Will a "No Labels" Campaign Wreck the 2024 Election? We Can't Ask Group's Secret Donors.Breaking News
tags: third parties, Centrists
Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (Twitter: @NormOrnstein). Dennis Aftergut, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Supreme Court advocate, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
Those politics watchers—including most journalists—who are envisioning the 2024 presidential election as a contest between a Democrat (presumably President Joe Biden) and a Republican (perhaps former President Donald Trump) are missing a big part of the story. Last week brought the warning flash of a significant storm brewing for the upcoming election. The political organization No Labels qualified to place its third-party presidential candidate on the ballot in battleground Arizona twenty months from now.
No Labels is aiming to shake up American politics by running an independent candidate for president. In the process, it may be shaking apart our democracy.
Fox News reports that No Labels is courting politicians like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and Susan Collins as it seeks to build a so-called “unity ticket.” Soothing as the sound of “unity” may be to ears tired of the divisive screeching of our politics, third-party presidential bids have been, without exception, fools’ errands. This one may be worse.
It starts with a faulty premise. The No Labels website says:
We are the voice for the great American majority who increasingly feel politically homeless. We’re . . . laying the groundwork to ensure the American people have a real choice in the 2024 presidential election . . . to bring our divided country back together and solve our most pressing problems.
In fact, the great majority of Americans do not act as if they feel politically homeless. While a plurality of voters call themselves independents, as Geoffrey Skelley noted in FiveThirtyEight, “roughly 3 in 4 independents still lean toward one of the two major political parties, and studies show that . . . [i]ndependents who lean toward a party also tend to back that party at almost the same rate as openly partisan voters.”
Third-party candidates have never come close to winning a presidential election. Even the immensely popular Teddy Roosevelt, the most successful third-party candidate ever, gained only 27 percent of the popular vote running in 1912 on his “Bull Moose” ticket. But he had a decisive effect on the election nonetheless: He split the Republican vote, and by taking 88 Electoral College votes he handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
We could see that party result flip in 2024, with a No Labels candidate taking enough electoral votes to cause the incumbent Democrat to lose to the Republican.
Some third-party efforts are not worth paying attention to—perennial gadflies, say, or minor parties that don’t make it onto ballots. No Labels is not in that category. They are making a serious effort: They’ve hired hundreds of signature collectors and plan an April 2024 nominating convention in Dallas. In addition to Arizona, they have gained ballot access in bluer Colorado and Oregon. They’re targeting twenty other states. As of last summer, No Labels reportedly had pledges of $46 million on the way to a $70 million goal.
Any moderate No Labels candidate will almost certainly drain more votes from the Democratic side than the Republican. According to Pew Research, “third-party 2016 voters who turned out in 2020 voted 53%-36% for Biden over Trump.”
Recall how slender Biden’s 2020 margin of victory was: In three battleground states that turned the Electoral College his way—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin—he won by a total of 44,000 votes. That’s .028 percent of the national vote.
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