Almost half the American public is now open to voting for independent and third-party candidates, according to the new NBC/WSJ poll (PDF). This is not too surprising an outcome, given the extremely low current opinion of the two main political parties.

According to the poll, 46 percent of those surveyed are enthusiastic or comfortable voting for a candidate who is independent and is not affiliated with either political party, while only 23 percent have reservations or would be uncomfortable with it. Those are very good numbers. People are also significantly more at ease with voting for an independent candidate than for one endorsed by Barack Obama (36-43) or Sarah Palin (25-52). At the moment, there’s no strong inherent stigma to running as an independent.

The bigger news for potential third-party and independent candidates is that a quarter of people say they are more likely to make such a choice this year for Congress.

If the choice in your district had the following, would you be more likely to vote for a–(ROTATE:)
Republican candidate for Congress, a Democratic candidate for Congress–or an independent or third party candidate for Congress?

Republican candidate …………………………………………… 31
Democratic candidate …………………………………………… 34
Independent/third party candidate ………………………….. 25
Not sure ……………………………………………………………… 10

That is potentially fertile territory for independent candidates. Of course, the problem is that the 25 percent could potentially be split equally among ultra-conservative voters unhappy with Republicans, ultra-progressives unhappy with Democrats and moderate voters unhappy with both parties. If that 25 percent splinters, it would be impossible to line up that vote behind a single candidate.

Despite the improved environment for independents and third parties, I doubt we will see many win the elections in November. The two major parties have huge built-in advantages, and they have crafted our election laws to reinforce them. As long as we have first-past-the-post and single-member districts, instead of instant-runoff voting or proportional representation, overcoming the spoiler-effect issue is a huge hurdle to creating viable non-major candidates.

The few candidates who will benefit from this pro-independent environment already have high name recognition and have established themselves as serious politicians. This poll is good news for two prominent former Republicans running statewide as independents: Charlie Crist for US Senator in Florida, and Lincoln Chafee for Governor in Rhode Island.