An independent ticket for 2020? Why it’s more than political gossip.

A potential joint ticket of Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado speaks to Americans’ growing disaffection for the two main political parties.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (r.), joined by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. The bipartisan governor duo is urging Congress to retain the federal health care law's unpopular individual mandate while seeking to stabilize individual insurance markets as legislators continue work on a long-term replacement law. Governors Kasich and Hickenlooper shared their plan in a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday.

“Kasich-Hickenlooper 2020” wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker, John Kasich quipped on NBC’s “Meet the Press” recently. But seriously, the Republican governor of Ohio was asked, are he and the Democratic governor of Colorado really thinking of mounting an independent bid for president?

“The answer is no,” Governor Kasich said, responding to reports that just such a “unity ticket” may be in the works.

Not that a denial puts anything to rest. Politicians are famous for saying “nothing to see here” until there is something to see. In Kasich’s case, the denial about a joint bid with Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado could mask a more likely scenario: that Kasich will make a third run for president, and challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020.

Still, chatter about the Kasich-Hickenlooper trial balloon – born of common-ground efforts on policy and joint public appearances – amounts to more than just political gossip. It speaks to widespread disaffection among Americans with the two major parties, as seen in Gallup data that show “independent” as the preferred political affiliation since 2009. Today, 41 percent of Americans self-identify as independent, with Republicans and Democrats at 28 percent each.

“I don’t know whether this goes anywhere,” says veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, referring to the Kasich-Hickenlooper alliance. “But I tell you, I think people are just so fed up they’re willing to consider anything.”

Why centrists fare better in Europe

And perhaps, following the precedent-shattering election of Donald Trump, more norm-busting is on the way. Political observers don’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Trump himself could run for reelection as an independent, if his alliance with the GOP collapses. Mr. Trump, after all, in recent years has been a Democrat and an independent, as well as a Republican. Some already see Trump as an independent who has just parked himself in the GOP, for now.

Consider, too, the disruptions in Europe. Last year, populist sentiment led British citizens to vote for “Brexit” – exit from the European Union. This year, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, charismatic newcomer with a brand-new political party, stunned the world by winning the French presidency.

But the US’s political “duopoly” is more rigid than European multi-party systems, including France’s hybrid parliamentary-presidential setup. And experts on “third parties” in the US warn against seeing the rise of unaffiliated voters as a sign that an independent, centrist ticket could ride a rejection of hyperpolarization all the way to the White House.

“There’s a temptation to think of the center as a natural constituency for a ticket like this, one that would present itself as bridging the partisan divide,” says Walter Stone, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the book “Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.”

But the reality isn’t so simple, Mr. Stone says.

Why independents don’t vote for independents

Polling on partisanship shows a lot of voters self-identify as independent, but when pressed for how they lean, most pick one of the major parties. And paradoxically, those “leaners” often end up being as partisan or more partisan than people who say they’re Democrats or Republicans up front, he says.

Furthermore, most voters don’t want to “waste” their vote by going third party, which is why independent presidential candidates typically see their numbers drop off by Election Day. Then there’s the Electoral College. While political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, the Electoral College is – and the major parties have a lock on that system of indirect presidential election.

In 1992, for example, when independent candidate Ross Perot won an extraordinary 19 percent of the presidential vote, he won no states – and thus no electoral votes.

Given that reality, why would Kasich and Governor Hickenlooper even potentially bother to try an independent bid for president?

“It’s a very tough thing to do if the goal is to win,” says Stone. “If the goal is to shape the debates, if the goal is to try to shake things up in one or both parties, then you can make the case.”

The potential Kasich-Hickenlooper bid, as first reported by Axios and CNN, would likely feature Kasich as the lead candidate and Hickenlooper as the running mate. The concept springs from a series of joint appearances in recent months, centered on how states can improve delivery of health care to their citizens. They have expanded their effort on health care to other governors. There’s also talk of expanding their collaboration to immigration and job creation.

Both men have been mooted as potential candidates for president from their respective parties, and so the talk they have generated over the potential “unity ticket” likely has no downside. Being part of the national conversation is the name of the game in presidential politics – whether they run together or apart.

The Centrist Project

But the future of independent politics in America may not start with the presidency. Maybe it begins with efforts at the grassroots level to promote campaigns for office not centered in one of the two major parties.

Greg Orman, a Kansas businessman and political independent who came within 10 points of defeating incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in 2014, has launched an organization called The Centrist Project. Its goal is to recruit viable independent candidates around the country to run for statewide and local office, and to help them succeed.

Independents have a long tradition in Congress. But even there, today’s independent cohort – Senators Bernie Sanders and Angus King of Maine – find that being unaffiliated only gets them so far. Once in place, to have any impact at all on Capitol Hill, they have to pick a side – in their cases, the Democrats.

“Third parties work great until you have to caucus,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

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