This happens just as the bipartisan group No Labels will host Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) and Republican former Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman at an event in New Hampshire next week. And No Labels isn’t the only one: academic Cornel West is fighting for the Green Party nomination.
But there’s a comfort point for Democrats: Voters in battleground states were less likely to vote third party in recent elections than those in less competitive states.
According to an analysis by POLITICO, none of the top 20 states by third-party voting in the past two presidential elections are generally considered swing states, and only three of the top 20 had states where the winning candidate margin in 2020 was within . single digits: Minnesota (#11, Biden +7), Maine (#13, Biden +9), and Iowa (#19, Trump +8).
That doesn’t mean that well-funded third-party candidates with significant or universal voter access don’t pose a major threat to Biden. Survey analysis too early by FiveThirtyEight suggests that those third-party candidates currently alienate more voters from Biden than from Trump.
But the Electoral College — which has otherwise favored Republicans in the Trump era — could soften those effects.
Since the formation of the two-party system in the 19th century, no outside candidate has ever won the presidency, or even come close. In the past 100 years, only three third-party candidates have even carried a single state into the Electoral College: Progressive favorite son Robert La Follette won Wisconsin in 1924, then-South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond carried four south as a segregationist « Dixiecrat » in 1948 and former Alabama Governor George Wallace won five states in the same region on a similar platform in 1968.
In more recent years, Ross Perot set the high point for independent candidates: 18.9% in 1992. Other than Perot’s performances in 1992 and 1996, only one other third-party candidate won more than 3% of the National Popular Vote: Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016.
But third-party candidates don’t need to have big votes to swing an election. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate in 2000, may have moved that election from Al Gore to George W. Bush by gaining 2.7% of the national vote. And while 2016 Green Party nominee Jill Stein received just over 1 percent, her share of the vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the deciding three states Trump toppled that year — exceeded Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.
In general, however, third-party candidates performed worse in swing states, where voters feel less free to look beyond the two major parties, than elsewhere in the country.
During the 2016 and 2020 elections, no state had a higher average vote for non-major party candidates than Utah, where a home state candidate, Evan McMullin, garnered 22% of the vote in 2016 But after Utah, the third party’s strength is found in a long list of states considered safe in one column or another: Alaska, Idaho, Vermont, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado .
According to this analysis, traditional central swing states rank much lower for third-party voting. All but Nevada (#21) are in the bottom half: Wisconsin (#27), Arizona (#28), Michigan (#33), Pennsylvania (#43), North Carolina (#45), and Georgia (#48).
While a No Labels candidate is still hypothetical — the group says it won’t seek a runoff unless the two main-party candidates are unpopular and there is a path to victory for a moderate alternative — West’s campaign for the nomination of the Green Party is already underway.
In the last two elections, respectively, Green Party candidates Stein and Howie Hawkins garnered fewer votes than would-be libertarians. Among the 2016 swing states, Stein performed best in Michigan (1.1%), Wisconsin (1%) and New Hampshire (0.9%).
Conversely, Hawkins failed to vote in more than half of the states. He was on the ballot in only two of the most controversial states: Michigan (0.3%) and North Carolina (0.2%).
However, the West may be more formidable. He’s a longtime public figure who so far may be exploiting some of the liberal dissatisfaction with Biden’s presidency, particularly among otherwise solidly Democratic voting blocs.
That dissatisfaction is real, and it’s one reason why a 2024 rematch could look more like 2016 — when third-party candidates combined exceeded 5% of the vote — than 2020. Both Biden and Trump have average ratings of favor below 40%, roughly equal to Trump’s 2016 measurement, but trailing Clinton in 2016 (43%), Trump in 2020 (46%) and Biden in 2020 (52%).
In 2016, 18% of voters viewed both candidates, Trump and Clinton, unfavorably. They largely broke for the challenger, 47% to 30%, with nearly one in four of those voters, 23%, backing other candidates.
In 2020, only 3 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable opinion of both Biden and Trump, limiting appetite for other candidates.
But a lot has happened since November 2020: the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Twin Trump’s allegations-so far-that could solidify Trump’s base in the primary at the expense of the voters he needs to win the general election. Biden’s job performance is viewed negatively by most voters, with the majority saying they are concerned about his ability to serve another term at his age.
Biden and Trump won’t necessarily remain at 39 percent if they face each other in the general election, as both campaigns will attempt to increase their standing. But while Democrats worry about third-party nominations ostensibly designed to tap into their party’s two ideological ends, there are ingredients for another volatile race beyond just the two names leading the ballot.