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Third-Party 2024 Candidates Can’t Win, But Can Help Trump

This man isn’t going to be president, but he may help Trump or Biden win this November.
Photo: Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

There’s no telling what the 2024 presidential general election is going to look like after what will probably seem like an endless campaign between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But both the early polls and recent history suggest that the contest will be close, just like six of the last seven presidential elections. Thanks to widespread disgruntlement with this choice, the odds are also high that the non-major-party vote will be relatively high (more like 2016’s 5.7 percent than 2020’s 1.9 percent) — and that may decide the election.

But as Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times points out in an important column, the one thing we know for sure is that none of these third-party or independent candidates is going to win:

[T]o have any hope of fulfilling the constitutional requirement to win a majority of electoral votes, a third-party candidate would need at least a plurality of voters in a huge number of states. The party would need, on a state-by-state basis, to outcompete one of the other two parties, so that it could notch electors under the winner-take-all rules that apply in most states.

This, unfortunately for anyone with third-party dreams, has never happened. 

Yes, there is an argument (being suggested most recently by the No Labels crowd, which is seeking ballot access for a yet-to-be-identified presidential candidacy) that a non-major-party candidate can crucially influence the direction of the nation by picking off a few states and deadlocking the Electoral College, thereby gaining massive leverage in the resolution of that deadlock in Congress. But to do that you need a very big regional base of support, as Bouie notes:

 In 1948, with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate, the States’ Rights Democratic Party — better known as the Dixiecrats — won four states and 39 electoral votes despite gaining just 2.4 percent of the national popular vote. Twenty years later, George Wallace and the American Independent Party won 46 electoral votes and 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

What both results suggest is that under the Electoral College, the next best alternative to a large and well-distributed national constituency is to have a small and intense regional one. It is, it seems, the only other way to win electoral votes as a third party. 

Both those efforts failed, of course. And if you scan the list of likely non-major-party candidates in 2024 — independents Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West; Green Party aspirant Jill Stein; whoever the Libertarians choose to run; and the “centrist” worthies under consideration by No Labels — there’s no one with the kind of regional base Thurmond or Wallace (or Teddy Roosevelt in his Bull Moose run of 1912) enjoyed. There is a nascent argument that Kennedy might augment his already-significant but highly diffused support (13 percent in the national RealClearPolitics averages in a five-way race) by winning the Libertarian nomination. That’s a bit of a reach given Kennedy’s lefty background and erratic views; he’s just not the sort of person you can imagine as a hero in an Ayn Rand novel, and his support for strong environmental policies might be a deal-breaker for the Libertarian Party, which has plenty of true believers from whom to choose. In any event, whatever RFK Jr. might gain from the easy ballot access Libertarians might offer would be offset by the number of voters who are decidedly non-libertarian.

As for No Labels, the group may back away from its threat to run a “unity ticket” thanks to internal dissension and the fury of former allies who think the whole effort would just guarantee a Trump victory. But even No Labels’ own highly dubious polling shows any foreseeable candidate would struggle to win electoral votes. To cite one example, the West Virginia voters whose antipathy to Joe Manchin led him to give up his Senate seat aren’t going to back him for president against Donald Trump.

What all of this suggests is that non-major-party candidacies should be viewed by voters and pundits alike strictly in the context of how they affect the Biden-Trump binary choice. Sure, there are ideological reasons some voters might pull the lever for the candidates of parties like the Libertarians and the Greens; those voters may believe that in the broader scheme of things it really just doesn’t matter whether Biden or Trump is the 46th president. For everyone else, the choice to go independent or third-party isn’t really a choice of that candidate, but of either Biden or Trump.

Things could change by November, of course, and the implications of non-party candidacies may depend on how many of them there are and who they are. But current polling shows that the current five-way race we are contemplating will likely help Trump defeat Biden, which makes sense when you consider the cohesiveness of Trump’s MAGA base and his inability to win a popular-vote majority. As Bouie puts it: “If Americans want different choices, they will need a different system.” But let’s not accept the premise that those who vote for Kennedy or Stein or Mapstead or Manchin or West are “choosing” any of these people to take office. Like it or not, the only real choice is binary.


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