Skip to content
A Spoiler Spoiled
Go to my account

A Spoiler Spoiled

Why did No Labels fail?

Running as an independent candidate, U.S. businessman Ross Perot campaigns for president in 1992. (Photo by Arnold Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

Imagine how baffled the casual American voter must have felt on Thursday when the country’s best hope for a centrist third-party presidential option officially threw in the towel on the campaign.

In this year of all years.

The story of why No Labels believed it could mount a credible independent candidacy is so simple that it can be told entirely with numbers. First: Both major-party nominees are below 43 percent in favorability.

Second: The share of Americans who identify as independent stands at 43 percent, a solid plurality of the total electorate and tied for an all-time high.

Third: 63 percent of adults now say that the two major parties do such a poor job of representing their interests that a third party is needed. That’s the highest figure recorded by Gallup since it began asking the question in 2003.

There’s nothing complicated about this. The Democratic incumbent is senescent, saddled with high inflation, and bizarrely indifferent to a crisis at the border that’s dragged on for years. A majority of his own voters think he’s too old to serve effectively in a second term. The Republican challenger is a coup-plotting lunatic so unbalanced that a judge in Manhattan had to formally order him to stop obliquely threatening the judge’s own daughter. Chances are fair that he’ll have a felony criminal record by Election Day.

In this year of all years, there’s high demand potentially for a serious third-party candidate. And where there’s high demand, there should be an ample supply of ambitious politicians willing to satisfy it. Even if the No Labels project were doomed to also-ran status, its nominee would enjoy six months of steady national media coverage and the distinction of having mounted the most formidable independent campaign since Ross Perot in 1992.

Instead, the group couldn’t persuade anyone to become its candidate.

We’ve considered once before why No Labels was doomed to failure, the fondest wishes of casual American voters notwithstanding. But with 10 months of further reflection since then, it’s worth revisiting the subject. How did this project fall so far short of its ambitions that it failed to find a willing recipient for a gift-wrapped spot on the national presidential ballot?

I think they misunderstood why Americans are drawn to third parties in the first place.

There are certain prosaic reasons for why a third party will always underperform in American elections. Some are structural: As my colleagues at Dispatch Politics noted today, our winner-take-all system makes it almost impossible for independent presidential candidates to win electoral votes. 

Others are psychological. Everyone loves the idea of a third party in the abstract, when they’re free to ascribe their own pet policy preferences to it. But once a candidate is chosen and proposes a platform of his or her own, making the choice before voters concrete, the romance is troubled. That platform will inevitably prove unacceptably right-wing to some left-leaning voters and unacceptably left-wing to some right-leaning ones. There’s nowhere to go in polling but down.

Name recognition is also a problem. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are perhaps the two most famous men on Earth; unless a third party recruits a mega-celebrity to run, its nominee is destined to seem obscure by comparison and accordingly less worthy of the presidency. I admire Geoff Duncan, the former lieutenant governor of Georgia, for his principled conservative opposition to Trump, but as an independent candidate he would have been little more than a generic receptacle for centrist malcontents to park protest votes. And he knew it.

What was strange and unique about No Labels as a third-party effort, though, was that the group wasn’t primarily offering voters a policy vision or even a feel-good populist vehicle. What it was offering was normalcy, writ large. If you miss the days when the leaders of the two parties got along, more or less, and felt obliged to try to compromise for the sake of solving major problems as a matter of civic duty, boy, did they have the ticket for you.

That pitch is understandable in light of the data I presented earlier. But it’s also an odd place to be for a third party, which typically presents itself as a break from normalcy.

“No more business as usual” is the standard rallying cry for independents, underscoring their outsider status. That’s how Perot got traction in 1992. In an election that pitted a Yale-educated centrist who leaned right against a Yale-educated centrist who leaned left, Perot was the brash Texan populist upstart who wanted to shake things up. He had his hobby horses on policy, but I think he captured the public’s imagination mainly due to—for lack of a better word—his anti-establishment vibes. There would be no more business as usual under plain-spoken President Perot. A vote for him was a vote for a pox on both the major parties’ houses.

Contrast that with the No Labels rallying cry, which was, essentially, “let’s get back to business as usual.” Instead of seeking outsiders to carry their message, they looked to seasoned insiders like Joe Manchin and Larry Hogan. For them, bipartisanship in how the government is run seemed to be as much an end in itself as the policies that such a bipartisan government might produce. We don’t need a pox on both their houses, No Labels seemed to be saying, we need to bring the two houses together.

That’s an unusual posture for a third party. The Libertarian Party, for instance, has a very distinct policy vision that motivates it to place a candidate on the ballot every four years. And with respect to the two houses, they’re emphatically pro-pox.

In fairness, one can understand how “let’s get back to business as usual” might sound anti-establishmentarian in an era dominated by wacky populism and the reaction to it. If you want to shake things up in 2024, preaching bipartisanship, compromise, and Third Way policies arguably radiates stronger countercultural vibes than whatever the two parties are offering. Now that abnormalcy has become business as usual in American politics, a return to normalcy is the only way to break from it.

It’s a nice idea. But so long as voters’ appetite for Trump remains high, there’s no space electorally for that sort of thing.

The reason No Labels could never find someone willing to be its nominee is because each recruit came to recognize that competing for “normalcy” votes meant competing chiefly with Joe Biden, not with Donald Trump. A third-party campaign can gain traction when the stakes of an election are low, as they were in 1992, since the cost of the other party winning is minimal. If you liked Perot’s moxie, you could vote for him secure in the knowledge that centrist Republican George H.W. Bush or centrist Democrat Bill Clinton would end up running the country if your guy didn’t win.

A third-party campaign can’t get traction when the stakes of an election are high, though, as they are this year. The civic threat from the right is so great and so unusual that many voters who might have gambled on No Labels in a lower-stakes contest will default to Biden to maximize their chances of stopping it. He’s the normalcy candidate, unavoidably—as even the group’s executive director recognizes:

And insofar as Biden isn’t the normalcy candidate because his own presidency has led to some very abnormal economic developments in the context of recent American history, Trump is the normalcy candidate

Getting back to “business as usual,” in short, means either restoring the economy of 2019 or the pre-Trump constitutional baseline. There’s no room for No Labels’ bipartisan version of the concept. By mounting a campaign anyway, they would have guaranteed defeat for Biden and victory for the most abnormal presidential figure in American history, a man overtly vowing “retribution” against his political enemies upon his return to office.

Which would have been a weird legacy for a group ostensibly dedicated to normalcy.

There was another problem for No Labels, an unexpected one given how polarized Americans are over Trump and Biden. In theory that polarization should have given the group a wide lane to run up the middle on policy, staking out centrist positions to woo moderates alienated by the two major-party nominees.

But in practice, the two major-party nominees are pretty centrist themselves.

The great exception is immigration, of course, where the divide is vast. But on many other issues, Trump has begun tacking opportunistically toward the middle to court swing voters.

With respect to Israel, he’s moved toward the center by supporting the counteroffensive in Gaza while taking care to broadcast his discomfort with it.

With respect to abortion, he’s moved toward the center by denouncing Florida’s six-week ban as a “terrible thing” and appears poised to embrace a national 15-week ban that would leave practically all terminations federally protected.

With respect to Obamacare, he’s moved toward the center by abandoning the goal of repeal from his first term, now hoping to make the law “much better, stronger, and far less expensive” in his second.

With respect to entitlement reform and the federal debt, Trump has been in the center since 2016. He won’t touch either, a few mutterings about waste, fraud, and abuse aside.

There are a handful of issues he won’t compromise on, like the border, tariffs, making nice with autocrats, and the aforementioned “retribution.” But practically everything else on the policy menu is fair game for maneuvering, and why not? He commands his party with cultish authority, which will minimize defections among his base over his new ideological direction. And his turn to the middle appears to be earning him support from disaffected working-class Democrats who are tired of their own party’s ideological drift.

Trump’s brand of populism has triggered a national realignment within the electorate that very plausibly might end up netting the GOP votes on balance. As a matter of electoral self-interest, it’s not irrational for him to follow his instincts toward the center by transacting away traditional Republican orthodoxy on policies that aren’t dear to his heart.

So the allegedly wide lane No Labels had in the middle on policy is narrower than it might have anticipated originally. And it might yet shrink further as Biden himself begins pivoting toward the center as the campaign wears on.

Even if Trump and Biden had left room for the group to distinguish itself with a moderate agenda, though, I’m skeptical that that agenda would have gotten traction. Voters—at least the sort who might consider voting third-party—don’t seem to be driven primarily by policy. Consider the fact that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has cracked double digits in the five-way national average, a rare achievement for an independent candidate (especially one running against two presidents), and ask yourself: What policy positions have propelled him to this exalted state, exactly?

Skepticism of vaccines? Sure, partly, but vaccines are an awfully boutique issue to serve as a centerpiece in a national election.

Harsh criticism of Israel on Gaza? That’s fertile ground for an independent candidacy, certainly—but it’s not Kennedy’s position.

To the extent his appeal isn’t due entirely to voters mistaking his politics with his father’s, I think he’s succeeding in the fine tradition of third parties by running mostly on “no more business as usual” vibes. On the one hand, he’s pandering to disaffected leftists in claiming persecution by “the Democrat Political machine” and naming a wealthy ex-Democrat as his running mate. On the other hand, he’s playing footsie with right-wing populists by complaining about the “harsh treatment” of January 6 convicts and accusing Biden of being “a much worse threat to democracy” than Trump.

None of that has anything to do with policy but it all fits comfortably under the header of “anti-establishment.” RFK is the guy you vote for when you’re keen to send the strongest possible signal of radical resistance to Washington and to conventional wisdom more generally, not because you’ve carefully considered his environmental policy or whatever and are hoping to see it implemented. He’s a middle finger to the powers-that-be, the choice for those who embrace abnormalcy; no wonder Trump supplicants are worried about him stealing their guy’s thunder.

I suspect that’s how it’ll always be in American elections, too. Most centrist voters, offered a centrist third-party alternative, will ultimately talk themselves into sticking with the two major parties for strategic reasons. It’s the fringers who feel they have nothing to gain or lose by sustaining the two-party duopoly who are most willing to consider wasting their vote on a protest candidate.

That made No Labels’ prospects for success bleak. There’s a fair chance that their candidate, had they fielded one, would have finished behind Kennedy this fall.

With or without them, we’re left with an election in which policy differences seem to matter little despite the outcome of the election mattering momentously. Immigration will move votes, of course, as will the state of the economy come fall, but for millions of voters across the spectrum the race will be treated as a referendum on the question of “What kind of country do we want to be?” Ironically, that’s precisely the question No Labels itself had hoped to ask by mounting a campaign. The dynamics of the race made it impossible for it to be the answer.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.