Imagine a hotly contested political contest between three major candidates: a Democrat, a Republican and an independent. In Maine that’s easy to do because it happened with the elections of Jim Longley and Angus King and with the near miss of Eliot Cutler in 2010. It’s also happening again this year with the U.S. Senate race.
Now imagine what would happen if the only candidates invited to participate in campaign debates were Democrats and Republicans, with an empty chair reserved for the independent. “This is the way we’ve always done it”, the debate sponsors would say, “and we feel that the two we invited, being from the left and right, can easily cover the spectrum.” The outcry from voters would be swift and forceful.
But this is exactly what is happening whenever media outlets offers spokespeople for the two parties as “commentators” or “analysts,” while leaving out independent or moderate voices. That approach is a holdover from the days when the two parties mattered a lot more than they do now. During the last five gubernatorial elections, independent candidates have won twice and almost won again in 2010, garnering more total votes than either Democrats or Republicans during that period.
Non-party voters are now the largest group of voters in Maine. But you wouldn’t know that by watching the media analysis of campaigns, where Republicans and Democrats are given privileged positions, even when their nominees receive only 5 percent of the support of voters enrolled in the respective parties.
To illustrate the failings of this approach, we need go no further than the recent blog in the Bangor Daily News by Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman, in which they recently engaged in a “ debate ” about how best to defeat Angus King. Naturally, that wasn’t a particularly stressful assignment since they both share a desire to tear down King, and there wasn’t anyone in the mix to challenge them.
Aside from the fairness and balance problems with offering just two partisan voices in these commentaries, these bi-party patty-cake sessions are also painfully predictable and boring. Party representatives rarely stray from their weekly talking points and party playbooks, while revisiting over and over the same deep ruts and self-serving viewpoints, offering little of real value to curious voters looking for common ground solutions to the challenges Maine faces.
There are reasons why growing numbers of Mainers are leaving the parties, and those reasons rarely see the light of day in these limited conversations. Mainers are increasingly frustrated with the “we know it all” positions of both parties and with the influence of inflexible interest groups within each. This rigidity too often comes across as lacking simple common sense. And it leaves many people feeling left out.
Where do voters go within the two-party framework, for instance, if they want to see government made more efficient and tax loopholes closed but also support abortion rights and gay marriage? Neither party seems to want them or candidates who represent them. So in growing numbers they disassociate from the parties in search of a more open and neutral gathering place around individual candidates, leaving party primaries and lockstep voting behind.
It is time now for the media in Maine to rethink this outdated approach to political analysis and to begin to add more third voices into the mix in the same way and at the same level as partisan voices. That needn’t be limited to people who are already unenrolled from a party or supporting a particular candidate, but it should include people who are independent-minded enough to speak out for new ways of solving our problems, wherever those ideas arise.
Alan Caron is the president of the Harraseeket Strategies Group in Freeport, which provides strategic planning and communications advice to companies, nonprofits and campaigns. He has volunteered with the Angus King campaign.