After Losing Major Party Status, Can the Independence Party Save Itself?


Minnesota Independence Party chairman Marc Jenkins had a rough Tuesday night.

"Right now, looking on it, last night sucked," Jenkins told us from the Independence Party headquarters yesterday morning.

Jenkins had just been dealt a bloodbath. For 20 years, his party -- the party of Gov. Jesse Ventura, U.S. Sen. Paul Barkley, and gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner -- had competed hard in the state, sharing a stage with the GOP and DFL. And yet, with no statewide candidate managing to grab enough of the vote, the party was demoted.

See also: The Revolt of the Third-Party Candidates

The rules of major party status are pretty simple: To keep it, one of the party's statewide candidates needs to snag at least 5 percent of the vote. Bob Helland, the IP's secretary of state candidate, came tantalizingly close -- 4.91 percent. But he fell short.

Losing that status is huge. No automatic ballot access. No campaign matching funds for the state. And, perhaps most damning, minor parties tend to get shunned from television debates, a major way to get out the message for cash-strapped parties.

A lot of people are surely thankful for the IP's downfall -- especially Republicans who have seen the party cut into their base over and over again. But the demotion isn't too surprising. The stock of the IP has dwindled over the past five years or so. While the 2008 election was a high point, with multiple IP'ers pulling in at least 10 percent, the past few elections have seen that share plummet.

The latest numbers are disappointing, obviously, but Jenkins sounds surprisingly optimistic (though he very well could just be trying for some political damage control). Jenkins says that while the GOP and DFL may have grabbed all the statewide spots, around 8 percent of the voters still opted for third parties. So for the next election, he's reaching there.

"There's still that 8 to 10 percent who want us," he says. "There's a huge appetite for something else."

(To read more about the IP's future, click to the next page) [page]

To grab that percentage, Jenkins says, he's got a plan: reach the young voters, the Millenials. It sounds good: Grab young voters and you're set for decades. But it's also something that every party is trying to do, and the IP is competing with two major parties with huge war chests on their side.

But the IP may have a better shot. It's gone hard on advocating for marijuana legalization and campaign finance reform, which younger voters tend to agree with. So Jenkins isn't discouraged.

"We've been underdogs for most of our existence," he says. "It just means we have a little more work to do."

But to get back to political relevance, says U of M political science professor Larry Jacobs, it won't be so easy.

"I think the question that looms is, was there ever really an Independence Party?" Jacobs says. "Or was it just a soapbox for different personalities?"

It's a fair question. Go down the list of major IP candidates -- Ventura, Barkley, Horner -- and you'll find a bunch of huge personalities without any uniform ideas.

Now that the Independence Party is trying to turn itself into a united group, with joint ideas and values, those personalities have gone away. The votes have gone away, too.

Maybe the IP can buck the trend and turn around its sinking ship. Either way, it'll be interesting to watch.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.