Could a Third Party Finally Do It?

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Gerald F. Seib headlined “Could a Third Party Finally Do It?”:

The recent history of independent and third-party presidential runs in this country is easy to summarize: High hopes followed by dashed expectations.

Back in 1968, George Wallace, proclaiming there wasn’t a “dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties, ran as a third-party candidate, won more than 13% of the vote and carried five Southern states. He didn’t really alter the outcome of that race, however, though he did help move white Southerners out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican column and thereby altered the shape of both parties.

That was the high-water mark. John Anderson ran as a renegade, liberal Republican in 1980, had a couple of months of highflying hopes and then crashed to earth with just 6.6% of the general election vote. Ross Perot ran in 1992, led in the polls for a brief and heady moment, yet finished with just 19% of the vote and failed to win a single state or Electoral College vote. He tried again in 1996, slumped to 8%, and his dream was dead.

Subsequent efforts—by gadfly Ralph Nader and Green Party leader Jill Stein most prominently—have proven mostly that third-party efforts can be potent spoilers. By siphoning away just a tiny share of Democratic votes, Nader may have cost Al Gore the state of Florida and thereby the 2000 election, and Stein may well have done the same to Hillary Clinton in several swing states in 2016.

Yet today, despite that sketchy record, the third-party dream is again alive and well. A bipartisan organization called No Labels has gathered some 650,000 petition signatures in a drive to claim a spot on the ballot in all 50 states and thereby reserve a place for a potential bipartisan, centrist ticket. Meanwhile, the liberal professor Cornel West is trying to run on the Green Party ticket.

These two efforts are terrifying Democrats, who fear they could drain away just enough votes from President Biden to pave a path for former President Donald Trump to return to the White House. “We should be very concerned about it,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “All of the polling shows it’s only going to pull voters from Biden.”

As a journalist who covered the early excitement and the ultimate futility of both the Anderson and Perot efforts, the broader question this raises is simply: Why? Given the scant evidence that an independent or third-party run has any real chance of success, why would anybody think the ground looks favorable enough to bother now?

For those dreaming the dream, the answer is simple: There are distinctive elements of today’s unsettled political landscape that make the idea plausible in 2024.

Unpopular front-runners

In Gallup polling over the last 40 years, Joe Biden has the lowest job approval of any president at this stage of his presidency—though that rating is comfortably above the approval Donald Trump had when he left office. As it happens, of course, those two men are the two odds-on favorites to be the major-party nominees.

“The reason there is more interest in it this time is the increasing disgust and discouragement with the prospective nominees offered by the two major political parties,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Seventy percent of Americans do not want a Joe Biden and Donald Trump rematch for president. That is huge.”

Not by coincidence, the disillusionment with the current front-runners tracks with broad disillusionment with the two parties they represent. Pew Research Center polling last year found that in recent decades the share of Americans who have an unfavorable opinion of both political parties has risen steadily. In 1994, just 6% expressed an unfavorable view of both parties; by last year, that had quadrupled to 27%.

“If you look at the standing of the two political parties, neither is in good odor with the American people,” says William Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who cut his political teeth working on John Anderson’s independent presidential run. “If you look at the appetite for the rematch that seems to be shaping up, it’s even worse.”

Unparalleled levels of cynicism

A series of perceived failures by the nation’s elites and the parties they lead has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans. Long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2007-2008 financial crisis, ballooning federal debt, an unsatisfying fight against the Covid virus, the hollowing-out of the nation’s industrial base, inability to reform the immigration system—all are seen as failures of the major parties.

Those problems have tended to hit average Americans more than the elites. Working-class kids served and suffered disproportionately in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trade with China benefited those with capital more than those with wages. Banks got bailed out in the 2007-09 recession, but not individuals with mortgages. Those who could work at home during Covid tended to do fine, while those who had to go into a workplace suffered more.

Along the way, there has been a precipitous loss of confidence in American institutions. Gallup has found, for example, that the share of Americans expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police has declined to 43% from 61% in the last two decades, while confidence in the medical system has dropped to 34% from 44%. The slide has been even steeper for political institutions: Confidence in the presidency has dropped to 26% from 55%, and in Congress to a mere 8% from 29%.

Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, the presidential candidacies of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders—all were propelled by this fuel, as is the interest in a third party now. “I think people are very dissatisfied with the political system on all fronts,” says Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican consultant who worked closely with Perot on his 1992 run.

A hollowed-out political center

Anderson and Perot both claimed, in their own ways, that they wanted to be radical centrists. The problem for them was that there actually still was a vibrant center in each political party when they ran. Today, that center is nearly gone as the Democrats have moved left, while Republicans have moved even farther away from their traditional conservatism and toward the Trump populist right.

A Pew analysis of congressional voting last year illustrated the trend. It found that, on average, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are farther apart ideologically now than at any time in the past 50 years. Today there are only about two dozen lawmakers who could be identified as “moderate,” compared with more than 160 a half a century ago. An analysis of congressional votes showed that both parties have moved away from the center, though Republicans have moved significantly farther to the right than Democrats have to the left.

The balance of power between the two parties actually seems to be exacerbating the trend. The political system appears trapped in an endless loop of frustration, in which control bounces back and forth between Republicans and Democrats and neither can break out to implement a clear agenda. Each of the last five biennial elections has been a “change election,” in which control of at least one branch of the national government—the House, Senate or White House—has changed hands. Meanwhile, the anger stoked on social media alienates many Americans and drives them to the extremes of the ideological spectrum.

It might seem that this balance of power would prompt the two parties to work together in the center, but it has had the opposite effect: With little to no margin for error, leaders of both parties seem desperate to hang onto their most reliable, ideologically motivated base voters, and afraid to take the chance of offending those base voters by compromising too much with the other side.

New fundraising opportunities

In days gone by, candidates were dependent on the national parties and super PACs for the cash they needed to run campaigns. Today the advent of social media and online fundraising from average, small-dollar donors has made it possible for candidates to move outside of those traditional channels.

For example, data compiled by the nonpartisan show that both Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on the right and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left raised more than $8 million in the last cycle—almost 70% of their respective totals—through small individual donations of less than $200 apiece. In such a scenario, the traditional parties’ hold is weakened.

All of these forces have combined to open the door to a third-party or independent candidate, and the No Labels organization is pondering whether to walk through it. No Labels was created in 2009 largely to help build a moderate, bipartisan center in Congress. Now it is considering branching out into presidential politics by laying the groundwork for fielding an independent presidential and vice presidential ticket in 2024.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri and former Republican Govs. Jon Huntsman of Utah and Larry Hogan of Maryland are working with the group, which has released a centrist policy manifesto called “Common Sense.” It contains some specific ideas—creating an independent commission to devise a plan to reduce the federal deficit that Congress would have to vote on in its entirety, and establishing police service academies similar to the military service academies to bolster the nation’s police forces—as well as gauzy ones such as taking on Social Security’s funding problems without saying how.

No Labels leaders insist that they see not just a chance to run but to win, based on polling the organization has done nationally and, in recent days, in eight presidential battleground states. Dritan Nesho, the group’s pollster, says that battleground-state polling found that between 60% and 70% of voters in swing states said they would be open to considering a moderate, independent presidential ticket if the main-party choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, similar to the sentiment found nationally. “Our models suggest that if we were able to convert about six in 10 of these voters we would win the Electoral College outright with 286 Electoral College votes,” he says.

Still, even as they work to win a spot on state ballots across the country, No Labels says it isn’t yet committed to launching a run. The group will wait until after a set of primary elections next March and then decide whether to offer its ballot access to actual independent candidates.

The group’s leaders say they won’t necessarily field a ticket if they don’t see a chance for victory—or if their efforts seem to be succeeding in moving the major parties toward the middle. “If they force one or both parties more towards the center of the country, if they force the political system to, for a change, actually speak to the needs of the common-sense majority instead of the wants of their bases, and that closes off an opening for a No Labels ticket, that’s fine with us,” says Ryan Clancy, the group’s chief strategist. “That is success.” The group’s leaders also say they have no interest in being a Trojan Horse that helps Trump win.

The climb is steep for any independent presidential bid. There is a huge difference between voters saying in a poll that they are open to a hypothetical centrist ticket months before the election and those voters actually pulling the lever for a real candidate when the outcome of the election is on the line. Converting sentiment into votes is hard work, and history shows that support for third parties tends to dissipate as the election grows nearer.

Moreover, even as voters express unhappiness with their political choices, they have become more locked into their partisan preferences and voting patterns. If Democrats today struggle to woo Republicans to their side, and vice versa, is it plausible to think an independent or third-party candidate would have more success? In any case, the winner-take-all nature of the presidential election system, under which no Electoral College votes are rewarded for just coming close to winning a state, makes the task even harder.

That leads to skepticism about the third-party idea—and those Democratic fears that, with Trump’s base locked in behind their man, the whole effort could do just enough to undermine the Biden re-election effort by peeling away centrist Democrats. Rollins, a Republican, agrees: “You probably could create chaos, but that’s going to hurt Democrats more.” Indeed, a handful of polls in late spring showed that adding a third-party candidate tilted the vote away from Biden and to Trump.

Gnawing dissatisfaction with the political system may not be resolved this year through an independent run, but transformation seems inevitable over the next few years. The two major parties are undergoing significant demographic and ideological change even as they continue to be led by elderly figures such as Biden and Trump, and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, all of them more than 70 years old.

So hopes for a revolution may be disappointed in 2024, but they won’t disappear. “I have the sense that there is an old order that has sort of calcified, and that stuff is happening underneath the frozen surface,” says Galston. “I think the country is in a particularly bad mood because what they really want to see is that change now, and they’re not going to get it.”

Gerald F. Seib retired last year as the Journal’s executive Washington editor and weekly Capital Journal columnist. He has served most recently as a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

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