Should Specter have run as an independent?

He couldn't win as a Republican and he may not be able to win as a Democrat. But there was another option

Topics: Arlen Specter vs. Joe Sestak, Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Joe Sestak, D-Pa., 2010 Elections,

Should Specter have run as an independent?Senator Arlen Specter sits at a Senate Appropriations Committee emergency hearing on the Swine Influenza on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 28, 2009. Specter said on Tuesday he will switch parties, moving Democrats closer to a 60-vote Senate majority that would allow them to break Republican procedural roadblocks. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES POLITICS) (Credit: © Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

All of a sudden, Arlen Specter is on the brink of defeat. A week before Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, Specter now consistently trails his challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, in polls. More ominously for the incumbent, his own numbers seem stuck in the low 40s — lethal territory for a longtime officeholder.

We can argue all we want about Specter’s strategy — and specifically his decision to attack Sestak’s military record, a gambit that has emerged as a popular explanation for Specter’s apparent collapse. But the real explanation might just be that Specter’s bid to survive as a Democrat was doomed from the start.

Sure, Specter enjoyed robust leads over Sestak for much of the last year. But in all of that time, Specter has consistently failed to move his Democratic primary support past the 50 percent mark. In May ’09, he led Sestak by a 50-21 percent margin.  In a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll out today, Sestak now leads 47 to 43 percent. So, basically, Specter’s support has fallen off slightly in the last year, while Sestak’s has more than doubled. At least half of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters, it seems, were always going to be resistant to the idea of voting for Specter. And now that they are focused on the campaign and know who his opponent is, the horse race numbers finally reflect this.

Specter’s trump card, of course, was supposed to be his support from the White House and Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment, led by Gov. Ed Rendell. They would vouch for him, raise money for him, muscle potential foes out of the way, and mobilize a field army. That was the theory, at least.

But the value of all this establishment support is diminished — significantly — if the electorate simply doesn’t want to vote for the establishment’s candidate, as seems to be the case in Pennsylvania. Then, all it takes is one credible candidate to defy the establishment’s pressure and jump in the race. By securing a one-on-one race against Specter, Sestak long ago put himself in position to corral the Anyone-but-Specter crowd, just as soon as the electorate actually began paying attention to the campaign. In this sense, the push to clear the field for Specter backfired: With multiple challengers, Specter would probably be in a better position to prevail next week.

You Might Also Like

Moreover, the White House has ended up undermining Specter in the race’s home stretch. President Obama’s Monday announcement that he’s nominating Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court turned Specter’s 2009 vote against Kagan’s confirmation as solicitor general into a major campaign issue.

The explanation for that ’09 vote is rather obvious: Specter was still a Republican at the time and, facing a likely primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey, was trying to curry favor with the GOP base. But he can’t say that now. Nor is there any other explanation that will wash with the Democratic electorate. The whole episode merely serves to remind Democrats of Specter’s past GOP affiliation and the cynical nature of his party switch — all at a time when Specter can least afford it (and just as Sestak is blanketing the airwaves with reminders of all the nice things Specter and George W. Bush were saying about each other just a few years ago).

This doesn’t mean that Specter was wrong to leave the GOP last year. His conclusion that he wouldn’t be able to beat Toomey in a primary rematch was correct. Remember, Toomey was crushing Specter by 21 points when Specter switched parties.  Never in their 2004 race (which Specter ended up winning by 2 points) did Toomey lead Specter in a poll. The GOP electorate had clearly given up on Specter, and there would be no winning them back in 2010.

But there was another option for Specter, one that might have spared him many of the problems now dogging him: run as an independent.

Doing so would have helped Specter in several important areas. First, it would have been treated — by the media and by the public — as a far less cynical move than switching parties. Specter’s reputation for political independence was and is well-established. By abandoning the increasingly hard-right GOP for independent status, he would have been portrayed as a sympathetic figure — a victim of the rabid GOP base’s irrational purge.

But siding with the Democrats was a step too far, because Specter had been just as independent of Democratic dogma as Republican dogma. By joining the Democrats, he was forced to sync up his positions and his rhetoric with the party base. Every time he changed a position, it became news. The whole transformation reeked of calculation, not principle. Had he simply declared himself an independent, Specter wouldn’t have needed to wiggle around nearly as much.

This would have boosted his standing with independent voters. A recent poll found Specter trailing Toomey in a potential general election contest by 3 points among independents. As the pollster noted, this isn’t bad for a Democrat, given the current climate. But how many of those independents were turned off by the cynical nature of Specter’s party switch? He’d be running much stronger among independents if he’d simply left the GOP. Plus, those independent voters aren’t eligible to vote in next week’s primaries, which are open only to registered Democrats and Republicans. By going the third-party route, then, Specter would have expanded the electorate to include a very fertile chunk of voters.

It’s true that the math is tough for a successful independent campaign, particularly in Pennsylvania, where the two parties are strong. Independents account for barely 10 percent of the electorate, so Specter would have needed to draw significant support from both parties’ voters. And it’s also true that, historically, independent Senate bids have failed when both parties field credible nominees, as will be the case in Pennsylvania. In the modern era, third-party Senate candidates have only succeeded when one party rolls over for them — think Joe Lieberman’s alliance with Connecticut’s Republicans and Bernie Sanders’ partnership with Vermont’s Democrats in 2006.

Then again, there really aren’t that many examples of serious third-party Senate candidacies in modern times. And there’s the case of Charlie Crist, who — at least for now — is winning over big numbers of Democrats, lots of independents and a few Republicans in Florida. Crist, like Specter, was a goner in a Republican primary. He’d also probably lose in a Democratic primary. But by pursuing an independent campaign, he’s given himself a chance — his only chance — at victory. 

It’s worth wondering if a similar model could have worked for Specter. We know he was never going to win as a Republican this year. And it’s starting to look like he can’t win as a Democrat. It may be that his best option was the one he never seriously considered.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>