Third-party egos may determine America’s 2024 presidential fate

The year 2024 will see another close presidential election decided by a few percentage points in several battleground states, and the outcome could well be determined by a handful of vain spoilers who have no chance of winning and don’t really care about the damage to our democratic system that their egotistic escapades will cause.

Since the adoption of the two-party system in the 19th century, no third-party candidate has even come close to winning the presidency, not even a popular former president like Teddy Roosevelt. 

In the current cycle, third-party candidates are positioned to take more votes away from President Joe Biden than his rival. With one exception: If Donald Trump is denied the GOP nomination, the ultimate sore loser is likely to run on his own MAGA Party ticket, which would guarantee a Biden victory. 

Third-party campaigns threaten to swing votes away from Democrats

The twice-impeached, twice-indicted (so far) Trump has a wide lead in current polling and is the GOP’s likely nominee, aided by the reluctance of nearly all of his rivals to go after him head-on. 

A bipartisan group calling itself No Labels is considering mounting a reportedly $70 million, third-party campaign that appears aimed at taking moderate swing votes away from Biden and Democrats.

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. waves to the audience after delivering a foreign policy speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 20, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. waves to the audience after delivering a foreign policy speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 20, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

Its leader is Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut and vice-presidential candidate, whom many believe holds a grudge against his former party. He lost his party’s nomination for a third Senate term in 2006 but went on to win reelection as an independent. 

After a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, he attended the 2008 GOP convention, gave a blistering attack on Barack Obama, and endorsed the Republican nominee, John McCain. The Arizona Republican even considered picking the former Democrat as his running mate. Lieberman later became close to Trump, who reportedly considered him for FBI director.

Lieberman’s intentions in question 

AGAINST THAT backdrop, Democratic skepticism about Lieberman’s intentions is understandable. Add to that the Democrat his group is looking at for its presidential candidate is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who spoke at its gathering in first-primary-in-the-nation New Hampshire this week. 

Manchin has long flirted with running for president. In the narrowly divided Senate, he was the Democrat who voted most often with the Republicans to block many of Biden’s legislative priorities and nominations. Known as “Senator Coal” for his protection of the fossil fuel industry, he has been at odds on environmental issues with Biden and the Democrats, yet he insists there is no difference between the two parties.

He has a tough reelection race next year in ruby-red West Virginia against a well-funded governor. Running for president may give him a convenient out from potential embarrassment.

Cornel West for the Green Party

Cornel West, the longtime political activist and former Harvard professor, is seeking the Green Party nomination. He has accused Biden of “crime against humanity” on race issues, and says he considers both him and Trump equally dangerous.

David Axelrod, Obama’s former top political aide, recently tweeted: “In 2016, the Green Party played an outsized role in tipping the election to Donald Trump. Now, with Cornel West as their likely nominee, they could easily do it again.”

As a prominent African American scholar and Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate, West could siphon off enough black and unhappy progressive voters to elect Trump.

We can expect third-party candidates to do the most damage, again

THIRD-PARTY candidates historically have been nothing more or less than spoilers, with a history of doing the most damage to the party nominally closest to their views. Something all third-party presidential candidates have in common is giant egos and zero chances of winning. They may be unelectable, but they can elect a president, as many have demonstrated.

Teddy Roosevelt helped Woodrow Wilson beat William Howard Taft in 1912. Segregationist governor George Wallace took five southern states in 1968, assuring Richard Nixon’s trouncing of Hubert Humphrey. H. Ross Perot in 1992 denied fellow Texan George H.W. Bush a second term and elected Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader played a key role in winning Florida for George W. Bush in 2000. In 2016, Jill Stein’s Green Party margins were close enough in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

This time, the likely spoilers are known in politics as useful idiots – persons knowingly pursuing lost causes to the benefit of others. In this case, the likely beneficiary will be Trump. 

Both Trump and Biden have excess baggage. Trump has a chaotic first-term record, his role in the January 6 insurrection, his indictments and assorted investigations, and his penchant for prevarication. Biden’s issues are his age (80 vs Trump’s 77), the perception of high inflation and a sluggish economy – despite evidence to the contrary – and a knack for gaffes.

Robert F. Kennedy, a controversial challenger with controversial opinions

Inside the Democratic party, one challenger stands out, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The son of the late senator and nephew of another and a martyred president, his family name may be his greatest asset. It helps explain why he is polling near 20% among Democrats. All that is outweighed by his liabilities. 

A conspiracy theorist and anti-vax crusader, he claimed recently that COVID-19 was “ethnically targeted” as a bio-weapon designed to attack white and black people and spare “Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.” He has called Dr. Anthony Fauci “a pandemic profiteer” and said vaccines cause autism in children.

Faced with a firestorm of outrage over his antisemitic slur, he enlisted two publicity-craving Jewish Trump supporters to give him absolution, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Morton Klein, president of the far-right Zionist Organization of America. On the other side, he was denounced by his sister and several cousins, as well as many prominent Democrats and Jewish leaders.

He opposes the war in Ukraine (Russia was provoked by NATO expansion, he said), calls for disbanding NATO, is friendly with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, advocates freeing his father’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, and warns that 5G networks are killing us. 

Kennedy may be running as a Democrat, but Federal Election Commission reporting indicates he is a favorite of many big-money Republican donors, and Silicon Valley moguls like Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey. 

A vote for a third-party candidate of any stripe in 2024 is a vote for the disgraced former president, no matter how one tries to couch it. Protest votes, like not voting, only elect the person you don’t want.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.

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