Did Joe Lieberman Screw Independents?

The retiring senator suggested that free-thinking elected officials are doomed. But maybe Lieberman himself is the problem? Newsweek's David A. Graham reports on the lawmaker's record and the stacked deck against unaffiliated candidates.

Speaking to supporters as he announced his retirement from the Senate on Wednesday, Joe Lieberman lamented that there’s no longer room for legislators who don’t fit clearly into one party or the other. “I have always thought that my first responsibility is not to serve a political party but to serve my constituents, my state, and my country, and then to work across party lines to make sure good things get done for them,” the independent senator said. These days, he suggested, you’ve either got to toe the line or get out.

But is there really no room for independents anymore? Or is Joe Lieberman himself the problem? Some independents argue that the Connecticut senator’s demise is an isolated case. They remain bullish about their future prospects, saying that they’re even in the midst of a boom. They point to recent success, especially pronounced in New England. Former moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island as an independent in 2010. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont—who, like Lieberman, caucuses with the Democrats—has won several elections as an independent. And Eliot Cutler, who narrowly lost the 2010 Maine gubernatorial race, still did far better than expected, garnering 37 percent of the vote and finishing just 9,000 votes behind winner Paul LePage, a Republican. (Democrat Libby Mitchell was a distant third.) “There is growing talk and interest in an independent movement apart from either one of the two major parties,” says John B. Anderson, a former U.S. representative who ran for president as an independent in 1980 and has long advocated for a more open political system.

Anderson and his cohort give two big reasons for their optimism. With voters turned off by the polarized political climate, the independent’s lack of affiliation becomes an asset. Indeed, the number of voters who describe themselves as either Democrats or Republicans is near an all-time low, while the number of independents is at a record high. “I think it’s the prospect of gridlock that’s causing many voters to take another look at whether the two-party system is really such an integral part of the democratic process that we can only choose from one of the two parties,” says Anderson.

And then there’s the money issue. Although most successful (or near-successful) independent candidates thus far have been self-funders—think of billionaire contenders like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and, further back, Ross Perot—the Internet is opening up new, cheap ways to reach voters and raise funds. The hulking financial and organizational apparatus of a major party is less invincible than it used to be.

“The likelihood of independent or third-party candidates actually winning office has been lousy, is lousy, and will continue to be lousy,” says Duke political science professor David Rohde.

Perhaps. But the quantitative success of independent candidates is still minimal, while the obstacles remain high. Even if they can win over voters and donors, independent candidates face huge institutional hurdles. Most states don’t have open primaries, in which the top vote-getters advance to a general election regardless of party. Instead, primaries are open only to voters registered in one of the two major parties, while independent candidates have to clear often-insurmountable barriers to get on the ballot. Runoffs are another issue in most states. As the system is set up now, a voter who doesn’t pick a Democrat or Republican risks essentially throwing away a vote for a distant third-place finisher.

An instant runoff system essentially offers insurance. A voter could choose an independent first; if no candidate passed the 50 percent threshold, the last-place finisher would be dropped, and a voter’s second choice would count, alleviating the fear that one’s vote would be wasted. California’s Proposition 14, passed in 2010, creates a single primary from which the top two vote-getters go on to the general election. It’s a big step in the right direction, says Anderson, who hopes it will encourage others states to pass similar reforms. However, another potential threat is on the rise: Many states have recently introduced or are considering early voting, which Cutler inveighed against in a Wall Street Journal op-ed after the election, saying it disadvantaged candidates who need every day of the campaign to make their names familiar to voters.

What it takes for an independent to win can vary widely based on office, too. While Chafee could appeal to voters on local issues, candidates for the House and Senate face an inherently nationalized race. Lieberman’s votes with the Republican Party on national-security issues and support for the war in Iraq destroyed much of his support among Democrats who’d elected him to three terms. His high-profile barnstorming on behalf of John McCain in 2008 finished the job.

In 2006, a Fox exit poll showed that 70 percent of Republicans pulled the lever for Lieberman, while only 30 percent of Democrats did, preferring Democratic nominee Ned Lamont. But Lieberman’s vote for health-care reform, even after insisting it be watered down, and cheerleading for the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy destroyed that well of goodwill, too. “When you’re an independent, you have to figure out the coalition you’re going to put together to win,” says Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who’s worked with several independent candidates, including Chafee and Cutler, and who advised the Al Gore-Lieberman presidential ticket in 2000. “The truth is that next he’d probably be up against a formidable GOP opponent as well as a formidable Democratic candidate [in 2012].”

Whether you’re Joe Lieberman or not, the fact remains that winning as an independent in this country is still nearly impossible. For David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke who has studied the success of independents in national elections, the same numbers that independents celebrate actually tell a different story: Independent voters still make up a minority of all voters, and even among them, many actually lean to one party or another. “The likelihood of independent or third-party candidates actually winning office has been lousy, is lousy, and will continue to be lousy,” he says. “For the foreseeable future, we’re probably going to have a somewhat higher instance of independent candidates, but if the argument is that this is going to make independent candidates generally viable and competitive, I just think that’s false.”

Not that Maine’s Eliot Cutler is having any of it. He may very well try for office again. “If I run again, I’m not going to go back to a party,” he says. “I’m going to run as independent.”