Jim Webb bowed to the inevitable on Tuesday and quit the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The former senator from Virginia never drew more than one or two percent in polls and didn’t help himself at last week’s debate in Las Vegas. He complained about lack of speaking time and came across as peevish, despite some crisp answers on foreign and defense topics.
In the end, Mr. Webb seemed too idiosyncratic and conservative for a party that’s lurched to the left in recent years. On Tuesday, asked about his reluctance to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort to remove Confederate battle flags from public display, he complained that Democrats as a group are too invested in “interest group politics."
“As of today, I am not involved in the Democratic Party’s primary process,” Webb said at a National Press Club press conference, his wife standing by his side.
The interesting remaining question is whether Webb might run as an independent. He didn’t say he would and he didn’t say he wouldn’t. But he said he’d received hundreds of letters begging him to remain in politics in some capacity and that he’d now be talking with people he had been reluctant to approach while a Democratic candidate.
In other words, he might be looking for new support from disaffected Republicans, including rich ones.
“I have no doubt that if we ran as an independent, we would have significant financial help,” Webb said.
He added that he was aware independent candidacies typically top out at around 20 percent of the vote. But given the political paralysis of the system, this time might be different, Webb said, adding that he felt he could beat Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a general election.
“If we ran an independent race that worked and got traction, I honestly could see us beating both of them,” Webb said.
Ballot access is a big problem for independent candidates, however. The rules are arcane and different state by state, and favor the big existing parties.
Nor could Webb draw on a large and growing pool of independent voters. Political scientists use this rule of thumb: US voters are divided into thirds, with one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third self-professed independents. But the independents are also split in three, with one-third actually leaning Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third truly independent.
Of those real independents, half don’t vote.
“People like to think of themselves as independents, but they mostly end up voting straight ticket for one party,” tweeted political journalist Steve Kornacki Tuesday afternoon.
In any case, Webb on Tuesday seemed not so much middle-ground as contrarian, in a manner that could be interesting for an award-winning novelist (which Webb is) but might be wearisome in a politician.
“If I’m in a roomful of Republicans, I think I’m a Democrat. If I’m in a roomful of Democrats, I think I’m a Republican,” said Webb, in a statement of self-reflection.
That sounds like a pundit, not a bring-the-sides-together compromiser, doesn’t it? Maybe if the independent bid does not work out, Webb can serve as a questioner at the remaining debates of both parties.