May 19, 2023

A Third Way: Could 2024 be the year?

by Hal Gershowitz

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It is a high-stakes question with high-stakes ramifications.

Running a third-party presidential campaign could have enormous unintended consequences. Such third-party campaigns always have. But, so could the alternative of another Biden or Trump presidency have enormous unintended consequences. All other considerations aside (and there are many), both candidates will be in their eighties during another term in office. Actually, Biden will be eighty-two at the start of his next term, were he to be re-elected. It raises an interesting question. Are presidents in their 80s the best we can, or should, do?  No one is at their peak of mental and physical acuity and agility in their eighties, and further decline thereafter is far more likely than not.

Given Biden’s and Trump’s respective ages and the attendant risks that accompany aging, great attention will be focused on their younger running mates. That would be Democrat Kamala Harris, whose voter approval ratings are abysmal even among Democrats, and, perhaps, (my guess) Kari Lake, the defeated Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate and former local Fox newscaster. Lake hawks Trump’s conspiracy theories hook line, and sinker. That means in Trump World; she is really the legitimate Governor of Arizona. She would certainly be introduced that way.

Enter No Labels

Many political prognosticators and other members of the political class, in and out of power, are all but apoplectic over the prospect of No Labels (the non-partisan, centrist political movement) contingency plan to mount a unity ticket, consisting of a well-respected high-profile Democrat and Republican as an alternative to a Biden-Trump dust off in 2024. Which party’s candidate would lead such a unity ticket won’t be decided until a nominating convention next April.

There is, of course, plenty to worry about should there be a third-party ticket in 2024 competing with a Biden vs. Trump race. Third-party races historically influence presidential elections but never win them. Conversely, there is also plenty to worry about if this nation of 330 million citizens has only Trump or Biden to lead the country. They are both remarkably unpopular with a huge swath of voters, including those in their own respective parties. A decade of unrelenting divisiveness would be almost certain.

Recent polling demonstrates that over 40% of Democrats do not want Biden to run again, and nearly 40% of Republicans say the same of Trump. Yet, conventional wisdom says, too bad because in America, you’re stuck with whoever the two national parties determine for whom you can vote.

While it is true that third-party candidates have never won a presidential election in America, it is also true that America has never had two more unpopular front-runners. A recent NBC poll found that 60 percent of Americans don’t want Trump to run, presumably because they just can’t stand him, and 70 percent don’t want Biden to run because they think he is just too old, and, of course, there are many who can’t stand him either.

Last year Gallop released a survey that was instructive and troubling. Twenty years ago, 56% of voters believed that the two existing parties did an adequate job of representing the American people. Two years ago, Gallop found that only 33% of the people still felt that way, and it is safe to assume that that number has deteriorated even more since then. Interestingly, the share who believed that a third major party was needed to achieve adequate representation had risen from 40% to 62%.

No Labels, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its effort to qualify a unity ticket, which would, presumably, consist of a well-respected and accomplished Democrat and Republican on the ballot in all fifty states or in enough states to represent a path to victory in the electoral college. It’s a herculean task, but one that No Labels feels may be necessary if America is going to avoid being forced to vote for one of two presidential candidates, neither of whom most Americans want to see returned to office. No Labels says it will only field its unity ticket if most Americans remain strongly opposed to another Trump or Biden presidency.  

The risks are, indeed, substantial. Historically, third parties tend to influence the outcome of elections without ever winning them. Then again, the apparent anointed ones, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, are remarkably and historically unpopular to most Americans. Polls show that approximately two-thirds of the country really want alternatives to either Trump or Biden.

To say the nation can’t have alternatives to two unpopular presidential candidates infuriates many voters. Generally, it has been true that third-party challengers have done little more than scalp off votes disproportionately from one party and thus tip the scale in favor of the candidate most third-party voters least wanted to see win the election.

But a close look at historical polling data demonstrates that hasn’t always been the case. In 1992, Ross Perot, a centrist third-party candidate, didn’t win any electoral votes, but he garnered nearly 20% of the popular vote, pulling votes equally from both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

While a third-party candidate has never won a presidential election in America, voters have never been asked to choose between two more unpopular candidates than Biden and Trump.

We have evolved into a two-party system in America, but not always the same two parties. The Republican Party came into existence in 1854 when its predecessor Whig Party embraced positions that were inconsistent with the arc of American history away from the scourge of slavery. It is a chapter in our history that today’s Republicans should urgently study. Our fidelity to two parties is a habit and far from a constitutional necessity.

Today’s Republican Party, acquiescing to an election denier as its standard bearer and tolerating, and even elevating, many who condoned the January 6th, 2021, attempted coup to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power in America is growing eerily reminiscent of the Whigs of 1854.

While every state and every voting precinct in the country is organized around a two-party structure, every voter is free to vote for whoever qualifies to be on the ballot. So, when the nation is faced with two choices who are as unpopular as Joe Biden and Donald Trump, nothing keeps voters from voting for an alternative as long as that candidate makes the ballot. The odds of successfully bucking the two-party system are poor but not necessarily insurmountable.

Nearly all political observers, myself included, would, under normal circumstances, recoil at the notion of a third-party challenge in a reasonably normal election. However, there is nothing reasonably normal about the impending 2024 presidential election.

America needs to get its act together if it is to continue to be that one essential nation that strives to bend the arc of history toward democracy rather than authoritarianism, justice rather than injustice, and national harmony rather than widespread discord.

It is difficult to imagine either a Biden or a Trump presidency uniting the nation to a better place, a place with any semblance of unity and common cause. Neither party’s presumed ticket will come close to serving up the best we have. Indeed, party loyalty is strong in America, but sometimes, party loyalty really does demand too much.

Please consider our Of Thee I Sing 1776 Premium option. While my weekly column is always free, for just $5/month you’ll also receive my annual ebook, “Essays For Our Time,” as well as my new Podcasts. My recent podcasts have featured my commentary on the Fox Corp Settlement, The CNN Trump Town Hall, and my interviews with:

John Thoresen, Executive Director, Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center

William Bratton, Retired Chief of Police, New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston

Rikki Klieman, Attorney, Network News Analyst, and best-selling author

Katherine Gehl, co-author of The Politics Industry and founder of the Institute for Political Innovation

Jazz artist Ann Hampton Callaway

Outlander author Diana Gabaldon

AI Data Scientist Lawrence Kite

Ryan Clancy, Chief Strategist of No Labels

Senator Barbara Boxer

Senator Joe Lieberman

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

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All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

Invite friends, family, and colleagues to receive “Of Thee I Sing 1776” online commentaries. Simply copy, paste, and email them this link— www.oftheeising1776.substack.com/subscribe  –and they can begin receiving these weekly essays every Sunday morning.

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