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Hillary Clinton as Independent Candidate for President?

A Commentary By Douglas Schoen

Thursday, May 15, 2008

In a poll released by Rasmussen Reports yesterday, 29% of Democrats say that Hillary Clinton should run for president as an Independent, if she does not win the Democratic Party nomination. This high percentage seems even more startling since Hillary and Bill Clinton have been iconic leaders of the Democratic Party for so long.

However, I am not surprised at all by the electorate’s desire for another choice in the upcoming presidential contest.

The Democratic primary field has clearly been polarized in this election. The exit polls from Tuesday’s West Virginia contest show that only about half of West Virginia Democrats who participated in the primary would vote for Barack Obama in the general election. Additionally, 55% of these voters say that Obama is not honest and trustworthy. The long and sometimes hostile race has created distinct divisions in the Democratic Party that could well last until the Democratic convention in August, when the heeling process can hopefully be completed.

It is almost impossible to conceive of any circumstance under which Hillary Clinton will run as in Independent. Both Clinton and Obama have pledged to work to reunite the party once the nominee has been selected and to support that nominee. There’s no reason to believe this is not still the case.

Nevertheless, these poll results are indicative of the divisions that currently plague the Democratic Party, but more importantly, they are indicative of larger trends evident in the American electorate. Voters are frustrated with the status quo, particularly the traditional two-party system. Voters want alternative solutions and approaches. They want bipartisan, consensus-seeking leaders to address their concerns about healthcare, the war on terror and the economy in a pragmatic, results-oriented way. They want people who are against the political system or who are willing to reach beyond the confines of the system that they see as flawed and inefficient.

Democrats who think this way have been reluctant to ratify Obama or Clinton as the Democratic nominee. The fact that so many voters supported the possibility of an independent candidate, however theoretical, is indicative of the desire for anti-systemic, candidates to take on established political parties. The two likely nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, reflect this desire, as they both appeal to Independents and speak of bipartisan change.

To be sure, Obama, not Clinton, entered the race as the anti-establishment candidate. Over the past few months, this label combined with his post-partisan appeal brought him an extraordinary amount of support. But as Clinton became the underdog, she stepped outside of the mainstream as well, fighting to bring about change against the party establishment. Clinton and Obama have both tried to claim the mantle of the underdog who is fighting to change the system, while simultaneously reaching for the support of the party’s establishment. As it becomes clear that Obama will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee, Clinton is fighting harder than ever to find a way to win against what has now become the established order of the Democratic Party.

This, along with the clear divisions within the Democratic Party, account for the abnormally high level of support for Clinton to run as an Independent if she loses the Democratic nomination. While this vision is extremely unlikely to become a reality in the 2008 election, the extraordinary volatility that has characterized this campaign season thus far makes the remainder of the 2008 campaign anyone’s guess to predict.

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