There is just over a year left before the US presidential election. The outcome of the primaries seems almost a foregone conclusion: Democrats for sure nominate Joe Biden and the Republicans nominate Donald Trump. Fatigue from yet another round of struggle among these politicians could lead to the nomination of a third candidate with a moderate platform, and the political group No Labels is already raising funds for such a campaign. Meduza talks about past similar attempts and finds out if a centrist candidate has a chance and whether someone’s nomination can interfere with Biden or Trump.
American politics has always been dominated by two parties. They may change their ideology over time or fall apart, but only two of them always fight for victory in elections. First it was the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, then the first lost support, and the second was divided into Whigs and Democrats. In the middle of the 19th century, the Whig party split over different positions on slavery, and some of its members formed the Republican Party, which still dominates American politics along with the Democratic Party.
The two-party system is formed because of the rules for conducting elections. In addition to presidential elections, all elections in the United States take place in one round: the candidate who receives a simple majority of votes wins. Because of this, it is beneficial for politicians to join one of the two main parties, and it makes no sense for voters to waste their vote on alternative candidates. In political science, this phenomenon is known as Duverger’s law.
However, the existence of other parties in the United States is not prohibited, therefore, candidates from dozens of other associations are nominated at each election. Usually they are supported by a small part of the voters, but representatives of the Greenbacker, Populist, Socialist and Progressive parties have been elected to Congress several times. All of them eventually failed to get re-elected or joined the Democrats or Republicans. Occasionally, non-partisan politicians also get into Congress – for example, now there are two independent members in the Senate, including Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont.
Unlike other elections, US presidential elections are held in a two-stage system: the electoral college determines the president. It includes 538 people, distributed among the states in proportion to their population. Each elector must vote for the candidate who wins a simple majority in his state. To win, a candidate must receive more than half of the electoral votes. Such a system also stimulates the competition of the two parties and at the same time protects the elections from possible fraud.
Only once since the adoption of the current rules, the electoral college failed to elect a president: in 1824, four candidates ran in the election, and each won in several states. That year, the lower house of Congress determined the president by their vote. After that, candidates from “third parties” did not prevent the electors from electing the president, but several times they significantly confused the situation.
So, in 1860, before the Civil War, at least one state was also won by four candidates, and Abraham Lincoln needed 39.8% of the vote to get a majority in the Electoral College. And in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to return to the presidency, divided the Republican electorate and actually led Democrat Woodrow Wilson to victory. A similar situation occurred in the 1968 election, when former Democrat George Wallace helped Republican Richard Nixon win a landslide victory.
Since then, the most successful third candidate has been businessman Ross Perot, who won almost 20% of the popular vote in 1992. He did not win in any of the states and did not receive a single electoral vote. For many years there was a myth in American politics that Perot prevented the re-election of Republican George W. Bush, Sr., but in fact he took away votes from him and Democrat Bill Clinton, who won that election, about evenly.
After 1992, third candidates have always acted as spoilers. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College due to a 537-vote backlog in Florida; three million votes in that election—and nearly 100,000 in Florida—were won by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, whose adviser openly spoke of wanting to harm the Democrats. George W. Bush became president then.
A similar situation happened in the 2016 elections: Democrat Hillary Clinton received the majority of votes, but Republican Donald Trump beat her in the Electoral College. Once again, the blame was placed on the Green Party: its candidate, Jill Stein, won one and a half million votes, which would probably have been enough for Clinton to win.
Does the third candidate have a chance in 2024?
Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not very popular among the general US population, but they are supported by 80% of their party members, so they look like clear favorites in the primaries for the 2024 election. Perhaps this creates the conditions for a new attempt to nominate a third candidate. It is likely that noticeable alternatives to the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans will appear both to the left and to the right of them, but the centrists are launching the largest campaign.
The non-profit organization No Labels was founded in 2010 to strengthen cross-party dialogue. In 2017, with her mediation, Problem Solvers Caucus was founded, a mini-caucus in the House of Representatives, which includes about 60 centrist congressmen from both parties. Since its inception, the NPO has been led by former Democrat Nancy Robinson, and as of 2020, the board of directors includes former Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, known for their centrist views. Now No Labels is calling Biden and Trump too left and too right, respectively, and is planning to field its own moderate candidate. Possible names include a bank manager, former Republican governors, and even current Democratic senators.
The organization has already raised $70 million for a potential presidential campaign. This amount is comparable to the budget currently available to the headquarters of systemic politicians, but if they rely more on donations from ordinary citizens, then No Labels is mainly financed by representatives of large businesses. The group has already been able to register its candidate in Arizona, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon, and continues to collect signatures in other states, and even registers chapters in Florida and several other regions.
Indirect polling data points to a potential voter demand for centrist politicians. In a Gallup poll, 56% of respondents said they would like to see a powerful third party, and in an NBC News poll, 60% and 70% of respondents, respectively, opposed the nomination of Trump and Biden for various reasons. At the same time, according to some estimates, the real share of moderate independent voters among the electorate does not exceed 5%. In a poll commissioned by No Labels itself, Biden and Trump, long familiar to voters, were compared to an abstract centrist – and he still took third place by a wide margin. Researchers believe that the majority of independent voters in elections at the last moment choose between Democrats and Republicans.
The third candidate will certainly not be able to impose a fight on Biden and Trump, but it may well help one of them. Democratic congressmen in the Problem Solvers Caucus have already said they will support Biden’s re-election, and the No Labels candidate has been called a spoiler that will help Trump win. The White House, too, sees the centrist as a threat and is even negotiating with anti-Trump Republicans in the hope of preventing a moderate candidate from running. No Labels denies these accusations: the NGOs believe that the centrist will take away votes from both parties and be able to win. According to pollsters from HarrisX, he will need to gain 37% of the votes for this.
Can someone else come forward?
Even if No Labels drops the idea of nominating their own candidate, Trump and Biden won’t be the only ones in the race. As with every election, hundreds of obscure politicians or pranksters apply to run, even if almost all of them fail to qualify for the ballot in most states. This has already happened and now.
The most notable of these candidates is the activist and philosopher Cornel West, who positions himself as a Christian socialist. He is a candidate for the left-wing People’s Party and plans to enlist the support of the Green Party, and Jill Stein, who was nominated in 2016, is already helping him campaign. Democrats call West another spoiler who can take away votes from Biden.
In addition, those politicians who lose the primaries can also go to the polls. Among the Democrats, Robert Kennedy, Jr., an ardent anti-vaxxer, may decide to do this. While he himself was unknown, about 20% of Democrats told pollsters that they could vote for him in the primaries: the famous surname helped. Now, due to a series of scandals, his rating among Democrats has fallen, but many Republicans have begun to like him. His campaign raised six and a half million dollars, also thanks largely to conservatives.
It may well be nominated independently and one of the Republicans now participating in the primaries. The party apparatus requires all participants in the debate – they will be held on August 23 – to promise to support the winner, but so far neither Trump nor many of his competitors have signed the document.
However, if Trump wins the primaries, even those Republicans who want to purposefully harm him can run for president. The most common potential spoiler is former Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who after criticizing Trump was stripped of her post in the faction and then expelled from the party for her role in the investigation into the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. She herself does not exclude the possibility of her nomination and declares that she considers it necessary to prevent Trump from returning to the White House.