WASHINGTON – A rematch betweenJoe BidenandDonald Trump?
No thanks, a majority of voters have said inpollafterpollafterpoll.
But what if there was an alternative?
Elections are, after all, all about choices.
The bipartisan group No Labels, a nonprofit organization that promotes centrist politics and policies, has launched a campaign to get a third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states innext year’s presidential election. The group already has secured a place on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon.
The movement, which has yet to settle on a candidate, is funded by $70 million from donors whose names the group refuses to disclose. The possibility of an independent candidate is causing consternation among Democrats and even some Republicans, who fear a third-party ticket would siphon off votes from Biden and send Trump back to the White House for another four years.
“There is, in our view, no greater threat to America than the potential reelection of Trump,” said Matt Bennett, founder of Third Way, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for center-left policies.
A third-party challenger can’t win the presidency – it hasn’t happened in the country’s 247-year history, and it won’t happen in 2024, Bennett said. But a third-party candidate could act as a spoiler and increase Trump’s odds of winning again, he said.
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A voice for centrists or a spoiler for Trump?
No Labels counters that it has been unjustly maligned and that its motivations unreasonably questioned.
The goal, the group’s leaders insist, is simply to give another option to moderate voters who are turned off by extremists in politics and dissatisfied with the choices offered to them by the major political parties.
“The center needs a voice in this country,” said Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic operative who was one of the group’s founders and serves as its chief executive officer.
No Labels has no interest in serving as a spoiler for Trump, believes such concerns are unfounded and would even withdraw its ticket if it feels it’s in danger of putting the former president back in office, the group says.
“Donald Trump should never again be president of the United States,” two of the group’s advisers, former Connecticut Sen.Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, and Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP, wrote in a recent op-ed.
At the same time, “a growing commonsense majority” is exhausted “by the politics of grievance and victimhood,” they wrote. “They seek unity and cooperation. And they believe our country can do so much better than the choices of the election we seem headed for in 2024.”
No Labels insists it’s not even certain it will offer a presidential ticket next year. The objective is to field a “unity ticket” of one Democrat and one Republican, but a final decision won’t made until sometime between the Super Tuesday primaries next March and a convention of the group’s supporters in Dallas next April.
What’s more, the group would pursue a third-party ticket only if voters continue to be dissatisfied with the Democratic and Republican nominees, said Ryan Clancy, No Labels chief strategist.
“The end game here is not running an independent ticket,” Clancy said. “The end game is making sure that Americans have the choice of strong, effective and honest leaders that they actually feel good about voting for and that they think are going to govern with common sense.”
Whatever its rationale, No Labels’ pursuit of a third-party option has caused strife even within the organization. William Galston, another of the group’s founders, resigned in April after questioning the wisdom of its launching third-party campaign.
“My judgment is that an independent third-party candidacy would make Donald Trump’s return to the White House more likely, not less likely,” Galston said. “I decided I had to act on that belief.”
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What is No Labels?
No Labels, based in Washington, was founded in 2010 – the year after the arrival of the Tea Party movement – with the goal of promoting bipartisanship and countering the influence that extremists on both the left and the right wield on the nation’s political system. One of the organization’s most notable achievements was its role in the founding of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the House who work to foster bipartisan cooperation on policies.
Putting up a third-party candidate for president will be a much bigger challenge and, if history is any indication, probably a quixotic exercise. No third-party candidate has ever come close to winning the presidency, but No Labels senses that dissatisfaction with Biden and Trump could provide a viable path to victory in 2024.
“What we think is changing,” Clancy said, “is this vast majority of people who maybe five years ago might not have been that engaged, they're starting to recognize that if they don't start to show up, if they don't get on the playing field, then they leave it to the loudest, angriest voices – and things just keep getting worse.”
The group’s own polling shows that as many as 59% of Americans would consider a moderate, independent candidate for president next year. The same polling suggests that such a ticket would evenly pull voters from the Democratic and Republican nominees – contradicting the conventional wisdom that Biden would take a bigger hit than Trump.
With that in mind, No Labels has begun laying the groundwork to guarantee ballot access for a third-party ticket in every state.
In 34 states, a group that collects enough signatures can hold a spot on the ballot for a candidate to be named later. In the remainder of states, the candidates themselves must secure a place on the ballot.
No Labels’ plan is to gain ballot access for a unity ticket by the first quarter of 2024 in every state where that’s possible, Clancy said.
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How have third-party candidates fared in other elections?
No Labels is refusing to disclose who is putting up the $70 million to secure slots on the state ballots, saying only that its donors hail from across the country and across the political spectrum. The group is keeping the donors’ names private, it says, to protect them from intimidation, harassment and threats of violence it has faced since announcing its presidential project.
Because it’s a nonprofit and isn’t registered as a political organization, No Labels isn’t required under federal law to release its list of donors.
While it is working to guarantee a third-party option, No Labels says it has no interest in actually running a presidential campaign. Once a ticket is selected, that responsibility would fall to the candidate and his or her team, Clancy said.
Critics like Bennett remain convinced that a third-party ticket would be nothing more than a spoiler. It has happened before.
The last time a former president tried to recapture the office was in 1912, when RepublicanTeddy Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose Partyjust four years after leaving the White House.
Roosevelt was one of the most popular presidents in history – his face would be carved into Mount Rushmore just a few years later – but he didn’t come close to winning again. Roosevelt captured 88 electoral votes and more than 27% of the popular vote, far short of what he needed to win the presidency. But his candidacy split the GOP vote and helped send the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to the White House.
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Other third-party candidates – notablyRoss Perot in 1992andRalph Nader in 2000– commanded considerable attention but failed to win a single electoral vote.
Perot was accused at the time of costing Republican George H.W. Bush a second term, although more recent analyses have suggested that he pulled votes from both Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, the winner. Nader, running as the Green Party nominee in 2000, won more than 97,000 votes in Florida – a state thatDemocrat Al Gore lostby 537 votes, costing him the presidency in a close election.The two-party system is so entrenched in U.S. politics that partisan affiliations are an important part of Americans’ political identities and largely drive voting patterns, Galston said. Voters may tell pollsters they’re open to a third-party ticket, but when they get in the voting booth, they often stick with one of the major party candidates because they don’t want to throw their vote away.
But if next year’s election is as close as polls suggest it could be, even a tiny percentage of voters who choose a third-party candidate over Biden in a few key states could swing the race to Trump, Bennett said.
“It really doesn’t take much,” he said.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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