Party—a mighty political juggernaut that drew an imposing 00.2% of the vote last time around).
Despite assertions that voters had lost faith in both major parties, primaries drew huge, enthusiastic turnouts (particularly for the Democrats, it must be admitted) while Republicans attracted new voters and unexpected energy from the surprisingly dynamic campaign by Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Contrary to the supposition of seething discontent with our political institutions, there’s no indication of mass desertion from the major parties toward apathy (quite the contrary) or to fringe groups. Polls indicate a close race and potential see-saw struggle between McCain and Obama, two figures who both seem to satisfy the famous public yearning for change.
Though Republicans will try to identify the Democratic nominee as an old-fashioned militant leftist in slick new packaging, his rhetoric about unity, his distinctive biography and bi-racial background work together to give Obama an air of freshness that has obviously inspired millions. And while Democrats will attempt to smear the Republican contender as “John McSame” who’s running to give the country a “third term of Bush,” McCain’s feisty maverick image, anti-establishment tone, and well-advertised differences with the current President (particularly over run-away spending, the environment and management of the war) make this year’s Republican ticket look dramatically different from the last five nominees (Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush and Bush).
Both parties, in other words, look like they’ve undergone a makeover, allowing citizens to vote for change without deserting the two-party system. These intra-party alterations help to explain why Lou Dobbs’ promised “Independents Day” never materialized.
Even among young voters, the one group most likely to support radical change in the system, there’s no evidence of surging identification as “independents.” This morning (May 6), USA Today ran an article entitle “Young Voters Poised to Be an Election Force.” It showed a paltry 8% of youthful voters (19-29) who identified as “independents” – a figure absolutely identical to the percentage who saw themselves that way in 2004. While the Gallup Poll that provided the background for the article showed sharply rising support for Democrats (from 50% to 62%) among the young voters, it also indicated that a clear plurality (41%) still saw themselves as “moderate” (compared to 32% liberal and 26% conservative). This prevalence of “moderate” swing voters helps explain why McCain remains competitive even in this millennial age group, despite their disproportionate affiliation as Democrats.
The Harris Poll also shows an historical decline in independent identification. The highest numbers for this preference (31% to 28%) came in the dark years between 178 and 1982. More recent results show less interest in looking past the two major parties, with the answer to “what do you usually consider yourself” yielding less than 24% independents every year since 2000.
Of course, nothing’s certain in love or politics, but there’s scant expectation at this point that a new fringe party candidate will emerge to become a “game changer” (to use Hillary’s phrase) for 2008, or to spark an explosion of independent identification.
Yes, Americans do want change, and hope, and cheaper gas, and fewer casualties among our troops, and lower taxes, and a more wins for the struggling teams in the American League Central Division.
But they also seem to understand that the best way – the only way – to actually alter policies and reform government is to work within, not outside, the two great parties that have served the nation reasonably well for the last 150 years.