Third Parties

The Real Worry Behind the Unhinged Freakout Over No Labels

No amount of third-party/RFK Jr. shaming can erase the fact that Joe Biden is a weak and unpopular incumbent.


On Monday, award-winning presidential historian turned social-media anti-fascism sentinel Michael Beschloss tweeted out that it's "entirely possible that a 2024 third-party candidate could, intentionally or not, tip this nation toward a fascist Presidential autocracy." To which the famed Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe added, "Third party candidates like [Robert F. Kennedy Jr.], Cornel West, possibly Joe Manchin, are the biggest threat to our survival as a free people who govern ourselves."

RFK Jr. is actually competing in the Democratic primary; Cornel West is seeking the nomination from one party that has virtually no ballot access and another (the Green Party) whose appearance on presidential ballots has tumbled from 45 in 2016 to 30 in 2020 to currently 15. Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.), meanwhile, told reporters Monday that any decision to mount a No Labels third-party presidential bid will be made "next year"; No Labels Co-Chair Joe Lieberman over the weekend said that "if the polling next year shows, after the two parties have chosen their nominees, that in fact we will help elect one or another candidate, we're not going to get involved."

And yet Democratic Party anxieties, however hyperbolic, are not groundless. President Joe Biden is as broadly unpopular at this point in his administration as his one-term predecessor. Concerns over Biden's age and mental fitness are not being mollified by the presence on the 2024 ticket of the historically unpopular Vice President Kamala Harris. Even after successfully putting the squeeze on all potential challengers except for two candidates from the comparative fringe, Biden is facing the most numerically significant internal challenge to an incumbent Democratic president since 1980.

All of this weakness has been made possible not through the electoral bids of Kennedy, West, Marianne Williamson, and potentially (though I'll take the under) Manchin next year, but rather through the persistently inconvenient fact that Democratic voters wish they had another choice besides ol' Joe.

"Depending on the poll," FiveThirtyEight noted earlier this month, "somewhere between one-third and half [of Democrats] have said they don't want him to run again—as have a clear majority of independents."

That bad math clears a path. But for what?

The third-party bogeyman haunting Tribe's dreams has mostly been a pussycat ever since Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the 2016 presidency, in an election featuring the highest combined non-Democratic/non-Republican vote (5.73 percent) in two decades. (While many Democrats remain convinced that the Green Party's Jill Stein and her 1.07 percent of the popular vote cost Hillary Clinton the election that year, many Democrats remain wrong.)

Faced post-2016 with intense negative polarization and the widespread fear that Trump is either an existential threat to democracy or the undeserving scapegoat of institutional elites, voter turnout boomed in the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election, and the 2022 midterms, while shrinking the third-party electorate in the 2020 race by two-thirds. For as long as Trump has remained an active threat—and he's still polling nationally more than 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest GOP competitor—Trump-averse independent-leaners have mostly resisted the temptation to vote rogue.

What's more, the potential recipients of any protest vote are experiencing some wobbles of their own. The Libertarian Party (L.P.), the undisputed number-three political party in America for the past dozen years (including the 2022 midterms), has experienced a higher-than-usual amount of internal and legal conflict ever since the "takeover" of L.P. leadership by its Mises Caucus last year, though it remains to be seen whether the 1 percent or so of people who reliably vote Libertarian care or even know.

The L.P. certainly maintains its massive membership and ballot-access leads over the rapidly deteriorating number-four bloc, the Green Party. The Constitution Party has been in yearslong decline; Kanye West's Birthday Party doesn't seem built to last, and Andrew Yang's Forward Party is so far on the ballot only in Florida. The one grassroots grouping demonstrably on the grow—the socially conservative, fiscally liberal American Solidarity Party, which just nominated Peter Sonski for president—is not exactly generating panic attacks in Georgetown, and at any rate is more likely to attract voters who are sympathetic to Trumpism but find him a bit too crass.

No Labels is an odd duck in that it's a political party with no candidates, throwing money at ballot access in a half-dozen states without having any faces (or matching campaign finance disclosure requirements) to go along with it. The idea that a top-down grouping of mostly ex-politician moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats could amass a war chest but still hold off until Super Tuesday next March, then suddenly flip the switch on a meaningful yet designed-not-to-tip-the-election presidential bid, seems far-fetched.

Beyond the very expensive logistics and exhausting media contortions required, there is the not-insignificant problem that the centrist moneybags lane of presidential politics over the past half-decade is full of carcasses: Evan McMullin, Larry Hogan, John Kasich, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Weld, and American Renewal, for starters. The bipartisan middle of the road is an excellent place to get run over. Manchin is an expert at using political leverage; my guess is that he'll spend the next half-year negotiating terms for standing down.

Biden is weak, but so are the conditions for a third-party or independent presidential run, at least as long as Trump remains a main character in American politics. So what might flip the latter dynamic? I can think of three scenarios, though the third has many variations:

1) Joe Biden's fitness declines noticeably, yet the Democrats don't change their ticket. FiveThirtyEight's Geoffrey Skelley is right—Dems may wish the president wasn't running for reelection, but that doesn't mean they don't like him; Biden's intraparty approval has remained solidly between 80 percent and 87 percent this year, per Gallup.

But that support is just one serious fall away from eroding into a frantic search for a replacement. If the party were to treat any visible degradation the same way it treated Sen. John Fetterman's (D–Pa.) stroke—nothing to see here, all is well—then the same Trump-fueled electability panic that finally made Biden a viable presidential candidate in 2019 after four decades of trying may come back to bite him. And if they were to replace him with Kamala Harris, then Katie, bar the door.

The prospect of an enfeebled Biden is surely why California Gov. Gavin Newsom is loudly cracking his knuckles on the sidelines. But if the national party in that case sticks with Biden, or elevates Harris, then you could see a Manchin-led No Labels entering the fray post–Super Tuesday to the potential detriment of the Democrats. In that triple-if context, the Democrats' chief culprit would be staring at them in the mirror.

2) It's Biden vs. Trump vs. Justin Amash. I have no idea whether the former Libertarian congressman will seek his party's presidential nomination, nor what his odds would be to win it in a Mises Caucusified Libertarian Party. But I do know that Biden will be a creaky 81 years old on Election Day and Trump a sloppy 78, while Amash would be clocking in at a fit 44.

It's not just the age, it's the familiarity—there is nothing Americans have left to learn about the two major-party front-runners, save perhaps for what gets discovered in various trials and congressional investigations. Biden and Trump have both been underwater with political independents since almost immediately after their respective presidential inaugurations, with little hope of ever rebounding. Amash is an impressive and energetic thinker and speaker, particularly in front of skeptical crowds, and he's fluent in Millennial. The contrast would be startling.

Assuming for the moment that the Biden vs. Trump headline race is still plausibly close, that rules out a No Labels run (if you take Lieberman at his word), so then the question becomes: How does the presence of Amash on 40-plus ballots and maybe Cornel West on 20 affect the race?

West, even with his heightened celebrity compared to 2020 Green candidate Howie Hawkins, would be leaning into the strong headwinds of the post-Stein backlash among Democrats, while appearing on fewer ballots. Amash, however, could eat significantly into the portion of the youth electorate not already cemented into the Democratic coalition.

We know that 2016 exit polls showed that 55 percent of Gary Johnson voters, when asked what they would have done had the Libertarian not been on the ballot, said they would have stayed at home, while 25 percent said they would have voted for Hillary Clinton, 15 percent for Trump. We also have excellent reason to suspect that the people who voted third-party in 2016 but major-party in 2020 voted overwhelmingly, perhaps election-tippingly, for Biden. Finally, we can presume that Trump's blizzard of legal troubles will not cause him to increase in attractiveness among Republicans, and Amash spent more than a decade in public office as an elected Republican (one who was critical of Trump's behavior on legal grounds).

So, your guess is as good as mine.

3) Trump is not the Republican nominee. Behind this door #3 there are so many sub-scenarios and potential dramatics that just listing them all would take another thousand words. But the two biggest new realities this development would introduce would be that the anti-Trump panic binding the Democratic-voting coalition would relax, and most of all that a large rump of Republican voters would be actively pissed off at their own party.

Which bloc do you think is larger: Nose-holding former Democratic voters willing in a Trumpless universe to take a flyer on a Green/Libertarian/No Labels candidate, or disaffected Trumpies who can't forgive Ron DeSantis or whoever, and now seek a protest vote?

Here is where the war gaming gets weird. If there is no right-populist on the ballot, then the L.P. may be sorely tempted to run one. And RFK Jr., after having tasted some polling success and attracted an ideologically diverse flock of admirers, may start shopping around for potential ballot access. Beschloss and co. may be worried that a third-party RFK Jr. run would tip America toward autocratic fascism, but it's not hard to imagine such a scenario attracting Trump voters and helping deliver reelection to an ancient Biden.

The vast majority of Americans will have more than two names on their presidential ballot, as has reliably been the case for most of my lifetime. If major parties and their enthusiasts in the press and academia want to dissuade voters from supporting minor candidates, then they should consider taking heed of their nominees' massive unfavorability ratings, rather than accusing free individuals exercising their franchise of ushering in American fascism.