It’s tough to be independent. Just ask Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill, whose running mate recently withdrew from the race and endorsed the Republican candidate. Or ask Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, whose unnamed opponents recently launched a website attacking his professional and personal life.

Despite the strong anti-incumbent mood sweeping the nation, voters are still largely reluctant to support independents over party-affiliated candidates. Cahill’s and Cutler’s numbers have recently plummeted, dropping from 16% to 6% and 14% to 9%, respectively, in just the last two weeks. But don’t be fooled by poll numbers. Independents still have a greater influence on the outcome of an election than any other factor.

One would be remiss to forget the astonishingly strong performance by independent candidate H. Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election. Perot’s performance, accounting to nearly 20 million votes in total, served as a wake-up call to party leadership. Since 1992, the total number of votes received by all twenty-two independent presidential candidates is over three million votes less than Perot’s 1992 total.

The rapid decline of third party preeminence in presidential races, due largely in part to new regulations that favor party-affiliated candidates, coincides with the growing presence of independents running for state offices. As Cahill’s and Cutler’s numbers might suggest, voters like the idea of independents but, when pen comes to paper, find party-affiliated candidates to be the more practical choices.

So, where do independents go? A Pew Research Center survey from last year indicates that more Americans, 36% of the population, self-identify as independent than with either of the two parties. Of this 36%, at least half votes semi-reliably with one party or the other. The other half is the most influential, and competed for, voter demographic.

Thousands of dollars are spent each year by parties looking to swing the independent vote in their favor. Many of these dollars are spent on vigorous attack ads; Cahill has been enduring attacks from the Republican Party for over five months. Maine partisans have taken a similar approach, assailing Cutler’s spotty business record, claiming he plans to raise taxes, and deploring his apparent preference to creating jobs in China over Maine. Both candidates, like all independents, are attacked for being unrealistic candidates, with Cutler likened on multiple occasions to Ralph Nader.

The lesson partisans should take from the shifting political currents is that, despite their self-proclaimed label, many independents are simply persuadable, albeit more centrist, partisans. Especially in the current political climate, it is important that partisan candidates advocate for their party’s progress (or lack thereof, in the Republicans’ case) in Washington, but also portray themselves as independent thinkers, not necessarily bound to their caucus. Although the independent label is appealing to many voters, few actually see independents as practical candidates. Therefore, continue to empty your wallets to persuade these voters to swing one way or the other, but don’t lose touch with the importance of keeping your partisan candidate as centrist-appealing as possible.

It bears noting that Eliot is a Harvard alum (class of 1968) and former Pennypacker resident. From an impassioned Maine Democrat, please don’t get any ideas.

Photo credit: The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

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