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A record year for third-party candidates

Unenthusiastic about either of their likely presidential choices, many Americans say they want more, setting the stage for a possible bumper crop of third-party and independent presidential candidates next year.

Although their chances of winning the White House are slim, the likelihood of several additional candidates being on the ballot could tip a close election and further complicate the already murky picture of the divided American electorate.

This uncertainty is already troubling both parties, but especially Democrats, who fear third-party candidates could spoil elections, as they claim Green Party candidates did in 2016 and 2000, although insiders acknowledge that it might be impossible to predict what will happen in five years. – or six-way race.

“Voters might be surprised by how many choices they have,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “This will make the polls even more difficult to understand. It’s an additional mist over the entire battlefield.

Although minor party candidates are nothing new, the ballot could be very long next year, with well-known independents like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, as well as possible centrist candidacies from Democratic Sen. West Virginia Joe Manchin and an effort supported by No Labels, in addition to the familiar presence of the Green and Libertarian parties.

“This is a pretty unique historic moment where more than 60 percent of the population says they are open to voting for a third-party or independent candidate,” said Tony Lyons, the publisher of Kennedy’s book and co-founder of a super PAC which has already raised millions to support the former Democrat.

Several recent polls show support for Kennedy above 19 percent, the modern record for a non-major party candidate established by billionaire Ross Perot during his 1992 independent campaign, despite mostly negative coverage in the mainstream media, Lyons said.

“There is so much distrust of public officials and the media.”

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are both deeply unpopular, as are the two major parties, with only a quarter of Americans saying they are excited about their likely rematch and nearly three-quarters of independent voters saying they would like see more candidates come forward. .

“For most voters, 2020 is an election they would rather not relive,” said Patrick Murray, who directs the nonpartisan Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The question is whether this discontent creates an opening for anyone else.”

Of course, Americans haven’t elected an independent president since George Washington — Perot didn’t receive a single Electoral College vote — and polls generally overestimate support for minor party candidates. Historically, about half of voters who tell pollsters they will support an alternative candidate end up pulling the lever in favor of a major party candidate, for fear of wasting their vote.

“Voters don’t support third parties on election night,” said Jim Messina, who managed Barack Obama’s successful reelection campaign in 2012. “No third party candidate got even one only electoral vote for more than 50 years. What they will do, instead, is siphon off just enough votes in swing states to bring Trump back to the White House. It is a disaster.

Both parties have made efforts to keep their voters in the fold, with Republicans supporting Kennedy during his Democratic primary campaign against Biden, then reversing course when he declared himself an independent and polls showing Republicans liking its conspiratorial populism.

Donald Trump Jr. has called Kennedy a “Democratic plant,” the Republican National Committee has repeatedly criticized him as “a Democrat disguised as an independent,” and right-wing media figures have warned supporters not to fall for him. a candidate they had praised for months. earlier.

But Democrats are particularly worried, with Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita saying: “All the elements of a third party candidacy come from (Biden’s) coalition, not ours.” »

According to operatives in both parties, Biden has a higher ceiling of potential support than Trump. But getting there will essentially require forcing “soft” anti-Trump Biden supporters to pull the lever for him instead of staying home or voting for another candidate. Trump, meanwhile, has a lower ceiling but a higher floor of die-hard supporters than Biden, which could be an ideal arrangement in a multi-candidate field.

“Candidates not named Trump or Biden will likely surpass previous third-party campaign benchmarks in an unprecedented way,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Republican staffer who left the party over Trump. “While I understand the frustration with the two-party system, the reality is that when it comes to the 2024 election, voting for anyone other than the Democratic nominee is the same as voting for Donald Trump. »

The most recent high for minor party candidates was in 2016, when they received a total of 6% of the vote. Green Party candidate Jill Stein won just 1%, but that included enough votes in enough swing states that some Democrats blame her for electing Trump because they assume much of These votes for Stein, who represents liberal political views, would otherwise have gone to Hillary. Clinton.

This view is widely shared by Democrats, who are particularly concerned about the centrist group No Labels, which is backed by large, undisclosed donors and has the resources and means to accomplish the monumental task of running for office. elections across the country.

As the Biden campaign focuses on campaigning against Trump, a loose coalition of pro-Biden groups has formed to counter No Labels and other third-party efforts, although coordination of their efforts is still largely informal, without regular meetings or dedicated meetings. crisis unit.”

“I think people are just not yet fully aware of how serious this risk is,” said a Democratic strategist involved in the effort who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s a big deal. Considering the risk this represents, there will be no choice but to react forcefully and firmly.”

I think people just aren’t yet fully aware of how serious this risk is. It’s a big deal. Considering the risk this represents, there will be no choice but to resist it with force and firmness.

A Democratic strategist

With the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way as its hub, other groups in the coalition have focused on their expertise: MoveOn.org works to keep progressive voters in the fold; “Never Trump” groups like the Lincoln Project are trying to do the same for moderates; a new bipartisan group founded by former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt has hired gray-bearded Washingtonians to write op-eds and talk with donors; Reproductive Freedom for All produced an ad claiming that No Labels wants a national ban on abortion; End Citizens United highlighted possible campaign finance problems; and opposition research super PAC American Bridge retained Democratic attorney Marc Elias to pursue opportunities for legal challenges against third-party candidates.

Some legal battles have already begun, such as when the Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to have No Labels removed from the ballot in this key state. But more legal fights are assured in the coming year, when the byzantine process of ballot access begins in earnest, as does the potential for bigger ad campaigns.

Meanwhile, some worry that the presence of candidates with antiestablishment views and little to lose could create opportunities for foreign actors interested in undermining Americans’ trust in the U.S. political system.

Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that Kennedy, West and Stein, who are running again under the Green Party banner, are staunch opponents of U.S. support for Ukraine.

A Senate report on the 2016 election found that one of Moscow’s tactics included social media campaigns to bolster Stein, leading Hillary Clinton to later call her a “Russian asset” — an accusation which Stein vehemently denied as an “unhinged conspiracy theory.”

“You can see how this would provide the Kremlin with proof of concept that third-party candidates are a useful vehicle for making American politics more divisive and dysfunctional in close elections,” Weiss said.

However, it is unclear how many candidates will appear on the electoral rolls in most states and remain in the running until next November. What is clear, however, is that the additional candidates add a major wild card factor to the race.

Seventy-five years ago, pollsters and pundits were almost unanimous in predicting that the unpopular Democratic president would lose re-election, thanks in large part to the presence of well-known third-party candidates.

“Biden may have to do what Harry Truman did in 1948,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “He was written off, with a Democratic splinter party to his left under (Henry) Wallace, and a Democratic splinter party to his right, under (Dixiecrat) Strom Thurmond. »

Neither were considered serious contenders for the presidency, but they were expected to get enough votes from Truman to cede the White House to Republican Thomas Dewey.

But many know, thanks to this famous photograph of Truman holding up the newspaper’s incorrect headline, that Shrum said: “Dewey did not defeat Truman.” Truman won. »

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