Whither the Independence Party? -- guest editorial by Doug Rossinow

In recent years, Minnesota Democrats have gnashed their teeth over the Independence Party (IP). In 2008, Democrat Al Franken beat Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman in an historic squeaker; in that race, the IP’s Dean Barkley took 15% of the vote, and seemed to get more of it from Franken-leaning voters than from Coleman-leaners, making what might have been a relatively easy Franken victory an epic nail-biter. In the 6th U.S. Congressional District race, IP joke candidate Bob Anderson drew 10% of the vote, possibly preventing Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg from deposing the well-known incumbent, Republican Michele Bachmann.

In the 2006 governor’s race, the IP’s Peter Hutchinson won 141,735 votes—and Republican Tim Pawlenty prevailed by only 21,108 votes. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, former Democrat Tim Penny hauled in 16% of the vote. Pawlenty beat Democrat Roger Moe handily in that race. But early in that campaign, Penny had polled quite a bit higher than his final result; the conventional wisdom was that Republican-leaning voters “came home” to their party, but that Democratic leaners stuck with Penny.

Is the IP simply a spoiler party—the gift that keeps on giving to Minnesota Republicans? The last two gubernatorial elections provide the strongest evidence for that argument. But the 2008 returns are murkier. Barkley may have drawn well from both sides in the Senate race, in light of the high “negatives” that both Coleman and Franken acquired during the campaign. In the 6th District, voters willing to vote for Anderson may have been unwilling to vote for anyone running with “DFL” next to his name, even a former IP administration cabinet member like Tinklenberg. In Anderson’s absence, “his” voters might have recorded no vote or voted for Bachmann.

Even when the IP does play a spoiler role and throw an election to the GOP, Democrats won’t help themselves by whining about it. Voters are theirs to persuade, not theirs to lose.

This year, both major parties have something to fear from the IP. The leading IP candidate for governor in 2010 is a former Republican, Tom Horner. He could draw moderate Republican leaners who don’t care for GOP endorsee Tom Emmer’s tea-party politics. But DFL leaners have proved more willing than Republican leaners to pull the lever for third-party candidates recently.

The major parties, if they wish to eliminate the threat the IP poses, need to field candidates who can attract enough voters to make the IP irrelevant to the outcome, and they need to criticize IP candidates on substantive grounds.

Having said all this, the IP has glaring questions it needs to face. The free ride it has received from the Minnesota news media should end. If the IP really wants “major party” status, its candidates and positions should be held up to same scrutiny that Republicans and Democrats receive.

Here is the truth: Unlike many other third parties in the past, the IP has no distinctive platform, ideology, or mission. The “positions” and “principles” to be found on the party’s website are almost empty of content; the party fails to address most public-policy issues. Its nominees make up their own platforms out of whole cloth for each individual election campaign. The IP’s vague blend of fiscal conservatism and moderate social liberalism represents the very direction, truth be told, that the Democrats have moved in since Bill Clinton’s presidency. IP candidates scoff at this suggestion, but their grasp on the facts of recent political history tends to be shaky. IP candidates cannot win elections. The IP has not built a grassroots base, instead looking for faux-celebrity candidates who, they hope, can hit the jackpot like Jesse Ventura did in 1998. The IP has no real reason to exist except as a vanity party for a few individuals of modest talents who have no hope of rising to the top in either of the state’s major parties.

The IP is more a nuisance party than a spoiler party. Many of its candidates are half-informed at best—although this was not the case with Hutchinson, and won’t be if Horner is their candidate for governor this year. They take up valuable time in campaign coverage and debates during election season. The IP perpetuates the myth that there is a broad middle space in our political world that they alone occupy. Democrats and Republicans should voice these criticisms early and often if they wish to avoid being unpleasantly surprised by IP vote totals on future election nights. We all should demand that, if the local media wish to treat the IP as a major party, they should examine IP candidates as searchingly as they do Democratic and Republican office-seekers.

Doug Rossinow is professor and chair in the history department at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.