Experts: Voter disdain for Trump-Biden rematch gives third parties opening to “spoil the election”

Souring voter attitudes toward the seemingly inevitable re-match between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump could give third-party candidates a rare opening to shake up the election cycle — but experts say none seem to be taking it.

Polling has indicated that American voters are displeased with both major-party frontrunners. Sixty-seven percent of 1,250 respondents to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they were “tired of seeing the same candidates in the presidential elections and want someone new.” A slim 18 percent said they wouldn’t vote for either candidate if they were the only choices on the ballot, the survey found.

A majority of respondents also believed neither major-party candidate should be in the 2024 race, with 70 percent of respondents agreeing that Biden should not seek re-election and 56 percent of respondents feeling Trump should not be running. 

Voters’ disappointment with the almost-certain prospect of a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024, coupled with an apparent appetite for a ballot that offers new possibilities and “promises change,” also coincides with an apparent interest in third-party and independent candidates, according to Dr. Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University.

“You see third parties at a time when people are not only dissatisfied with a candidate, but when there’s some sort of ideological differences,” Azari told Salon. “That’s clearly evident in both parties. There’s a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has perpetually been unhappy with Biden and then there’s also a lot of divides in the Republican Party around Donald Trump.”

In a hypothetical, five-candidate matchup for 2024, which includes independent and Green Party candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaxx activist and descendant of lauded Kennedy heritage, received the support of 14 percent of respondents, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University. Progressive philosopher Cornel West acquired 3 percent of hypothetical votes, while physician Jill Stein brought home 2 percent.

Kennedy, the most popular of the independent candidates, in part due to name recognition, is most likely to pick up votes during the election, Azari posits. Earlier this week, Kennedy announced he was considering abandoning his independent status to run on the Libertarian ticket, a move that would ensure he gets on every state’s ballot but stokes Democrats’ fears that he will siphon votes from Biden and spoil the election in favor of Trump, The Hill reported.

Running for the Green Party’s nomination is Stein, who was blamed by some Democrats for costing then-candidate Hillary Clinton votes in key battleground states Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Ex-Harvard Professor Cornel West has been in the running as an independent candidate since dropping out of the Green Party primary in October. But Thursday he announced via X/Twitter, his plans to establish the Justice for All party, marking his third switch in party affiliation since he announced his run last year. 

Centrist political organization No Labels also appears to be making strides toward entering the race, marking what some Democrats argue would be the greatest hurdle to securing Biden’s reelection in November. The party positions itself as a bipartisan middle ground amid the stark political polarization of the moment — and a salve for voter’s disdain for the mainstream candidates.

Though No Labels has not determined whether it will run a ballot line this election cycle (it plans to announce its decision by mid-March), one likely contender to lead its presidential “unity ticket” has come to the fore.

Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who has spent the last three years threatening to undermine the president’s agenda, has teased the possibility of entering the presidential race since last year. According to CNN, if he were to run for president, Manchin would want to join the contest with No Labels and has told others privately that a Trump conviction or a health scare from Biden would provide him with the opening he needs to vault a candidacy. 

The current tensions — and the close numbers in recent elections — offer this slate of third-party and independent candidates the rare opportunity to really influence the outcome of the election, argues Valdosta State University political science professor Dr. Bernard Tamas. 

“The Democrats always seem to be winning more votes, but it’s only about two, three percent of the vote, and then the electoral college is biasing the situation in favor of the Republicans, and that often is enough for them to win, which means that if any of these candidates pull off one percent, two percent of the vote more on one side than the other then, yeah, there’s a very good chance that they will spoil the election,” Tamas told Salon.

But in order to really have an impact on the vote, the current crop would have to reconfigure their campaign strategies to align with historic third-party spoiling tactics instead of attempting to run campaigns that follow the methods of the major parties, Tamas argued.

The strongest third parties in American history typically only nabbed a handful of seats before disappearing shortly after an election, said Tamas, author of “The Demise and Rebirth of America’s Third Parties.” The most successful of those groups, however, devised a strategy where they latched onto a pertinent issue or roused a group who felt unrepresented by the major parties.

By galvanizing voters around a specific cause — such as the deficit or immigration — they forced the major parties to address the issue and disrupted the political process in order to receive the policy change they wanted to see, while ultimately delivering the major parties the victory.

“To argue that their job is actually more to throw a monkey wrench in but with a purpose — not just spoiling elections, but actually forcing the major parties to respond — it’s not necessarily something they always want to hear,” Tamas said, referring to third-party candidates.

“This can be a pretty idealistic group, and they’re really hoping to produce a multiparty democracy in the U.S, which would be great, but it probably doesn’t fit the reality of the current circumstances,” he added.

Not much evidence of a third-party spoiler effect exists throughout U.S. history either, according to Dr. Jacob Neiheisel, an associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. Often named is Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, whose 1992 campaign garnered 19 percent of the popular vote, compared to Democrat Bill Clinton’s 43 percent and Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush’s 37.

Most analyses from that election show, however, that Perot took “somewhat equally from both major party candidates” and suggests most of his supporters likely would not have voted at all had he not been on the ballot, Neiheisel told Salon.  

“It’s not like [Perot] was stealing necessarily,” Neiheisel said. “It’s just that there were folks who had a preference for a third party, and that if he wasn’t there, they were going to just not show up. So it really didn’t seem to have any kind of consistent effect across the board.”

Green Party candidates Ralph Nader and Stein’s respective 2000 and 2016 presidential bids have also been characterized as spoilers in favor of the elections’ Republican candidates. Nader’s run could receive that classification for “technical reasons,” Neiheisel said, but the vote in Florida that year was so close that any third-party candidate on the state’s ballot, “even if they garnered a couple of 100 votes, would have technically been a spoiler.”

The margin of votes Stein pulled in battleground states was much larger and could certainly have tipped the scales in favor of Trump. But the argument she spoiled the election also hinges on an assumption of who the voters would have chosen otherwise — specifically, that they would have voted for Hillary Clinton instead — or whether they would have stayed home, Azari added.

In the 2024 election cycle, Azari sees two circumstances under which third-party candidates could be influential. The first would be a repeat of the Ross Perot phenomenon, which she doesn’t believe would happen. The other would follow a “more classic 20th-century third-party strategy” of targeting regions, running in key states and associating with their specific concerns, Azari said, explaining that that method formed a common Southern approach around civil rights issues.

West could focus his strategy on Michigan and appeal to divides in the Democratic Party over the Israel-Hamas war, Azari offered. “That might actually have an impact on how the Biden campaign operated. But if it’s just a little bit here and there, then that seems less likely.”

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Though the playbook appears clear, none of the current candidates seem to be preparing to take advantage of the opening and adopt a favorable strategy, Tamas added.

The presidential nominee of the Libertarians is likely to rack up the most votes of the minor party nominees and independents, based on the organization having won more than any of the other third party groups in the last few elections, Tamas predicted, adding that Stein and West will likely grab votes from Democrats. No Labels hasn’t yet presented a clear strategy or policy platform that could mobilize voters, he argues, as it seems to be relying on the distaste with the major parties to galvanize the electorate. 

“No Labels is working to give the American voters a better choice should they want it,” the organization states on its website, adding that if one of the major parties nominates a candidate with a platform that caters to the “commonsense majority,” it will drop its effort to offer a unity ticket, “stand down and double down on the great work we’re doing in Congress.” 

If Manchin were to take the helm of a No Labels ticket, it seems more likely the party would pull votes from disaffected moderate Republicans uninterested in voting for Trump than dissatisfied Democrats seeking a Biden alternative, Azari told Salon. It’s too early to tell exactly what role third-party candidates will have in the race, but they’re not likely to have any impact on the electoral college, she predicted. 

“The most likely outcome will be that these third-party candidates pull off a very small percentage of the vote, and this may or may not be enough to switch the election from one candidate over to another,” Tamas agreed. 

Polls of voters’ hypothetical electoral choices and interest in third-party candidates this early in an election year rarely hold up in surveys taken closer to the November contest, Neiheisel notes. He explained that third-party candidates provide voters a fleeting hope that the U.S. can escape its two-party system.

“But then where the rubber meets the road, people tend to then vote for the two major parties, or one of the two major parties,” he added. “That has a lot to do with not wanting to perceive that they’re throwing away their vote.”

Unlike in the previous Reuters/Ipsos poll from early January that saw Trump and Biden tied among respondents, those surveyed most recently chose Trump in the hypothetical election, with 40 percent saying they’d choose him in the 2024 contest compared to just 30 percent who said they’d vote for Biden. The former president maintained that lead even when third-party candidates were introduced into respondents’ options, with Trump pulling a vote from 36 percent of those polled, Biden 30 percent and Kennedy receiving 8 percent. 

That shift could signal that American voters are already feeling the pressure to conform to the annals of the two-party system. But nine months out, there’s still a chance a third-party or independent candidate could have an impact on the election. 

“When third parties make a splash, it comes very quickly, and it’s almost unexpected,” Tamas said. “You don’t see it coming. You might see the underlying process, but the actual way it sets off can be very, very fast.” 

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about the 2024 third-party push


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