Room for a Third Lane in 2024

By Rafael Hoffman

No Labels rally on Capitol Hill, July 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

An increasingly popular refrain from voters in recent election cycles has been a sense of disappointment that those at the top of Republican and Democratic tickets provided little more than a choice of who constitutes the less offensive candidate.

The year 2024 seems to be shaping up to be a new high for such sentiments as the Democratic presumptive candidate, President Joseph Biden, and the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, both share the distinction of national approval ratings below 50%.

Gathering attention is a group mulling over a path to give voters another choice, No Labels. The organization was founded in 2009 by a set of former politicians, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, to work against polarization in America. Now, No Labels is engaged in an exploratory campaign at offering a centrist third-party ticket to run for President in 2024.

A set of polls conducted for the group by HarrisX presents a promising picture for their endeavor. Out of 26,000 registered voters across 50 states, 69% said they did not want President Biden to run again; 62% said the same of Mr. Trump; 59% of respondents said that in the event of a Trump-Biden race, they would consider voting for a centrist independent candidate. Positive respondents to the question included 59% of Democrats, 53% of Republicans, and 70% of independents.

Against this seemingly promising backdrop, No Labels held a town meeting last week in New Hampshire to roll out what it billed as a “blueprint for where America’s common-sense majority wants the country to go.” The event was addressed by West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III and former Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Both names have been discussed as possible candidates for the ticket. Others include former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a moderate and outspokenly anti-Trump Republican who remained highly popular while leading a deep blue state.

A 63-page No Labels position paper struck an optimistic note. It offered some original ideas on topics like federal budget reduction and Social Security and tried mightily to strike out middle-of-the-road positions on hot button issues.

Modern American political history has not seen any successful third-party presidential candidates. The one who came the closest was Ross Perot who garnered close to 20% of the vote in 1992. He won no electoral votes, but many posit that his candidacy was a decisive factor in denying President George HW Bush a second term and handing victory to President Bill Clinton.

No Label’s attempt has elicited a great deal of skepticism with most experts saying that the groundwork does not exist for a competitive third-party run. Democrats and mainstream media reacted with particular aversion to the idea, with some casting the group as a cover for disaffected Republicans. These voices also express concern that a centrist candidate could likely have a “spoiler” effect, handing the election to Mr. Trump.

Samuel Abrams

No Label’s leaders, who have not yet committed to a run, have said that they do not want to be spoilers for either side and will only join the race if they see a viable path to victory.

To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon potentially shaping up in the 2024 contest, Hamodia spoke with Samuel Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and senior fellow at the America Enterprise Institute.

Most Americans want neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump to be candidates for the presidency, but that looks like the most likely match-up for 2024. Does that create the groundwork needed for a centrist third-party candidate?

Definitely not. For better or worse, the two parties are incredibly powerful. They are the only ones that have the infrastructure on the state and federal level to run and win elections. Third parties have tried to organize and mount challenges over the years, but they often run into logistical and financial issues to get on ballots across the various states.

So, while more people are increasingly frustrated by the choices those two parties give them and say that we need more options, the polling shows how difficult this would be to achieve.

The reality is that third parties do not last. Not only that, but they rarely have the effect that voters want. Anybody old enough to remember the 1992 election recalls that Ross Perot had little effect on the issues being debated, but likely played a significant role in Bush losing to Clinton.

If the goal is to mount an alternative, the whole thing is just very unlikely to work.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What about the political map of America makes it so difficult for a third-party candidate, especially given the unpopularity of the two likely major party options?

If their goal is to mount a middle-of-the-road option, it’s unlikely that there is a way to successfully do that. If you look at the country, there is a middle, but it’s not clear how to mobilize it or whether there’s a big enough lane to make a real campaign and bring people to the center from the right and left of that middle.

I was actually present when No Labels was founded in New York City close to 15 years ago. It was a big meeting with a lot of important people there, and I was especially interested since it was when I had already started writing about political polarization in America.

But the reality is that they really have not been a powerful force at all. It’s interesting that they’re even getting this level of attention.

That being said, it would be nice to see candidates move to the middle. The dominant elections paradigm used to be, focus on your base to win the nomination, and then aim for the center in the general election. That began to change significantly 40-50 years ago, and now the model is, secure your base and then shift a bit towards the center. The extremes are more powerful and electorally reliable than the middle at present.

But I just don’t see a viable way to change that right now. Americans might not be as knowledgeable of their political history as they should be, but they’re not fools. They’re smart enough to see that this gambit can’t produce a real winner and they’ll want to vote for someone who could actually be President, not a spoiler.

I think today, it would have been much harder for Ross Perot to do what he did. Internet news and social media make voters very in touch with where trends and polls are going. They have a lot more tools to make the calculation of who can win.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Is there a path to create a platform that attracts the center of the country, despite the fact that even among this group those right or left of center have some very different views on contentious questions?

The answer is that it can’t. They have to come up with a platform. To do that, they need to deal with issues. Their most salient issue is polarization itself. But that polarization is a reality.

There are a lot of American voters who see the present polarization as dysfunction, but a No Labels candidate would need to have a position on all sorts of divisive issues, a slew of social progressive issues, the environment, gun control, crime, and so on. These voters have opinions on these issues, and they will have to come down on the right or left of them.

Manchin and some of the other people that are part of these discussions are very smart and they recognize the challenge this entails. That’s why I would be very surprised to see him or some of the other big names really commit to a run.

No Labels may be under the impression that they can peel off support from the parties. The fact is that the Republicans are very splintered now with old-fashioned hawkish Reagan types, some traditionalists, fiscal conservative moderates, and some others that are not happy with the Trump populism. Democrats have some old-fashioned liberals that are not on board for the progressive package they’ve been offering. I presume No Labels thinks they can peel off big pieces of these constituencies. But I just don’t see a platform that can bring these groups together. They disagree when it comes to a lot of fundamentals.

It’s a frustrating situation where a lot of people are not happy with the status quo, but there is no easy way to change it.

Then-President George H.W. Bush (L) talks with independent candidate Ross Perot as Democratic candidate Bill Clinton stands aside at the end of their second presidential debate in Richmond, Va., Oct. 15, 1992. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)

Is there a longer-term path that No Labels or a group like them could take to have more say in American politics?

If you could find charismatic candidates and billions in funding, over time, you could put forward a centrist slate that could moderate American politics. That might mean some of those candidates would win. Perhaps more importantly, it could make the major parties respond and move themselves in more moderate directions.

But to have any real effect, you would have to start small at the state and local level, maybe even in Congressional elections, to build a base and a record of success before you attempt a national presidential election. It would be something like a 12- or 16-year project, three to four election cycles, before you can think about that. In the meantime, these candidates would need a lot of dollars to keep them afloat, which takes commitment from an enthusiastic donor base.

It is possible, though it hasn’t happened for a long time. Going back to the Federalists and Whigs, the early Republicans, there were shifts in the country’s major parties. You can have a third party that over a series of elections cycles overtakes an existing one. We’ve never seen it play out in modern American politics, but it’s definitely possible.

That would be a strategy, but it’s not the one being articulated now. What No Labels is presently proposing is to make this change from the top in one election cycle.

Since No Labels presumably recognizes these challenges, what do you think their goal is?

I think they know that they don’t have a viable path, but they want to take the opportunity to make some noise. It’s not a bad move. People are looking for change and it has to start somewhere, so stir the pot and see what happens. They won’t say so out loud, but I suspect that even now, the real No Labels goal is to get Republicans and Democrats to moderate, not to win the White House.

Successful movements don’t come out of nowhere. If you look at what the progressive left or the anti-Israel movement has accomplished on campuses, this sentiment percolated for over a decade in certain departments before they became so powerful.

But, just like they did, you have to work bottom up.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Special Diabetes Program on July 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for JDRF)

Democrats seem particularly concerned about the spoiler effect No Labels could have on the election. Why do they seem more worried about this than Republicans?

Biden has a fairly successful record. Whether you agree with him on policy or not, he’s been pretty effective in implementing his agenda. But the fact is that, by the day, he seems to be deteriorating physically. More tripping, slurring, strange behavior, looking unfocused. There are more and more times that he does things like read “end speech now” from the teleprompter. The media can only cover for so many of them. Democrats are scared that while Biden looks like a fairly effective executive now with a big team behind him, he might look increasingly weak on the campaign trail.

There is serious possible competition like Gavin Newsom waiting in the wings and laying groundwork, but no one has stepped up to challenge the current Democratic ticket. So, they are rightfully afraid that a spoiler could tip things towards Trump.

The 2020 elections showed there were big parts of the Republican voter base that did not come out for Mr. Trump and, while he is well ahead in primary polling, there is a big constituency of conservatives that want someone else. Why is this group not equally concerning to GOP strategists?

I think the dynamics are different for Republican voters at the moment. Many in the GOP dislike Trump and simply don’t know what to do or who to support. Disillusioned conservatives might be more likely to stay home than to turn out and support Joe Manchin or someone like him. From their perspective, a centrist candidate will most likely have no effect, or might help them a little.

Mainstream media seems very concerned about the fact that they claim much of No Label’s funding comes from sources that have supported Republican candidates. Do you think their implication is that No Labels is somehow part of a conspiracy to reelect Mr. Trump? If not, why do you think the media are so interested in this subject?

I don’t think the media are suggesting this is a conspiracy, but they are bored to a certain extent and it gives them a narrative they like in the meantime.

The press expected a lively GOP primary race between Trump and DeSantis. There was an interesting story brewing when he won the Governor’s race in Florida by 20 points and went on to challenge Trump. But DeSantis’ campaign is increasingly fizzling. Democrats are lined up behind Biden, so the primaries news is slow.

No Labels’ funding gives them a story to run with. Never underestimate the importance of the role played by favored narratives in media coverage. Obama was in part made real as a candidate because the press loved the story of the son of an interracial couple from Hawaii. For totally different reasons, they keep Trump front and center, because that is the image they want to present as the face of the Republican Party.

Democrats are against the idea of a centrist candidate. So, the press shows that some of the funding for No Labels comes from Republicans with the implication that it therefore must be a bad thing. It’s a good story for them.

How does the fact that recent third-party candidates were focused on single issues differentiate them from what No Labels is trying to do?

That’s the point they’re missing. If you look historically, each third-party candidate had a narrow clear platform to run on. They had a point to make. Perot was an economic nationalist, Ralph Nader railed against corporate power and was an environmental activist.

If there were a candidate out there who ran saying that the world is facing an existential climate crisis and that we must take extreme action immediately, that could get the 10-15% of the electorate that is very passionate about these issues. If people still remember these heat waves we’ve had by Election Day, maybe they could do even better than that. It’s unlikely they could win the presidency, but they could bring a lot of attention to the issue and make the other candidates take more notice of it as well.

What point is No Labels trying to make? Americans are savvy enough to know that a bland centrist position doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Americans want something in the middle, but that requires doing the hard work of finding a middle ground and compromise.

If theoretically a No Labels candidate won, would governance be a challenge? Our system has long worked based on a President working to legislate with their party’s leaders in Congress and with a network of partisans in the administration.

Yes and no. In theory it could work. This is not Great Britain where everything works through parliament. Congress operates independently, so a centrist President could put together coalitions of support. But realistically, it might be very difficult. We have a divided Congress and might still have one after 2024. That puts both sides on very partisan footing and makes it hard to break ranks. Such a President might have a hard time even getting his cabinet and other appointments through the Senate. That’s even before he tries to negotiate budgets or get legislation passed.

In the scenario that a No Labels presidential candidate would emerge victorious, do you think it would have a moderating effect on politics in general or would the situation quickly revert to the hyper-partisanism America has become accustomed to?

If we take the unlikely hypothetical of a centrist President to its conclusion, it could be a very good thing for American politics. The President has a lot of power to influence the tone and tenor of the political scene and could point national focus towards a more moderate and civil direction.

We are very polarized right now, but we don’t have to stay that way forever. If No Labels or a group like them can present a slate of candidates and become an effective force, that could be a very healthy thing for the country.

But even if this ticket somehow finds a way to navigate straight down the middle, do they have the infrastructure to run a competitive national campaign right now? As far as I can tell, no.

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