Election 2020

The Fantasy of a 2020 Independent Centrist

John Kasich, Mark Cuban, and an army of op-ed political strategists are wrong if they think you can just whip up an independent presidential candidacy or new third party from scratch.


John Kasich. ||| Ron Sachs/CNP / Polaris/Newscom
Ron Sachs/CNP / Polaris/Newscom

For a certain type of sports fan (coughs loudly to self) there is no sweeter part of the season than the day after the World Series or Super Bowl. Why? Because that's when you can construct fantasy rosters divorced from all real-world constraints.

This is roughly where we're at with the 2020 presidential election. The midterms are over; the official candidacies have yet to be announced. (Sorry, Julián Castro, "exploring" doesn't count.) Political commentators are busy unleashing their inner Strat-O-Matic manager and the position they seem most eager to fill is the one that stubbornly refuses to exist: the viable independent centrist.

So are you ready for that Joe Biden/Mitt Romney unity ticket? Conservative D.C. socialite Juleanna Glover, writing in Politico, sure is! Ideologically adrift Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin is dreaming of "a new party or a center-right independent ticket," headed by blue-state Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland. And there is no TV camera in front of which Ohio Gov. John Kasich won't float his own centrist boat.

"Let's just say that Donald Trump is nominated and Elizabeth Warren is nominated," Kasich said on ABC's "This Week" last month. "You have this ocean of people who sit in the middle."

"Shark Tank" star/investor Mark Cuban is shooting up his own independent flares. Cybersecurity and cryptocurrency pioneer John McAfee is trying to out-crazy Trump. The Kanye West administration may have been pushed back to 2024, but dare we fantasize in the meantime about President LeBron James?

The allure of Strat-O-Matic centrism goes beyond simple escapism from our dispiriting political slog. In a country where more survey respondents have self-identified as "independent" than either Democrat or Republican in each Gallup poll since December 2012, the market for a third political product would seem robust and unmet.

There's a "six-lane highway down the middle" of the two major parties, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson was fond of saying in 2016. Then again, that message won Johnson just 3.3 percent of the national vote when he ran against the two most loathed candidates in modern history.

Therein lie some sobering lessons. American politics resists fantasy league-style play. There are massive structural impediments to any nontraditional run at the White House–starting with a polarized electorate's sharp disdain for squishy centrists.

Last month's midterms were not promising for independents and other outsider candidates. Voter passion produced the highest nonpresidential turnout since women gained the franchise, but all that blue-wave energy wasn't there to vote Green. Maryland's independent candidate for U.S. Senate, Neil Simon, polled at 8 percent, yet finished with 3.7 percent of the vote. Independent Connecticut governor hopeful Oz Griebel similarly polled at 8.3 percent but finished at 3.9. Normally, third-party candidates expect to lose about one-third of their polling support on election day. This year many lost half.

What's going on here? Short answer: Fear. And that certainly will play a key role in 2020 too. It's safe to say that the solid majority of Americans who have disapproved of Trump throughout his presidency are horrified at the prospect of what he could do with another four years. That does not bode well for the next Jill Stein or Ralph Nader.

Beyond voter mood, there are bureaucratic roadblocks erected by the Democratic and Republican parties to protect their incumbent status. As people who toil in the salt mines of minor-party politics can tell you, fighting for ballot access is an expensive, full-time job. "In Illinois, the Libertarian Party has to turn in 25,000 valid signatures to get our candidates on the ballot for a general election," party Chair Nicholas Sarwark said in a conference call last week. "The Republicans and the Democrats only have to turn in a little less than 5,000."

Bill Kristol, co-founder of the just-shuttered Weekly Standard, found out the hard way in 2016 that it takes more to compete against Democrats and Republicans than just drawing a sketch on a cocktail napkin. In May of that year, after Trump had rolled through GOP primary season, Kristol unveiled a new conservative "independent candidate—an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance." You'll be forgiven for not remembering the short and unhappy political career of David French.

After French wisely opted out, that conservative anti-Trump energy eventually transferred to former CIA officer Evan McMullin, who took an immediate crash course in petition-gathering, lawsuit-filing, and deadline-missing. In the end, McMullin got on the ballot in only 11 states; he finished third in only two.

In 2018, Kristol has at least learned his lesson enough to be searching for a Trump challenger within the GOP. Perennial presidential trial balloonist Michael Bloomberg, too, has rejected independent status if he runs.

It may not be the reality I prefer, but Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders taught us in 2016 that the most viable current path for an independent-bent candidate is to run an outsider campaign from inside an old-party tent.

And for the Mark Cubans of the world? Either start right now putting in the work of breaking down ballot barriers and/or wooing minor parties, or accept that this isn't the real political life, it's just a fantasy.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

NEXT: Wrestling With Old Hickory's Ghost

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  1. “Let’s just say that Donald Trump is nominated and Elizabeth Warren is nominated,” Kasich said on ABC’s “This Week” last month. “You have this ocean of people who sit in the middle.”

    What people fail to realize is that, for better or for worse, Trump is the middle.

    1. You forgot the hashtag:


    2. That’s incorrect. It’s actually the Democrats who are now the moderate, centrist party. Because Democrats have stayed about the same relative to where they stood a few decades ago, while the Republicans have moved far to the right. Drumpf, for example, is a way more extreme right-winger than someone like Ronald Reagan.

      1. LOL, HA HA HA, HO HO HO HAR HAR HAR ahem.

        Are you on crack? I mean RIGHT NOW?

        The Democrats have become the Communist Party USA, your attempt to portray them as centrist is so absurd you might as well not say anything else. NO ONE here believes that shit.

        1. Name one Democrat who has advocated communism. I know your brain doesn’t work too good, but it’s a bold assertion, so presumably you have something to back it up.

          1. You are right, the Democrats are firmly in the corporatist camp.

          2. Van Jones?

            John Brennan?

            Henry Wallace?

          3. Occasional Cortex?

          4. Right you are, Tony. The Democrats don’t *advocate* communism, but it’s what they believe in. Note how just recently they’ve begun calling themselves *socialist* as if there was ever any doubt. HA HA. I think what they actually believe is that the “rich people should pay for all the good things they want to do.” It’s so nonsensical that it doesn’t even make any sense. There is literally “no end” to all the good that needs doing. Let’s start with Governor Moonbeam’s High Speed Rail, and then we can extend it all over the USA. That just about take all the money anyone might have saved up.

      2. The democrats are the most hard left they have ever been, and the most left-wing major party in America’s history, openly calling for things like open borders with no checks on immigration, fully socialized medicine, massive tax and spend programs (even dwarfing traditional Dem standards), extensive restrictions on free speech, etc. They are nothing like the Dem party of a few decades ago.

      3. Democrats have moved from socialist lite to full on socialist. Individual and economic freedom be damned. You will be assimilated. They have even bailed from at one time being defenders of civil liberties and now are a great enemy to them.

    3. Yeah, but for how long?

      Will old skool democrats overlook the republican branding and vote GOP simply because their policies most closely align, or will they try desperately to reform their parties into something more tenable, often lying to themselves as to what the Democrats actually stand for (now)?

      Same can be said of the GOP.

      And if third parties continue to cover the spread, how will the major parties attempt to divvy up the vote, courting the “independents” while not alienating their party core?

      It’s a weird world out there.

      1. This is true. Trump captured the center, defined the center. So the center gets redefined.

    4. Democrats like to pretend, to themselves and to the world, that Trump won because white males are fascists.

      Never-Trumpers like to pretend Trump is an aberration.

      None will ever admit that Trump won because enough people were sick and tired of political correctness. The Democrats won’t admit it because they ran out of normal political outrages (the economy was busted by Obama, and they have come to like perpetual war) and have had to resort to ever more outr? causes to raise the rabble. The Republicans won’t admit it because they are bankrupt of any ideas (they too have come to like perpetual war, and small government is for losers).

    5. “What people fail to realize is that, for better or for worse, Trump is the middle.”

      Very astute observation. +1000.

    6. John “Paddle Hands” Kasich–the Willy Lowman of the Republican Party.

      You’re not well liked, John. In fact, you’re not liked at all.

    7. I thought something similar when I read that quote. Trump may or may not be the ‘middle’, but he is not the far right ideologically the way Elizabeth Warren and many other Dem contenders are far left. He may be extreme in many cases (his tone, his tactics, his positions on selected issues), but not necessarily the extreme right. He won, in fact, by reaching out to segments of the population who had not traditionally voted republican. If what Kasich meant is that he wants to bring civility to political discourse, then his quote makes more sense.

  2. I would say they should nut up and primary Trump, but then the Republican primary electorate loves Trump more than it’s loved anyone else ever, because they are morons.

    1. If Trump had run successfuly as a democrat, you would be ready to suck his dick.

    2. And this is why, to a large degree, Trump won, and continues to have some success. Because the left openly and repeatedly refers to middle America as ‘morons’.

  3. Whatever the middle is in American politics, Libertarians and the Greens are not it. That is not disparaging, but trying to fit them into a center taxonomy is misclassification as trying to shoehorn platypuses into the mallard family tree because they both have bills and lay eggs.

    1. Is Congress a platypus or a mallard?

  4. “It’s safe to say that the solid majority of Americans who have disapproved of Trump throughout his presidency are horrified at the prospect of what he could do with another four years. That does not bode well for the next Jill Stein or Ralph Nader.”

    We might also mention those who are equally horrified at the prospect of what Democrats might do; (Let’s not pretend only one of the major party candidates was horrifying!) Does not bode well for the next McMullin or Gary Johnson.

    It’s the perennial problem of the third party in a first past the post system: Long before you’re getting enough votes to have a chance of winning, you help elect the major party candidate you’re furthest from. Johnson and McMullin helped Hillary, Stein helped Trump. There are, of course, voting systems where this doesn’t happen, but fat chance the major parties will agree to them.

    But maybe they won’t have a choice; Maine has adopted IRV, and perhaps the initiative process could be used to implement it for electoral college votes in at least some states.

    1. IRL is a gimmick that does not address that issue, it just satisfies the 50%+1 OCDers without having a real runoff election.

      1. No, it does address that issue, because a Republican who doesn’t like Trump, for instance, but who finds Hillary absolutely horrifying, would be free to make a Johnson their first choice, with Trump the second, knowing that they weren’t electing Hillary by making that gesture.

        It allows the true level of support for 3rd parties to be displayed without fear of the spoiler effect.

        Anyway, the major parties failed in their effort to prevent it from going into effect in Maine, so we shall see.

        1. First priority is keeping the communists (democrats) out. Which is basic survival. Assuring that, then one can prioritize finding a good candidate. The best solution is to drive the progressives out.

        2. This does seem to be a bright spot, albeit a small one. I never thought we would see changes to any voting system that would level the playing field a bit. As you say, we will see where this goes. It certainly would be nice if we could vote for who we want, rather then feeling the need to vote against who we fear the most.

    2. Anyway, that would be my advice for the LP, if they really want to have a hope: Band together with the other 3rd parties to push citizen initiatives implementing IRV for the electoral college, and House and Senate if possible. Eliminate the “spoiler” effect so that people aren’t afraid to accidentally elect the worst candidate by not voting for the second worst.

      1. Which third parties of note should the LP join with? The Green Party? They’re just environmental communists. The other libertarianism third parties don’t add up to shit for voting numbers.

        1. I’ll grant you that the other “third” parties in America are more like “forth” parties. But a bit of help is never a good idea to reject.

          1. As long as they have similar ideologies . Some of them do. Again, I use the Greens as an example of one that is wholly incompatible with the LP. Their complete disregard for private property rights alone makes them unworkable,

            1. I think the point is to work with them on changing voting approaches, streamlining ballot access, etc. We don’t need to agree on ideology for this. In the actual elections, we would oppose them tooth and nail.

        2. What do the policies of the other 3rd parties have to do with anything if the only shared effort is gathering signatures for instant-runoff voting. Once the two-party system is weakened and third parties have a chance at winning, then you can start worrying about beating them at the ballot.

    3. Calif. & Wash. adopted runoff systems too, but they don’t have the same effect in polities where 1 party is overwhelmingly dominant as they do in a purple state.

  5. American voters don’t want choice. They want their fears validated.

    1. No, they don’t have a useful choice. Basically it’s one vote every four years for everything. Imagine one store for all your shopping needs — clothes, cars, housing, food, travel, entertainment — and you get one vote every four years fo who will control that store. One candidate favors Levis and crunch peanut butter, the other favors Fords and green hats. They say nothing useful about anything else, and you only get those two choices.

      That’s what Presidential elections are. Blaming this on voters is wearing blinders to how bad the system is, because, face it, it IS better than having zero choice.

      Government simply does too much. Even if it were competent, it simply does too much, and, here’s a news flash, government is nit competent.

      1. I will absolutely blame this on voters – since Presidential elections are not some aberration in our system. Hell – Prez elections are actually one of the few elections where there is actually a question as to who will win. In most, there is absolutely no question who will win.

        The fear-mongering/validation is a bit less obvious at the slew of local level elections – but it is still there. When I was in MA (a one-party state at all levels), ‘Jesse Helms’ was the bogeyman used to tar local R’s. As I’m sure, ‘Teddy Kennedy’ or ‘Nancy Pelosi’ are used in other one-party locales.

        It would be very easy for voters to say – Quit this fear-mongering BS – and sway those local elections by doing that. They CHOOSE to not do that – even though they have no real choice on the ballot.

  6. Donald Trump IS the independent centrist.

    1. He, and not coincidentally Hillary Clinton, are centrists, just as you say. Trump is just much more honest than Hillary, and therefore more trustworthy.

  7. At this point, maybe people need to see just how bad an all Democrat government at all levels is in order to drive the progtards into the political wilderness for a century. We already have two examples-NY and Cali., let it spread like wildfire I say.

    1. Or locusts, destroying everything in their path-don’t say you weren’t warned

    2. It doesn’t have that effect for a century, people have short memories. It only works for a couple election cycles. Seriously, we’ve been through a couple cycles like that already.

      Problem is, I don’t think the Democrats mean to let the next cycle finish. They really do have one party rule aspirations.

      1. Both parties aspire to one-party rule. The problem with Democrats is that they seek to control every aspect of our lives. They didn’t use to be this way, but I first really started to notice it during the 2000 election, and it has only gotten worse since then.

        1. Enslave us and bankrupt the country in the process. What they will do will make Venezuela look like nothing.

        2. Don’t try to pretend that the Repubs don’t also want to control every aspect of your life. They just want theocracy and corporate cronyism instead of high taxes, more social welfare spending, and corporate cronyism. Conservative politicians don’t care about your property rights and freedom if they interfere with the interests of their donors and their next lobbying job.

          1. It’s not a pretense. Haven’t you noticed that the right, when given free rein, goes authoritarian, but the left goes totalitarian? It’s because the right DOESN’T want to control every aspect of your life, while the left does. Even the worst on the right just want to be obeyed about a few things, and otherwise don’t care.

            The left? “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” is their ultimate aim.

            You don’t see the right banning soda straws, you may notice. That’s why. They don’t actually think everything is their business, even if they do think too much is.

    3. +Illinois

  8. Let’s just give up on this thought-experiment of a nation.

  9. “The allure of Strat-O-Matic centrism goes beyond simple escapism from our dispiriting political slog. In a country where more survey respondents have self-identified as “independent” than either Democrat or Republican in each Gallup poll since December 2012, the market for a third political product would seem robust and unmet.”

    The writers here keep thinking “independent” == “moderate”. A lot of people are not affiliated with one of the major Teams, but still vote with one of them 99% of the time. Or you have people who are not affiliated with a major Team because they think the major teams are too moderate.

  10. haahahhahahahhahhahahha

    that’s all

  11. Matt could simplify: International Socialism made some gains, and National Socialism lost some ground, but both halves of the looter kleptocracy continue to shrink. Libertarian candidates that were antichoice and anti-energy infiltrators got severely beaten, but genuine LP candidates got close to 4% with some elected as fitted in the logistical replacement curve. Simple, wot?

  12. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the middle of American politics. The only room left is on the socialist left and in the libertarian party. Trump is about as “middle” as you can get: an imperfect Capitalist with some great economic ideas and some awful social ideas.

    The room is on the outer limits of these two. Gary Johnson is a decent Libertarian, while the far left of the democratic party is peopled by wannabe socialists. I suspect the support will coalesce inwardly in the next election, toward the two, major, very imperfect parties. Knowing what I now know, about the lefts absurd behavior since the last election (witness the Kavanaugh hearings) I’ll be voting for Trump unless the Libertarians come up with a better spokesman for their and my cause.

  13. Ideologically adrift Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin

    That’s putting it lightly, considering she can’t actually describe what “conservative” principles she supports.

    I said way back in 2016 that the success of Trump’s candidacy marked the beginning of a western political realignment, from conservatives vs progressives to nationalists vs globalists. Nearly everything that’s happened in the in the last two years can be seen from that lens.

  14. Funny how Welch and Gillespie have backed off their Russiagate denialism. Just talking about obscure topics while TraitorRapistNazi’s operation collapses like a house of cards.

  15. Trump is basically a moderate Republican who has mostly jettisoned the neo-cons and pacified the social conservatives with judges. In other words, he is what the Democrat Party used to be – the party of protectionism and the ‘working class’. The Democrats have slide far left – embracing what would have been consider radically unthinkable social policies (I mean intersectionalism and transgender rights are on the lips of major Democrat politicians when these things were virtually unheard of a decade ago), as well as basically socialist economics. They are the party of aggrieved minorities, limousine liberals, and single women, who are overrepresented in every one of those groups.

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