It’s neither popular nor gratifying to point out that the Green Party and independent candidates underperformed in the 2006 Arkansas elections, but it’s impossible to ignore.
It’s also disappointing, because in many ways this was a unique opportunity to make a real impact that would have a lasting effect on the state’s politics.
And while it’s no fun to kick a man when he’s down, it’s important to call attention to these deficiencies, lest the failures of the individuals undermine the true potential of third-party and independent candidacies in Arkansas.
After all, political history clearly indicates an independent streak among the state’s voters. Last month’s Arkansas Poll, conducted by the University of Arkansas, proves it. While 23 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans and 36 percent said they were Democrats, 33 percent answered “independent,” 3 percent said “other” and 4 percent opted for “don’t know.”
That means a plurality of Arkansans choose not to affiliate with a political party.
Then there were the particular circumstances of this year’s governor’s race. In a rare open-seat election, both major-party candidates ran safe, uninspiring campaigns. The electorate was dispirited by scandal, war and a stagnant economy. Moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats were less than enthused with their parties’ nominees.
It was the perfect opening for alternative voices, and two joined the contest: Jim Lendall of the Green Party and independent Rod Bryan. As expected, neither man fit the traditional mold, and both bemoaned the current state of the two-party system and the outsized influence of corporations.
That’s a good start in a poor state where 40 percent of the citizens won’t associate with either of the two major parties. Beebe was particularly vulnerable to a message that appealed to economic populists and the left wing of his party.
But then … nothing happened. Neither man caught fire and advanced himself beyond where he started.
In Lendall’s case, it was a matter of inactivity. He certainly did not suffer from a lack of experience or competence. A former Democratic legislator, he served 16 years in the state House and before that spent three years in the Army. His positions on the issues were not radical — they would be mainstream Democratic stances in many other states. Lendall’s message would have resonated with many Democrats, if he had more aggressively tried to organize and communicate with them.
Bryan’s campaign, on the other hand, lacked sufficient depth. An intelligent and thoughtful man by any account, he wrapped his platform around environmental sustainability and ecological literacy. That’s his passion and he makes a compelling case, but when your first position paper is about improving bicycle infrastructure, it’s hard for the average person to relate. And what about the day-to-day realities of governing and understanding the state budget?
Yes, Bryan was probably more concerned with the purity of his vision than the number of votes he received. But if you act like a fringe candidate, it’s disingenuous to complain about being treated like one.
Which brings up a problem shared by both Lendall and Bryan: too much time was devoted to complaining about the system. Their irritation at being excluded from the televised debates was certainly justified (and many of us said so). But their public appearances were too often protests about process and too rarely about what they would do if elected.
In this media-saturated climate and in races without drama, Lendall, Bryan, and the other third-party candidates missed their chances for creative plays for attention. Press conferences, rallies, speeches and other stunts should have been regular occurrences.
And in this Internet age, they should have been more strategic about using e-mail to announce policy initiatives and respond to the major-party candidates. One recent news article touted Bryan’s use of “Internet campaigning” by saying “he sends e-mail newsletters to about 100 subscribers, posts comments on his blog and other political blogs, posts bulletins to the 1,039 friends on his MySpace page and occasionally posts video clips on peer-to-peer networks such as YouTube.” But that’s an extraordinarily small universe — numerically and demographically — for someone trying to get elected statewide.
And that’s the point. Winning an election in a democracy is about reaching out across the broadest expanse of the population and convincing a majority to vote for you. That doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values and beliefs, but you do have to work hard to assemble a practical coalition.
I still believe it is possible for a non-major-party candidate to do well in Arkansas, through grass-roots volunteer networks in every county, broadly appealing issues, the effective use of communication tools like the Internet and innovative efforts to earn free media attention.
Lendall and Bryan deserve credit for standing up to the system, but the election is over and the system remains unscathed.