Pundits scoff at the notion of a viable independent presidential candidate. Normally, they have good reason. Independent candidates face many hurdles, which is why only two in the past 170 years have managed to get even 20 percent of the popular vote. But these are not normal times.
Our two-party system is buckling under the weight of its dysfunction. Exhausted by partisan gridlock, Americans are finally ready to embrace a centrist, pragmatic, independent candidate free from the demands of special interests and ideologues.
Research shows that the electability of an independent candidate primarily depends upon: (1) the degree of voters' alienation; (2) funding; (3) voters' affection for the major party candidates; and (4) the independent candidate's likability.
In 2012, these conditions are aligned in ways that could rocket an independent candidate to new heights.
-- Voters' trust in the federal government has plunged in recent years, with just 10 percent of Americans saying they trust the federal government to do what's right, and Congress' approval rating flirting with single digits.
These expressions of distrust have no precedent in the modern era.
-- The sharp decline in party registrations is another indication of political alienation. More than 2.5 million voters have left the Democratic and Republican parties since the 2008 elections, driving the percentage of registered independents to an all time high -- 40 percent. That's a bigger chunk of the electorate than either party can claim. No wonder sizeable majorities of Americans now say they would be willing to support a third-party or independent presidential candidate.
-- The major parties no longer have a stranglehold over money. The Internet has democratized fundraising and enables independent or previously unknown candidates who capture the public's imagination to raise large sums of money. In recent years, Howard Dean (2004), Jim Webb (2006), Barack Obama (2008), Ron Paul (2008 and 2011) and Rand Paul (2010), among others, have all attracted supporters and quickly raised prodigious amounts of cash on the Internet.
-- In 2008 Obama and John McCain enjoyed broad popularity for much of the election cycle. This year the candidates are likely to be less popular. President Obama's approval ratings have dropped throughout much of his presidency, and they are now low-to-middling; much of the Democratic base has lost enthusiasm for him and most independent voters no longer support him.
-- Meanwhile, the candidates vying for the GOP nomination are considered uniformly unimpressive by most Americans. The "thermometer ratings" of all Republican candidates -- an important measurement of likeability -- are significantly lower than those received by past candidates. The favorability ratings of the remaining GOP presidential candidates are anemic. A CBS News survey found that a full 58 percent of Republican primary voters want more presidential choices, while just 37 percent said they are satisfied with the current field.
Electoral dynamics in 2012 should allow a respected, well-financed independent to perform better than Ross Perot, a deeply-flawed candidate who dropped out of and re-entered the 1992 race, and still received 19 percent of the popular vote. Americans are now more distrustful of the federal government than they were in 1992; they are less partisan now than they were then; the misery index is higher; Congress and the two parties are less popular; and the major parties' candidates will likely be less popular as well.
Ironically, the only factor now preventing a historic independent presidential run is the lack of an actual candidate. But no independent voice has risen to satisfy voters' hunger for alternatives -- yet.
In his recent book, Washington, Ron Chernow depicts our first president as a flawed but fiercely independent leader, who shunned political parties and unified a fledgling nation often at war with itself.
Is there a modern-day Washington now in our midst? If not, we will remain hunkered in our trenches as the noxious fumes of partisan warfare continue to descend upon us. If so, he or she could prevail on the political battlefield, propelling us forward. Conditions have never been better.
This blog is based on a research paper drafted by Mr. Doctoroff, which you can download here.