Any student of United States political history knows that running for president outside of the two main political parties is a path to failure. No third-party candidate has ever won the White House. In modern U.S. history, none have come close.
But their presence has tilted the balance of presidential contests. In 2000, Ralph Nader likely pulled votes from Al Gore in Florida, boosting George W. Bush. There is evidence that Jill Stein hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016, helping Donald Trump.
Now, with the next U.S. presidential election less than a year away, third-party candidates are once again churning the electoral waters.
Jill Stein, a medical doctor and environmental advocate, has pledged to run again, and is seeking the Green Party nomination. Progressive activist Cornel West has been attending rallies across the country as part of his independent campaign. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist who is the nephew of the former president, has leaned on his political lineage to buttress his own independent bid.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who gained considerable stature by defying his own party on issues such as changing filibuster rules, has said he will not seek re-election, but will instead cross the country, “to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.”
And No Labels, a third-party group, has already secured a place on ballots in a dozen states. The group plans to assemble a unity ticket with both a Democrat and a Republican.
The long arc of American politics suggests none of those efforts will install someone in the White House.
But the lengthening list of presidential candidates is a reflection of restive politics in a country girding itself for a rematch between Joe Biden and Mr. Trump that many don’t want.
In 2012, just 3 per cent of voters were “double-haters” who disliked both candidates. In October, a CNN/SSRS poll found roughly a third of U.S. voters now fit that category, a state of national disgruntlement profound enough to raise uncertainty over the outcome of the next presidential election.
“This is Caddyshack II. This is the sequel nobody wants to see,” said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist for No Labels.
No Labels, which put Mr. Manchin on stage at a town hall event this summer, said last week that the group does not expect to settle on a presidential candidate until March, at the earliest. It continues to weigh whether a Democrat or a Republican would be best as its presidential candidate.
Mr. Manchin, for his part, said last week he is not interested in a campaign that would lend a hand to Mr. Trump – who, he warned, “will end democracy as we know it.”
But No Labels, which has drawn criticism for potentially aiding Mr. Trump by drawing support away from Democrats, has attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding, a war chest the group says is sufficient to secure a place on presidential ballots in 34 states by spring.
“We think the public wants to actually have ideas talked about in a different way than they’re otherwise going to get talked about in a Biden-Trump rematch,” Mr. Clancy said.
After Mr. Manchin said he would not seek re-election, Hoppy Kercheval’s radio show in West Virginia was flooded with people calling and texting to say, “Hey, finally there’s somebody that’s going to speak for the middle,” Mr. Kercheval said.
Mr. Kercheval, who is among the state’s best-respected broadcasters, said the question is whether the U.S. political middle can be mobilized, or monetized.
The rise of Mr. Trump, he said, has inaugurated a period of unprecedented politics. “It’s legitimate to ask, are we in a different time?” he said. “I don’t know. But certainly, there’s a lot more interest in that possibility now in this country than there has been in a long time.”
West Virginia has already seen a significant effort to do politics outside of the two main parties. In 2019, WV Can’t Wait, a progressive grassroots group, asked questions of 11,000 local voters and conducted nearly 197 town halls to develop a set of policy proposals that had wide public support. It has since supported dozens of candidates who have pledged to uphold those policies. Twenty-three are now in office, including Republicans and Democrats.
“The dissatisfaction we see with both political parties comes from the fact – not the belief – that neither party is doing much to make people’s lives better day to day,” said Stephen Smith, a co-chair of WV Can’t Wait. “And that creates the historically unique possibility of something new being able to crack into the arena.”
Similar efforts are under way at the state level in other parts of the country.
In West Virginia, the level of agreement on solutions to public problems is striking, Mr. Smith said.
“Nobody says the thing that would most help my family is restricting someone else’s abortion rights. Nobody. Nobody says messing with the transgender community. When the prospect is what could government actually do to make my life better, people don’t pick up the tool of punishment,” he said.
“But the national dialogue only offers people that tool of punishment.”
Even so, tapping the electoral middle in a time of political division is a fraught exercise, said Walter Stone, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis and co-author of Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence. Mr. Perot, a businessman, ran for president in 1992 and 1996, but failed to win in a single state.
“It’s tempting to think – and Perot thought this as well – that when the major parties are divided, it leaves a discontented centre,” he said. The problem arises when it comes time for people to vote, and the penalty for a “wasted vote” becomes more clear. Voters know not supporting one mainstream party might advantage another.
So a bloc of centrist voters “that looks tempting from the polls tends to shrink and even vanish as the election gets closer,” Mr. Stone said.
Critics of Mr. Manchin, meanwhile, doubt he will actually make a bid for the White House. “He’s not running for any presidential campaign. He’s got enough sense to realize that’s a non-starter,” said Walt Auvil, a member of the West Virginia Democrats’ executive committee. He said he believes publicly flirting with the idea is a way for Mr. Manchin to elevate his profile.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a serious third-party candidate has raised alarm, particularly among those opposed to Mr. Trump.
“Between Jill Stein and Cornel West, Joe Manchin and No Labels, you end up with maybe 20 per cent of the vote – and almost all of it comes out of Joe Biden,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida political strategist who was co-founder of The Lincoln Project, an effort by conservatives to oppose Mr. Trump’s re-election.
Mr. Wilson appealed to other candidates to abandon their bids.
“If you believe that Trump is an existential threat to democracy, you don’t do anything to raise the risk of that existential threat winning,” he said.