Carl P. Leubsdorf: A spoiler alert for the 2024 presidential race

From the commentary: It’s hard to see how either Manchin or Hogan, or an even less well-known figure, can be anything but a “spoiler” in a race that — like the last two — seems likely to be dominated by attitudes toward Donald Trump.

Cartoonist Opinions by Bruce Plante for July 13, 2019

Throughout modern American history, opponents of the two major parties have sought to shake up the political system by creating so-called third parties to give voters an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.

From the commentary: People like me who rationalized that a vote for Trump was a vote for his policies and not his corrosive personality made the political equivalent of a bargain with the Devil. ... As did so many others, I bought into the view that Trump was better than the Democratic alternatives.
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From the commentary: In his 70-page ruling, Judge Thomas Parker called the Tennessee anti-drag queen law "unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad."

Throughout modern American history, opponents of the two major parties have sought to shake up the political system by creating so-called third parties to give voters an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.

Some have attracted substantial votes, but none has won. Initial polling strength tends to drop as elections near. In 1992, billionaire computer tycoon Ross Perot momentarily led both major candidates but eventually dropped to 19%, still the most for any modern independent.

Perot carried no states, almost certainly affecting the outcome less than the debate. Several other independents have had a greater impact, but usually as spoilers who tilted the ultimate result.

That could well happen again in 2024 — most likely helping Donald Trump and the Republicans — thanks to plans by an independent group called No Labels to field an independent ticket in as many states as possible.


No independent candidacy has had more of an impact than former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 decision to mount a comeback. It split the Republican Party and enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to defeat the GOP’s nominee, President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt polled 27.4%, finishing second, ahead of Taft.

In general, however, the impact of “third party” candidates has had less to do with how many votes it attracted than where it got them.

In 2000, longtime public interest crusader Ralph Nader, running as the nominee of the Green Party, got enough votes in Florida and New Hampshire — presumably from liberal voters -- to tip both to Republican George W. Bush and help him edge out Democrat Al Gore.

Nader only polled 2.74% of the vote, but got three times the difference between Bush and Gore in New Hampshire. In Florida, he got nearly 100,000 votes, where the Republican’s 537-vote margin gave him the election.

In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein got more votes in crucial industrial battlegrounds Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania than Trump’s margins over Hillary Clinton.

Strategists for No Labels, a nonprofit organization that has sought bipartisan congressional compromises with moderates from both parties, contend the low popularity of both Joe Biden and Trump could enable a centrist alternative to win.

They hope to qualify for the ballots of enough states to give their nominee a chance of winning the required 270 electoral votes.

While it’s foolhardy to predict presidential election results more than a year in advance, the current makeup of the two major parties suggests a 2024 third party’s likeliest impact would be to help the Republicans.


That’s because Trump’s tight hold on 35-40% of the electorate — and the fact that the No Labels organizers are predominantly Democrats — means their candidate would likely drain off more Democratic-leaning voters.

The Democrats certainly think so, judging from the fight by leading Arizona Democrats against the decision by the state’s Democratic secretary of state to grant No Labels a place on the state’s primary and general election ballots. Biden carried Arizona in 2020 by just 10,000 votes.

A Republican victory — and especially one by Trump — seems hardly what the No Labels strategists would want, given their long political experience with the Democrats — and their support for centrist solutions. But in politics, things don’t always work out the way you want.

Democrats wanted Trump to be the 2016 GOP candidate, because they figured he would be the easiest to beat. In 1980, many hoped for a Ronald Reagan nomination for the same reason. Both calculations were wrong.

The head of No Labels is Nancy Jacobson, a former Democratic fundraiser. Her husband, Mark Penn, was an adviser to former President Bill Clinton and chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Often critical of liberal Democrats in recent years, Penn criticized the effort to impeach Trump, to whom he later gave campaign advice.

According to The Washington Post, fielding a 2024 presidential candidate has created some divisions within the group.

“In today’s closely divided politics, any division of the anti-Trump vote would open the door to his reelection,” said Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served in Bill Clinton’s administration.

Similarly, it quoted Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP strategist and strong Trump critic, as saying, “The only way you can justify this is if you really believe that it doesn’t really matter if it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump.”


That’s a hard case to make. Biden is a liberal Democrat who supports abortion rights and a strong U.S. leadership role abroad. Trump nominated the three abortion rights foes who flipped the Supreme Court’s stance on the volatile issue and favors a reduced U.S. overseas stance.

Meanwhile, some potential No Labels presidential candidates have emerged, mainly current or former office-holders out of sync with their parties.

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From the commentary: There can be only one priority in 2024 if Trump is a candidate: making sure the country's fate is not put back into the hands of a man already proved to be reckless, undemocratic, dishonest, self-dealing and supportive of violence.
From the commentary: Based on what he has done to date, Ron DeSantis' pledge to do for America what he has done for Florida may not frighten the right wing of the Republican Party, many of them Trumpers, but it may not hold up so well among general election voters, who overwhelmingly support Roe v. Wade and think well of Mickey Mouse. And Trump remains the 600-pound gorilla on the Republican side.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democrats’ most conservative senator who is up for reelection next year, has refused to rule out a presidential bid, saying he will decide his 2024 plans by January.

Former Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, an outspoken Trump foe, has made no secret of his interest in running for president but earlier rejected seeking the GOP nomination.

It’s hard to see how either Manchin or Hogan, or an even less well-known figure, can be anything but a “spoiler” in a race that — like the last two — seems likely to be dominated by attitudes toward Trump.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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