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Independent Voters of America Launches, Dumping on Both Parties

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, May 30 2012

Screenshot from "The Same Old Political Crap" video by Independent Voters of America's Bill Hillsman

"I've been an equal opportunity offender of both parties for some time, and it's too late to stop now." That's veteran ad-maker Bill Hillsman, describing his new project, Independent Voters of America. The man who first got national attention for his hilarious and highly effective ads for Minnesota maverick Paul Wellstone, and then went on to work for everyone from Jesse Ventura, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, John Hickenlooper, Jack Ryan, Ned Lamont, Kinky Friedman, Alan Grayson (and, in case anyone has forgotten, a NYC Public Advocate candidate named Andrew Rasiej), has decided that he's had it waiting for someone to hold Washington's feet to the fire, and that he's going to use the Internet to do it himself.

Wait a second, isn't that what the just-failed Americans Elect said it was going to do? Actually, no. Says Hillsman, "We are building the largest online community of self-identified independent voters, with the goals of bringing fresh voices and more choices into our politics, acting as a counterweight to the two major political parties, and to reduce gridlock, force progress and bring a new accountability to Washington." Americans Elect sought to create a ballot line for an artificially-engineered "centrist" presidential ticket. The plan with IVA, he says, is "to give self-identified independent voters a gathering place" and then "see where people want to take this."

But isn't that what No Labels, which its co-founder Mark MacKinnon describes as a "MoveOn for the center," is trying to do? Hillsman says, "Ours is a populist movement.  No Labels, to me, is a nice idea but too Washington-consultant centric to really get honest traction with people."

There's no question that what Hillsman is up to looks and feels different from the No Labels and Americans Elect efforts, which are (and were) rife with self-styled centrist politicians and pundits. I can't see any of those people associating themselves with IVA's first 30-second video, where an animated donkey and an elephant take a dump on the Constitution, and then affably disagree with each other about who did it and who has to clean it up.

In contrast to No Labels and Americans Elect, IVA also feels unfinished and maybe more open to what its members may push for it to become. That could be a hidden strength, since many net-based projects work best when they make room for volunteers and allow them to take ownership of what they build. On its FAQ page, IVA says that it not trying to create a new political party, but rather that its goal is "to become the largest group of 'free agent' swing voters in the country, and to inject accountability back into our government and our politics, so we start electing candidates on the basis of results, not rhetoric." It's unclear how "members" of IVA will decide anything about the organization's development, but Hillsman believes that will happen organically. As a first step, the website is inviting voters to take a simple survey to discover where they stand on a dozen issues, using a Facebook app that also serves to help the group spread its message. (Hello, social graph!) Asked if members get a vote on IVA's path, he answers, "Independent voters themselves will decide what activation will happen. We basically are providing information that's not filtered through the two-party prism (or that's exposing that prism) and a gathering place for independent voters to find each other and discuss their concerns."

So far, with Hillsman funding the group's development out of his own pocket and using staff from his firm North Star North Woods Advertising, they've grown a modest community of 20,000 likes on Facebook. And that's without any media attention, which of course may change IVA's trajectory rapidly. But while independent voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans, they hardly agree with each other much, and the rare successes for independent politics in America have generally been built around charismatic leaders, not generic causes. Says Hillsman, "I/we believe that independents can be organized around a candidate OR a cause (both were true in the case of Jesse Ventura)." He adds, "A charismatic leader helps for populist movements, but is not necessary when the people are fed up (see: Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street)."

With approval ratings for Congress at 11%, and the most money-drenched election since Watergate now under way, the climate remains ripe for pox-on-all-houses politics--something Hillsman has hard-won experience in. But can you build a movement solely with viral videos and social media? Stay tuned.

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