Exhausted from partisan strife, Americans often ask: Can we ever elect an independent for president?
Only George Washington has won the presidency without party affiliation. He called the parties “powerful engines, through which cunning, ambitious and unscrupulous men will be able to subvert the power of the people and usurp for themselves the reins of government”.
Washington may have trained as a land surveyor, but he was no slouch when it came to political science.
As we look to 2024, there could be an opportunity for a third candidate to run for president. A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll finds that 58% of American voters would consider an independent moderate if Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump were the party’s leading candidates.
But let’s be realistic. Electing an independent takes a long time. There is no fundraising organization or apparatus for such a candidacy, election laws run counter to it, and few pro politicians would take it seriously. So how does a freelancer compensate for these structural disadvantages?
You do it with a message. The strongest independent of modern times was Ross Perot in 1992, who won 19% of the vote after withdrawing from the race and returning five weeks before Election Day. For a time, Perot ran first in the polls on a centrist, nonpartisan message focused on fixing a broken government and cutting budget deficits.
Of course, Perot ultimately lost. And the nagging question remains: can an Independent ever be elected President of the United States?
To find an answer, you have to cross the Atlantic. It’s spring, so let’s go to Paris.
In 2016, a young former investment banker named Emmanuel Macron resigned from his cabinet to run for president of France the following year. He avoided party affiliation and started an independent movement, En Marche! (translation: “On the move!”).
To craft a platform and a message, Macron’s campaign recruited 4,000 volunteers to conduct door-to-door surveys of 100,000 people to better understand public mood.
Macron called for a “democratic revolution” and pledged to “unblock France”. He published a best-selling book, titled “Revolution”, which looked at both sides of the political spectrum and warned French voters against the country’s “slow downward descent” continuing. He attacked the old “political juggling game” between left and right. About his opponents, he says, “they are all wrong.”
Proving he was a smart and effective campaigner in 2017, Macron led a wide range of candidates in the first round. In the second round, he easily beat right-wing populist Marine LePen with 66% of the vote.
At 39, Macron has become the youngest French head of state since Napoleon. In the legislative elections following his victory, his En Marche! movement – which did not even exist before his campaign – won the majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Who says you can’t upset an existing party structure?
As president, Macron defied ideological labels. He assumed a leadership role on global issues and pushed forward an agenda of reform – tax and labor law changes, anti-corruption measures and streamlining of the pension system. Some of his policies have drawn strong opposition, including demonstrations by “yellow vests”, but he has continued to push and, if necessary, negotiate compromises.
Last week Macron was re-elected for a second five-year term, becoming the first French president to do so in 20 years. Although the media tried to turn this year’s election into a “close call”, Macron ultimately won the second round by 17 points. He topped the polls and beat LePen again, who this time was shrewdly rebranded as less extreme.
There are differences between French and American politics: the United States has two entrenched parties, while France has a multiparty system. French presidents are directly elected by the people in two-round elections (comparable to Louisiana’s open primary and runoff system), but without an electoral college. While the United States is a presidential republic, France has a president independent of the legislature and a prime minister subject to legislative votes of confidence.
As in the United States, French presidential elections are also about candidates, parties and issues. Frustrated voters in both countries are reacting to compelling messages for change.
For the United States, electing an independent president would take the right situation and the right candidate. Look how Emmanuel Macron did it; it provides the best model.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst based in New Orleans. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a free national polling and public opinion newsletter, and is the author of Running for Office, an eye-opener for political candidates.