Jim Webb never had a prayer of making noise as a Democrat. Quite frankly, he’s completely out of step with modern Democratic voters, who are either committed to winning the White House (and thus are with Hillary) or are committed to the stupid things they think and believe (and thus are with Bernie Sanders). As a Republican, Jim Webb would likewise have had no chance of making noise – or at least I think. Definitely the Trump phenomenon has proven that there are a lot of Republicans who do not care where the candidates stand on the issues, but Webb had no chance of beating Trump with those voters as he’s not tremendously telegenic or a particularly fast talker.
On the other hand, as an independent, Jim Webb could do some real damage to either side in the general election. Admittedly, this is a counter intuitive position given the fact that he could barely register 1% in his own party, but this election is showing that all of the normal rules might not apply.
Right now, I think the primary voters in both parties are either committed to one of the “establishment” picks of their party or to one of the “outsiders” who has already entered the race. The voters in both parties are going to have a serious struggle over the next several months over which function will win (a struggle which will likely be much more strenuous and genuine on the Republican side than on the Democrat side). Either way, however, there will likely be very hard feelings on both sides of the divide. Much more than usual for a contested primary, even. And, more than usual, these hard feelings will be borne by voters who view spiting the other faction in their own party as being more important than winning the general election.
This is likely to be especially true on the Republican side. If Trump ends up winning the nomination, a relatively high number of Republicans have indicated in polls the (eminently believable) claim that they view Trump as being unfit for the Presidency and will refuse to vote for him. Most of these voters will find voting for Hillary to be too distasteful to stomach when push comes to shove, but would have no similar distaste about casting a vote for Webb as a visible protest. Likewise, if we take the Trump supporters at their word, especially those who profess to be about immigration and nothing else, if Rubio or some other candidate who is perceived as being “soft on immigration” gets the nomination, some non-trivial number of them would be willing to vote for Jim Webb simply because, to them, sending a message is more important than where a candidate stands on the issues anyway.
The possibility of Webb wreaking havoc on the Democrat side is much more remote, but not non-existent. The experience of 2008 has taught us that Democrats by and large will shut up and get in line regardless of how much they might publicly profess that they won’t; however, the unpredictable size of the Sanders rebellion might well provide an indication that even the Democrats might not be ready to shut up and do as they’re told if the primary doesn’t work out to their satisfaction.
And thus a guy who couldn’t get an inch of traction in either party’s primary presents a very real threat to make actual noise in the general election. Certainly not enough to contend for an actual victory, but probably enough to get on the television debate stage and possibly enough to get more votes than the final margin of victory for the Republican/Democrat.
If Jim Webb does decide to run as an Independent, he could very well spend some time wandering in the desert with little visible support, but if he sticks with it until after the primaries, he could make a measurable impact on this race.