Hanging on the fringes but straddling the center

This was an item lost in the interim between Christmas and New Year’s, but there is still the threat of an independent candidacy siphoning votes away from a major-party nominee. And no, it’s not Donald Trump threatening to bolt if the GOP doesn’t elect him.

If you thought his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race spelled the end of Jim Webb’s campaign, you may have thought wrong. He’s still pondering an independent run which has the potential to draw voters from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, should he win the nomination. Polls suggest that Trump’s biggest base of support comes from voters who can’t vote in a Republican primary.

The dynamics of a third-party or independent run are always intriguing to me. While it’s rare to see one of those efforts succeed in a large-scale run – perhaps the best example is former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura – the thought that a moderately successful third-party candidate who gets 5 to 7 percent can swing the election scares both the major parties. There’s a scenario where I can see a Webb candidacy taking away more support from the Republican nominee than Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side: let’s say the nation is on war footing and desires a Presidential candidate with military experience that neither Clinton nor the GOP nominee could boast.

But the message Webb brings is one of populism – after all, his first issue is “economic fairness,” where he pits CEOs vs. workers and states “(t)he loopholes and exceptions that have evolved (in the tax code) have made a mockery out of true economic fairness.” This stance wasn’t all that different from his Democratic contenders, but Webb can also portray himself better as an outsider who was bipartisan enough to work under a Republican president but serve as a Democrat in the Senate. That could draw people from Hillary’s center, particularly those with a military or working-class background who believe Hillary is a creature of the Washington establishment.

Webb also points out that:

I have seen many people come to public service from highly successful careers in the business world, only to be devoured and humiliated by the demands of moving policy through the bureaucracy and then the Congress.

The administration of our government needs to be fixed. With the right leadership and the right sense of priorities, it can be.

This seems to be a statement directed at Donald Trump, and those who believe Trump can stroll right into the White House and clean up government should take heed. It’s a good way to temper expectations.

The obvious difference between the primary and general elections, moreover, is the impact non-affiliated voters can have. If Trump doesn’t get the nomination and decides to forgo the independent run, you’ll have a candidate from the extreme left and another certain to be painted in the media as being from the extreme right. Jim Webb may only get five percent, but the question becomes where that five percent comes from – Hillary or the Republican.

With ten months to go before the election, all this may be academic as one major-party candidate or the other wins outright and Webb becomes just a cipher in the overall race with a percent or two. But those of us who recall the Bush-Gore 2000 saga aren’t going to discount the possibility of a Ralph Nader spoiler in the race just yet. Al Gore lost because his challenge was from the Left, so who could be affected with a 2016 run from the center?