Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Here’s a bit of mind-blowing data: The number of self-identified independent voters hit a record high of 49% in a March 2023 Gallup poll — meaning that there are essentially as many self-identified independent voters in the United States as Democrats and Republicans combined. And in 2022, there were nine states where registered independent voters outnumbered Democrats or Republicans.
We spend a lot of time dividing American politics into a bitter, zero-sum struggle between Democrats and Republicans. That’s definitely true in Washington, DC, but it misses the reality that political beliefs are a lot more nuanced in most people’s lives.
In fact, if you put aside the play-to-the-base horserace polls and pay attention to actual election results, you’ll see that independent voters ultimately decide who wins major American elections. And the number of independent voters has grown precisely as the two parties have become more polarized over the last 15 years.
What’s far less established is the wisdom of running a third-party bipartisan ticket for president — with an eye toward appealing to those independent voters — especially when former President Donald Trump, now a leading GOP presidential primary contender, could be the unintended beneficiary of that effort.
That potential is driving the increasingly heated debate around a possible third-party presidential run by the organization No Labels, which I helped co-found in 2010 as part of a bipartisan group trying to depolarize our politics (though I haven’t been involved since 2013).
Controversy and confusion abound around these two entwined topics, so let’s define our terms.
Independent voters are the subject of endless debate in political circles. Some beltway analysts deny their existence, arguing that they are not really independent but closeted partisans who lean one way or another. But around election time, some of those same voices will focus on independent voters as the essential bloc to win — which has the added advantage of being true.
This is clear in presidential years. For example, in 2016, Trump edged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by four points among independents, according to CNN exit polls. In 2020, Biden beat Trump among independent voters by a 13-point margin.
But it’s also true in midterm elections, where independent voters provide the swing needed to shift control of the House. In 2006, after former President George W. Bush’s Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina mishaps, independents swung to the Democrats by 18 points — making Democrat Nancy Pelosi the first female Speaker of the House. In the post-Obama Tea Party year of 2010, Republicans won independents by 19 points and returned to power. And, in 2018, bolstered by a rejection of Trump, independents swung back to Democrats by 12 points, giving them a large majority in the next congressional session.
But this is where things get really interesting, and we start to skate toward the current state of play. In 2022, Democrats defied recent pendulum swing precedent (and many pre-election polls) by narrowly winning independent voters by two points. It appears that independent voters punished the GOP’s continued embrace of Trump, his shambolic handpicked candidates (paging Georgia’s Herschel Walker) and the overturning of abortion rights after a half-century of precedent.
Which brings us to the question, what do independent voters believe? Contrary to the polarized perception of politics, many — if not most — Americans have political beliefs that do not reflect one party orthodoxy (and, as we’ve seen with Trump’s hijacking of the GOP, party beliefs can change as well). I’ve focused on independent voters and centrist politics for the better part of two decades, beginning with my first book, “Independent Nation,” so let me help clear up some myths.
It is true that independent voters are not a monolith. Some independent voters are on the far right and some are on the far left, dissatisfied with the Republican or Democratic Party because they are not extreme enough. But the majority are in the middle — and independent voters are more likely to describe themselves as moderate than either Democrats or Republicans.
Their political beliefs don’t fit neatly inside either major party. But they can broadly be described as fiscally responsible, socially liberal and strong on national security, as I explained in a 2008 Wall Street Journal column. Subsequent analysis of independent voters, done by Pew Research Center in 2019, shows that even as the nation has become more polarized, they have maintained many of their same moderate positions.
They are primarily frustrated by the inability of the two parties to find common ground on policy issues — such as gun reform and immigration reform — where the polls show the parties are more divided than the American people are.
That’s the good news: We are not as divided as we think we are. And that’s what No Labels is trying to hammer home with a newly released 67-page policy booklet called “Common Sense,” in which the organization delineates broad compromise proposals that could emerge if a commonsense majority of Americans were actually empowered to run our politics.
It’s easy to dismiss this all as pie in the sky, but that would be a mistake. For example, the booklet details what a grand bargain on immigration could look like — being tougher on border enforcement, while seeking a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and making it easier to have legal immigration so our economy continues to thrive.
This is not particularly controversial; it just doesn’t reflect special interest-driven ideological absolutism on either side of the aisle — which is part of why immigration reform, for example, has been stalled for decades.
But it needs to be said that President Joe Biden has proposed just this kind of a balanced deal in his most recent State of the Union. And that’s where the fundamental problem about asymmetric polarization becomes really important — and a critical hurdle to No Labels’ efforts.
In Biden’s first two years, more than 300 pieces of bipartisan legislation were passed, including landmark laws like the Infrastructure Investment and Job Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, both major economic drivers for the country. In fact, the Problems Solvers Caucus in Congress, which was created, in part, thanks to No Labels, actually was instrumental in getting many of these bills passed.
No Labels’ Achilles heel in this presidential effort is that it seems to treat Biden and Trump as equally polarizing. While a Trump and Biden rematch would no doubt be unpopular with many Americans, to say that Biden and Trump represent equal threats to the republic does not reflect reality. Only one of them tried to overturn an election by lies to protect his ego. And only one party seems likely to renominate someone who’s been indicted at least twice.
I have no problem with the policies being put forward by No Labels, nor do I disagree with many of the sentiments expressed at their recent town hall event in New Hampshire featuring Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and former Republican Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
They’re absolutely right in pointing out that the twisted incentive structure of partisan politics has pushed our country to the brink. To the extent that No Labels can provide some muscle in the middle of our politics, it could represent the hopes of many independent voters who feel politically homeless across the political spectrum. And creating ballot access to seed a third party in solid red or blue states could help give voters an alternative choice on a statewide level, which would help heal our divisions on a microlevel down the line.
But the Electoral College mathematics of presidential elections suggest that a key way a figure like Trump — who remains deeply unpopular with the American people at large — could be reelected is if a third-party candidate plays spoiler. Even Republican senators are now warning that a No Labels ticket led by Manchin would hurt Biden and help Trump. That is an extraordinarily reckless risk at this particular time in our history.
There are concrete examples of this spoiler effect in our recent history. Consider Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party candidacy getting over 97,000 votes in Florida, a state that Bush won by 537 votes and, as a result, the presidency. Or 2016, when Jill Stein and Gary Johnson’s third-party campaigns arguably had a similar effect in that tight election, which also helps explain why GOP-backed operatives bolstered Kanye West’s absurd and aborted 2020 campaign, seemingly designed to siphon off Black votes from Democrats.
We are many moves away from the general election, and No Labels says it will pull the plug on its effort if it looks like the organization might unintentionally elect Trump. But, in general, independent voters want less polarization — and even the possibility of a Trump reelection promises to pour gasoline on the hyperpartisan fires that threaten to burn down our republic.