Why 2024 could be a big year for third-party candidates

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Sitting in the stands at Saturday’s Boston College vs. Harvard basketball game, Max Silverman wasn’t rooting for either team. He and a group of friends had all come to the game wearing T-shirts promoting the independent presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., as part of a meet-up for volunteers.

A junior at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mr. Silverman calls himself a “lifelong Democrat” who leans left on most issues. But like many young people here, the politics major regards President Joe Biden as an uninspiring figure who “doesn’t represent what I believe – or what anyone else my age does.”

Unhappy with the two main parties’ ironclad grip on political office, these students see Mr. Kennedy, a onetime Democrat, as the only candidate offering bipartisan solutions, in a 2024 race that is shaping up as a rematch between President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“They’ll tell you it’s democracy, when in reality you have no choice,” Mr. Silverman says. “Having different options and different parties and different representation is, I think, what everyone would want,” he says.

Mr. Kennedy, a prominent vaccine critic and scion of one of America’s most storied political dynasties, isn’t the only independent in the race. Cornel West, a left-wing academic, has already declared his candidacy, while Jill Stein has launched a campaign again as a Green Party candidate. Then there’s No Labels, a bipartisan political group that is laying the groundwork for a potential “unity” ticket, with candidates still to be named.

Given the tight margins in battleground states, any or all third-party candidates could prove consequential, say analysts, though their individual chances of victory are remote. And this election cycle could prove to be one in which independent candidates matter to a degree not seen since 1992 – when Ross Perot, a self-funded businessman, received 19% of votes cast without winning a single state. In particular, RFK Jr.’s high poll numbers in recent surveys, particularly among younger voters, have raised alarm bells for both main parties.

Widespread public discontent with the direction of the country and the unpopularity of both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump could push many more voters to consider unconventional alternatives. Faced with these two men as likely nominees, two-thirds of voters in an October survey by the Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll said the country “needs another choice,” while 53% said they would consider voting for a “moderate independent candidate.”

“Given how close the polls look right now, it’s a volatile mix,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, who points to the large number of “double negative” voters unhappy with both major-party front-runners. “That leaves an opening – but who fills it is, to me, the big question. Is there a bold choice, especially from a younger generation?”

An opening in the middle

So far, almost none of the candidates, declared or presumed, fit that exact description. Mr. Kennedy, along with most of the other third-party candidates, is past retirement age. The exception: Chase Oliver, the Libertarian candidate, who is 38.* President Biden turned 81 on Monday; Mr. Trump would be 78 by the next presidential election.

And while voters may express interest in a hypothetical “moderate independent,” that’s much easier than supporting a specific candidate, says Bernard Tamas, a politics professor at Valdosta State University and author of “The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties: Poised for Political Revival?”

That said, Professor Tamas believes there’s an opening on the center-right for a national candidate who can appeal to disaffected conservatives and potentially break through, despite an electoral system that is stacked against third parties. “The Republican Party is moving so far to the right that it would be easy to attack them from the center. But nobody’s doing it right now,” he says.

That may change: No Labels has said that it may nominate a unity ticket after the main parties pick their 2024 candidates, provided it sees a realistic path to victory. “We are not in this to be spoilers,” Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator who co-chairs No Labels, told ABC News in July.

Any such ticket is likely to be headed by a Republican from the “Never Trump” wing. Some have also speculated that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who recently said he won’t seek reelection and is hoping to “mobilize the middle,” could join a No Labels ticket.

Joel Searby is a big believer in electoral choice. In 2016, he was an adviser to the independent presidential campaign of Evan McMullin, a Never-Trump conservative who received a fifth of the vote in Utah, his home state. Mr. McMullin was among several third-party candidates who shared nearly 6% of the vote nationwide that year, as voters sought out alternatives to Mr. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Searby, who until recently worked as national policy director at the Forward Party, a new political party, says voters are hungry for greater choice. “The pure market demand for a new way in our politics is astronomically high,” he says.

But he worries that No Labels, a well-financed group whose centrism he applauds, could be the ultimate spoiler in 2024. “They have to be taken seriously as a factor,” he says, echoing the analysis of other observers who warn that any defection among conservatives who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 could benefit Mr. Trump.

“I’m very nervous about the No Labels play contributing to the reelection of President Trump,” says Mr. Searby, who sees Mr. Trump as unfit for office. “It’s well intentioned but not well thought out.”

Will Democrats come home?

With a year to go before the election, polling is likely to shift as the stakes become clearer, particularly for Democrats panicked by Mr. Trump’s ascendancy, says Michael Wolf, chair of the department of political science at Purdue University. Unlike in 1992, when Mr. Perot siphoned off millions of votes from Republican President George H.W. Bush, voters today are much more motivated to stop the other side’s candidate from winning.

“The fear of losing the general election is exactly what is driving up concern about Biden, in particular, but also may be what persuades Democrats to stick with him and even to embrace his record when the alternative is narrowed,” Professor Wolf says via email.

Back at Boston College, after the home team sealed a 73-64 win over Harvard to extend an unbeaten record, Mr. Silverman and his friends head out into the cold fall evening.

Asked whether Mr. Kennedy’s candidacy could help elect Mr. Trump, Mr. Silverman concedes it’s a risk. But he thinks it’s worth it.

“I do believe that when he gets the chance to go on that debate stage with Biden on his left and Trump on his right – when the American people see that, it’s going to be a no-brainer. And I think they’ll realize ... this guy makes total sense,” he says.

* Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect Mr. Oliver's candidacy.

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