The newest third-party mirage

Sen. Joe Manchin III pictured from the shoulders up in a blue suit jacket and pink tie, talking in an ornate hallway.
Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has been flirting with a third-party presidential campaign, causing anxiety among some Democrats.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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It’s the summer before an election year, and predictably, the season has brought heat waves, baseball and talk about third parties.

Discontent with the two-party system is a perennial. This year, the likelihood that America’s two major parties will serve up a rematch between two unpopular men well above normal retirement age has cranked up the volume.

Much of the chatter has focused on a well-funded (by undisclosed donors) effort by No Labels — a Washington, D.C.-based group that mostly supports conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — to win third-party ballot positions in all 50 states.


No Labels’ leaders haven’t said whom they would choose as their candidates — or even how they’d decide whether to proceed — but this week, the group sponsored a town hall in New Hampshire featuring Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a Republican.

The No Labels campaign, which has succeeded in getting onto the ballot in six states so far, has some Democrats feeling anxious. They very much want the 2024 election to be a binary choice. A third-party candidate could siphon just enough support from President Biden in key states to throw the election to Donald Trump, they fear.

“Categorically, that will not happen,” No Labels’ Chief Executive Nancy Jacobson, a former Democratic fundraiser, said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday. “We’ll pull it down,” she said. “We will not spoil for either side. The only reason to do this is to win.”

Independents, third parties and illusions

No Labels’ case for how they could win begins with a simple, but misleading, proposition: The U.S. has a latent majority of “independents and disaffected centrist voters from both the Democratic and Republican camps who are looking for better alternatives.”

That same conceit has animated numerous past efforts, mostly featuring wealthy men — Howard Schultz and Michael R. Bloomberg are two recent examples — who bet large amounts of their money on the proposition that disaffection with the two big parties would translate into affection for a loosely defined pro-business centrism.

The idea has enough superficial support that it keeps coming back despite repeated failures.

It’s true that the share of Americans who call themselves political independents has grown sharply in the last 15 years, rising in Gallup’s surveys from 33% in 2008 to 44% now.

And there’s certainly plenty of disaffection: For a decade, Gallup’s polls have found roughly 60% of Americans saying that the two parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.”


Voter registration data in many states also has shown an increase in independents, although there’s intriguing data from California suggesting that trend may have started to turn around.

After decades of steady increase, the share of Californians registering as nonpartisan peaked in 2018 at 28%. It has dropped since by 5 points, with the biggest declines coming among young voters. Among voters younger than 35, the share registered as nonpartisan is the lowest it’s been since 2006, according to analysis by Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California.

A big part of that California shift stems from an administrative change. In past years, the state’s ‘motor voter’ registration system, which allows people to register to vote when they contact the DMV, inadvertently pushed registrants toward the nonpartisan option. After a change in 2018, the system now presents the nonpartisan option last, after showing registrants a list of parties. That change makes a big difference.

But it doesn’t account for the entire shift, said McGhee, who notes that there’s also been a change in independent registrations among people who don’t use the motor voter system.

There may be “something broader going on,” he said.

Party polarization has been strong for years, but since the Trump era, “it’s entered into a whole other gear,” he said. “I wonder if that hasn’t changed how people think about the parties” and made the option of sitting outside the party system feel less attractive.

Whether that’s the case remains unclear; other states have not seen a similar shift, according to data from Catalist, a progressive data firm that maintains a giant database of registered voters from around the county.

But regardless of whether some of the shine has started to come off of independent status, No Labels’ equating of “independent” with “centrist” is clearly wrong. Independent voters agree that they’d like something else, but disagree about what.


Some independents stand on the far right and see the GOP, even in the Trump era, as too moderate. Some are on the left and see the Democrats as not progressive enough. Others have strongly held views on issues neither of the two major parties regard as priorities. Still others have a mix of views — liberal on some issues, conservative on others — that fits badly with either party.

And regardless of how they define themselves, the vast majority of independent voters cast ballots consistently for one major party or the other. While they often show less affection for that party than partisans do, they’re strongly motivated by dislike — often fear — of the other side.

As for what voters ideally might want, a large-scale survey in 2018 found widespread disagreement: Among voters who wanted a third party, 29% preferred one to the right of the existing parties on economic issues, while 28% wanted one that would be to the left. Four in 10 wanted a third party that would be in the center on economics, but that group split sharply on whether a third party should be more liberal or more conservative on cultural issues.

The mix of views that appears closest to the No Labels position — moderately conservative on economics and moderately liberal on social issues — is among the least popular options.

“To represent this diversity of views, American democracy needs not two or three parties, but at least five parties,” political analysts Lee Drutman, Bill Galston and Tod Lindberg wrote in summarizing the results. Galston was a prominent member of No Labels who quit the group this year in disagreement over its decision to launch a presidential effort.

To avoid advertising how badly their corporate ideology fits with what most voters want, No Labels has adopted a deliberate vagueness. On abortion, for example, the group’s recently released policy booklet calls for “a sustainable and inevitably imperfect compromise that balances the belief of most Americans that women have a right to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life” — but doesn’t endorse anything specific.


That sort of policy fudge fits especially badly with younger voters, who make up a disproportionate share of independents, and who also tend to be motivated by issues.

Two polls released in the last week show the potential for a third party, but also the sharp limits.

A survey by Quinnipiac University indicated that American voters were evenly divided on whether they would consider voting for a third-party candidate — 47% saying they would, 47% saying they would not.

That’s a fairly small share given that asking whether one “would consider” voting for a third party sets a low bar.

The other survey was even less encouraging about third parties: A poll by Monmouth University released Thursday indicated that in a Biden-Trump rematch, 47% of voters would definitely (36%) or probably (11%) vote for Biden while 40% would definitely (26%) or probably (14%) vote for Trump.

Asked about a generic third-party ticket, 30% said they would definitely (5%) or probably (25%) support it. But that support dropped to just 2% who said definitely and 14% who said probably when respondents were asked specifically about Manchin and Huntsman.


“The more concrete you make an alternative to the major-party candidates, the less attractive it becomes,” Monmouth poll director Patrick Murray said.

Voters grew even more wary when asked what they would do if they thought a third-party ticket would act as a spoiler, the poll found.

“What voters say they want in an ideal world and how they actually act in a distrustful hyper-partisan environment are two very different things,” Murray concluded.

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