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The Third-Party Paradox
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The Third-Party Paradox

An independent choice has never been more appealing. Or more dangerous.

Sen. Joe Manchin on September 22, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The occasion of a righteous new Dispatch editorial presenting the moral case against Donald Trump is a fine time to consider the question, “What, then, is to be done?”

How should a conscientious citizen vote next year if Republicans insist on nominating a twice-impeached, twice-indicted putsch-pusher?

They should vote for Biden, our centrist and left-leaning readers will say, annoyed. Okay, but understand that that requires no small amount of cognitive agita in someone who leans conservative on most policy issues. I overcame it in 2020 and will do so again in 2024 if offered a binary choice involving Trump, but it sure would be nice—in theory—if there were a third option.

A liberal-ish Republican, say. Or a conservative-ish Democrat. Or a ticket with one of each.

What if I told you there might be?

The centrist group No Labels is aggressively collecting signatures to meet the ballot requirements in all 50 states and fundraising toward that end. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, America’s most well-known moderate Republican, is national co-chair of the organization; Sen. Joe Manchin is closely associated with it as well, often appearing on its conference calls with donors.

How does a Manchin/Hogan ticket sound to my fellow anti-Trump righties? Or a pairing of Hogan and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema? More conservative than Joe Biden, less likely to midwife a dictatorship than Donald Trump: The No Labels option is right in the sweet spot for we, the politically homeless.

Why, just thinking about it makes me …

It makes me want to drink Drano, actually.

Not in many years has the moment seemed as ripe for a credible third-party option as it does now.

For most of my life, the presidential election was a choice between two competing visions for the country. In 2024, it’ll be a choice based on which candidate seems less mentally crippled.

More than 60 percent of Americans believe the sitting president lacks the mental sharpness or physical health to serve effectively in a second term. His likely opponent stands a fair chance of having to wear an ankle monitor when he gives his acceptance speech at next summer’s Republican convention.

The logic is straightforward: The less appetizing the two major-party candidates are, the stronger the case for a third-party candidate becomes.

Recent polling bears that out. No Labels has been telling everyone who’ll listen that their nominee stands a real chance of winning the presidency, and new data from Suffolk suggests they might be onto something.

Clearly there’s a market for an alternative. As I write this on Thursday morning, in fact, the two frontrunners for the presidency are each below 40 percent in favorability in the RealClearPolitics average. The prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch has left the great and good people of the United States ready to ralph. Et voila: It’s Joe Manchin time.

It isn’t, though. Because the supposedly straightforward logic of third-party viability isn’t just wrong, it’s backward. Third parties don’t thrive when voters strongly disapprove of their choices. They thrive when voters don’t feel strongly about those choices either way.

The best performance by an independent candidate in recent American history came from Ross Perot, of course, who managed to win almost 19 percent of the vote in 1992. He did that at the expense of two squishy establishmentarians, Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. By comparison, given a choice in 2016 between two despised figures in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Americans handed a mere 5 percent or so of their votes cumulatively to upstarts like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

If third parties perform better when the major-party candidates are hated, 2016 should have been the year that an independent broke out. But it wasn’t, because hatred isn’t the soil in which successful independents grow. To say that Clinton and Trump were “hated” is true but really just another way of saying that voters on each side had strong feelings about not letting the other party’s candidate become president.

And voters with strong feelings don’t throw away their votes on longshot candidates. They vote strategically, which means holding their nose and sticking with their own party’s nominee. It’s when they don’t have strong preferences, as in the case of Bush and Clinton, that they might feel comfortable rolling the dice on a longshot.

This is the third-party paradox. When voters are most disgusted with the Democratic and Republican nominees, that’s when independents are least viable.

And, potentially, most dangerous.

1992 was a good environment for a third-party challenge, but not an ideal one.

Bill Clinton had a bit too much charisma to be overwhelmed on the stump by Perotmania and Democrats were too hungry for power after having been routed in the previous three presidential elections to divert their votes to a dynamic third-party figure. But had Clinton been less appealing, and had his party held the White House more recently than 1976, it’s anyone’s guess how much better Perot might have done.

Low electoral stakes are good for independents. High electoral stakes, in which one or both nominees are deemed unfit ideologically or psychologically, are bad.

The 2024 election will not be low stakes. To the contrary. And so not only will the No Labels nominee not win the presidency, he or she won’t come close.

The Suffolk data doesn’t contradict that. All it tells us, really, is that a meaningful number of Americans would prefer a generic third-party candidate with undefined views to Biden and Trump. If I told you to imagine your dream politician, who shares all of your own policy preferences, then asked you if you preferred him or her to the two major-party nominees, you’d surely say yes. But what would that prove?

Joe Manchin, God love him, is no one’s dream candidate. If he ran, his polling would inevitably shrink as undecideds became more familiar with his views. He couldn’t win.

But he could, of course, play spoiler. For one party, not the other.

The No Labels theory of the case is that Manchin or Hogan would run up the middle, capturing the broad disaffected center while Biden and Trump slavishly pander to their respective bases. For that to work, though, there would need to be a roughly equal share of persuadable moderates in each party willing to abandon their nominee for the independent challenger. There isn’t. Strong support for Trump on the right and tepid support for Biden on the left ensures that most votes for Manchin would come out of the Democratic column.

Numerous observers have run the numbers on this point and politely informed No Labels that you imbeciles are going to get Trump reelected. William Galston helped found the organization in 2010 but resigned earlier this year when its executives refused to abandon their effort to mount a third-party challenge next year. He knows how this movie ends, and it’s ugly.

According to Gallup, just over half of today’s rank-and-file Democrats identify as liberal or very liberal, compared with nearly three-quarters of Republicans who call themselves conservative or very conservative. A center-seeking candidate would therefore appeal to more Democrats than Republicans, and a winning Democratic coalition would include far more moderates—including moderate independents—than a Republican coalition.

Another indicator of asymmetry between the parties: Republicans are more enthusiastic about Donald Trump than Democrats are about Joe Biden. In a recent survey, only 53% of Democrats said they want Mr. Biden to run again, compared with 61% of Republicans who said the same about Mr. Trump. Democrats will overwhelmingly support the president if the only alternative is the former president, but unenthusiastic Democrats—who are more numerous than unenthusiastic Republicans—may seriously consider a third option.

An analyst at Third Way, another centrist group, buttressed the argument against a No Labels run in a piece published in December. The enthusiasm gap between Trump and Biden is real, she noted: Whereas 56 percent of those who viewed Biden favorably before the last election described themselves as “very favorable,” 69 percent of those favorable to Trump described themselves the same way.

And among voters who didn’t like either candidate in 2020, Biden cleaned up. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost the “double hater” bloc to Trump by 17 points. That group swung the other way four years later, with Biden winning them by 15. Analysts Al From and Craig Fuller note that a recent Wall Street Journal poll found Biden currently ahead by 39 points among voters who disapprove of how both he and Trump handled the presidency.

Offer those “double haters” a palatable third-party choice in 2024 and instead of holding their noses to vote for Biden they might switch to Joe Manchin instead. “In all [five key 2020 swing states], at least 1 in 3 Biden voters said they voted mainly against Trump; in Wisconsin, that number was 38 percent; in Arizona (where No Labels has already secured a spot on the 2024 ballot) a whopping 45 percent,” From and Fuller go on to say. Subtracting those voters from Biden’s total would almost surely guarantee a Trump victory, bearing in mind that just 44,000 votes across three states prevented a 269-269 deadlock in the Electoral College last time.

No Labels is going to turn an election that should be a referendum on Trump’s fitness among undecided voters into a choice. Jittery Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are already wargaming ways to try to stop them, including filing lawsuits to try to have them thrown off the ballot in swing states.

What are they thinking?

It’s so clear that a centrist third-party candidate would hurt the party that isn’t a cult while helping the one that is that we’re left to wonder whether No Labels is quietly in the tank for Trump. That they want him to be reelected so that America can at long last experience the magic of a Justice Department run by Jeffrey Clark.

I don’t think they’re in the tank. But in light of old tweets like this one, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

The CEO of No Labels told Politico that the group probably won’t run a candidate next year if Ron DeSantis is the Republican nominee, but … why? DeSantis is running farther to the right than Trump is on policy, leaving an even broader hypothetical middle available for a third-party nominee to pick from. He’s growing more unpopular by the day too; there’s a nonzero chance that his national favorable rating will be lower than Trump’s by the end of the primary.

Is No Labels in the tank? Or have they somehow fooled themselves into believing that Trump has grown so wacky in his conduct that even a sizable share of Republicans will opt for an independent alternative next November, something that’s less likely with the less wacky DeSantis as nominee?

If so, they’ve succumbed to the foolish conventional wisdom that the more polarizing the major-party nominees are, the better an independent challenger will fare. Trump is more polarizing than DeSantis, certainly, but it’s precisely because he is that most Trump-hating swing voters will feel obliged to stick with Joe Biden instead of switching to Joe Manchin. No Labels can spoil Biden’s chances of winning, in other words, but fear and loathing of Trump assures that they’ll never approach the share of the vote they’d need to win the election.

Ironically, in other words, the Republican Party under Trump has become so dangerous as to render voting for an appealing nonpartisan centrist alternative unconscionable. And everyone except No Labels itself seems to understand it.

If they proceed anyway with their scheme to place someone on the ballot in states like Arizona, they’ll have no excuse for the outcome.

Ralph Nader had an excuse for running in 2000, sort of. It’s hard to believe in 2023 but there were no truly close presidential elections in the United States between 1976 and 2000. The smallest margin of victory in that span was Bill Clinton’s 5.5 percentage point advantage in 1992, a number that looks gaudy by modern standards. Nader may have run never imagining that his meager share of the vote might decide the presidency.

Excuses can also be made for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in 2016. None but the most diehard Trump fanatics believed that the Republican nominee stood a chance that fall. That America might entrust the most important job in the world to a buffoonish game-show host who would never be granted a security clearance on the merits (for good reason) seemed unimaginable. And so 2016 became an everybody-into-the-pool cycle for independent candidates, a chance to contrast one’s preferred ideology with the milquetoast neoliberalism of soon-to-be-President Hillary.

Nothing is unimaginable anymore. Donald Trump delivering a victory speech on Election Night from his cell in a federal penitentiary is unlikely but no longer unimaginable as The Greatest Country In The World sinks further into decadence.

Here’s the most No Labels is willing to do to reassure non-authoritarians that it won’t help bring about the Trumpocalypse. “If we find that the polls are changed and Joe Biden is way, way out ahead, and the person who the Republicans may choose—and if they continue to choose Donald Trump, even though he’s been indicted—then No Labels will stand down,” co-chair Benjamin Chavis told NBC on Thursday.

There is plainly no scenario in which a president with an approval rating that’s chronically in the low 40s, whom most of the country believes to be senile, will be “way, way out ahead” of Trump next year. Even if the polls did show that, we know from painful experience that surveys showing Biden “way, way out ahead” overestimate his strength against Trump. The numbers in 2020 predicted a Democratic blowout. In the end, the margin was effectively 44,000 votes.

But hey: It’s a free country. If No Labels can get on the ballot, they have every right to run. I just hope it’s worth it to them to become, overnight, the most hated people in America when they end up ending American democracy for the sake of helping Joe Manchin win 6 percent of the vote or whatever. Good luck, fellas.

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.