Off and on since the 2008 economic crash, a majority or plurality of voters have told Gallup that the country needs a third party. Last September, the percentage was 56 percent, down from its all-time high of 62 the year before.
But, would Americans actually vote for such a candidacy? And is it a good idea? The answer to both questions (so far, at least) is No. In 2024, the answer may well be a resounding NO.
The question arises anew because No Labels, a bipartisan group advocating centrist policies, has plans under way to spend $70 million to secure 50-state ballot access for an independent presidential ticket in 2024.
The group, a non-profit that doesn’t reveal its donors, says it doesn’t necessarily plan to mount a presidential campaign—it calls its effort an “Insurance Policy” in case Republicans and Democrats nominate candidates lacking public support.
Right now, a majority of Democrats don’t want Joe Biden to seek re-election and a majority of Republicans don’t want Trump. And the public views both unfavorably. I concur on Biden’s not running, based on age and undeserved chronic low support, not performance, especially if he keeps Kamala Harris as his Veep, causing legitimate worry about a weak succession in perilous times. But now it looks like it’s Biden vs. Trump, like it or not.
Ryan Clancy, No Labels’s chief strategist, told me that numerous conditions need to be met before the project goes ahead and that it’s more likely than not that it won’t field a presidential candidate. However, invested effort and momentum could override the conditions. The group has already raised two-thirds of $70 million and has plans to name a nominating committee and hold a national convention next summer..
The reason it’s a bad idea—indeed, possibly a catastrophic one in 2024—is that an attractive, moderate independent ticket could well pull enough votes away from Joe Biden to re-elect Donald Trump. In which case, I fear that America will cease to be a democracy.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat closely tied to the coal industry, and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican, both support the No Labels effort and haven’t ruled out running as its “Unity Ticket.”
No third party candidate has ever won the presidency, but third parties definitely have affected the outcome. The most celebrated case was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 “Bull Moose” candidacy, which split the Republican party and elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
More recently, in 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader pulled enough votes away from Democrat Al Gore, especially in Florida, to elect George W. Bush. And in 2016, Trump got elected because libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green party’s Jill Stein pulled enough key-state votes to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.
My favorite political scientist – moderate Democrat Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and senior advisor for No Labels since its founding in 2010 – has “separated” himself from the group over the third-ticket plan. He told the Washington Post earlier this month that “there is no equivalence between President Biden and a former president who threatens the survival of our constitutional order. And most important, in today’s closely divided politics, any division of the anti-Trump vote would open the door to his reelection.”
Similarly, former top GOP operative Stuart Stevens, now part of the “Never Trump” Lincoln Project, said “if you really believe that it doesn’t really matter if it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump…this is kind of harmless. If you live in a world where it does matter, it is dangerous.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Democratic co-chair of the 58-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group originated by No Labels, told the Post he is “not involved with or supportive of” the third-ticket plan. His GOP counterpart, Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa) sounded more favorable.
Founded and run by hard-charging (and controversial) former Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson, No Labels and the Problem Solvers have sponsored or helped along numerous worthwhile measures, including COVID relief and last year’s infrastructure, CHIPS, and gun control bills.
Clancy said that “success” for the Insurance Policy project won’t depend primarily on nominating a Unity ticket, but raising the visibility of a “Commonsense” policy agenda that No Labels will unveil this summer. The agenda, he says, will feature ideas widely accepted by the public but not supported by the Democratic or Republican parties.
These include immigration reform that combines beefed-up border security and a path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” brought illegally to the US as children. Also in the agenda: decisive steps to balance the federal budget and “restore excellence” to public education.
If No Labels just published its agenda, he said, it would be ignored. But if it had the possibility of being part of an Independent presidential platform, it would get traction.
Acceptance of that agenda would be one requirement for a No Labels endorsement (theoretically, Biden or Trump could win an endorsement). Another requirement is that “rigorous” polling would have to show that the public continues to want a third choice and that its ticket had a chance to win.
A huge, 26,000-sample HarrisX poll conducted by Nancy Jacobson’s husband, Mark Penn, also controversial, showed that 59 percent of voters would be open to supporting a moderate independent presidential candidate. (Typically that openness fades as election day nears.)
Such polling is part of the reasoning behind what No Labels calls a unique moment in modern US history, when a large plurality of voters (41 percent, according to Gallup) identify as Independents (vs. 28 percent each for the two parties), big majorities disapprove of Republicans (61 percent) and Democrats (57 percent). By a 35-point margin US adults think the country is on the wrong track, and 78 percent think their children will be poorer than they were.
Moreover, Penn’s polling indicated that an Independent ticket would draw equally from both Biden and Trump.
No Labels cites exit polling on the 1992 race, when Independent Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote, showing that if he hadn’t been on the ballot, equal numbers (38 percent) would have voted for Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, while 24 percent would not have voted at all.
Additionally, said Clancy, Perot ran a bad campaign, withdrawing and then re-entering, picking an unattractive running mate (retired Admiral James Stockdale) and eccentrically charging that Bush had somehow “ruined” his daughter’s wedding.
Against these arguments for an independent candidate in 2024, there is Duverger’s Law, which holds that in a two-party system where the candidate with the most votes wins, partisans are reluctant to vote for a third party for fear it will elect the candidate they oppose.
As the political site 538 explains, America now isn’t set up for third party victories.
In the past, I’ve been a supporter of third parties and Independent candidates on the grounds that the Democratic and Republican parties constitute a “duopoly” conspiring—for all savage battling they do—to freeze out competition and marginalize moderates in their own midst. The result has been polarization and gridlock.
One reason for my change of mind is that without political reform—especially widespread adoption of ranked choice voting—I doubt Independents can win, especially the presidency. And in 2024, if it’s Biden vs Trump, the prospect that No Labels’ Independent ticket could elect Trump is just too great a risk for this voter to take.