Could a third-party candidate actually derail Biden?

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, during a community listening session at Piketon High School in Piketon, Ohio, on October 20, 2022.  | Gaelen Morse/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joe Manchin is giving Democrats another headache.

Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is scheduled to speak at an event hosted by No Labels in New Hampshire Monday, fueling speculation that he might be the centrist group’s pick to launch a third-party “unity” ticket for the presidency.

Manchin hasn’t ruled out the possibility, and said in a statement last week put out by No Labels that it is “clear that most Americans are exceedingly frustrated by the growing divide in our political parties and toxic political rhetoric from our elected leaders.” But it’s hard to see how his flirtation with No Labels — a bipartisan group that once dubbed former President Donald Trump a “problem solver” and that criticized the committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection — would amount to a serious candidacy.

It’s true that many Democrats don’t want Biden to run again, and many Republicans say the same of Trump, who is the current GOP frontrunner. But while 2024 may shape up to be the rematch no one asked for, third-party candidates don’t have a successful track record in the US, and there’s no indication a third-party candidate would be able to launch a credible challenge to either party’s nominee this time. If Manchin or another third-party candidate runs, they would probably lose badly.

They might, however, get enough support among moderates to derail Biden in states that he narrowly won in 2020, despite No Labels co-chair Joe Lieberman’s assurances that his group is not looking to get in the race for a “spoiler.”

“For a Democrat to win a national election, they need to win three out of five self-identified moderate voters,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist-left policy and advocacy organization. “If you have a third-party candidate that is running from the center, it’s siphoning off those that consider themselves ideologically centrist, and Democrats are overly reliant on that block of voters.”

But the question is whether such a candidate — especially Manchin, whose seat will be on the ballot in 2024 — would even stay in the race long enough for that to transpire.

Manchin’s strategy in entertaining a No Labels presidential bid

It may seem odd that Manchin hasn’t expressly ruled out running a race he seemingly can’t win. But Manchin, a shrewd political operator, has something to gain from entertaining the idea of a third-party run: credibility among skeptical Republican voters in his home state, which has veered further to the right in recent elections. He’s said that he will wait until late this year to announce whether he intends to seek reelection to the Senate against his GOP challenger, the popular West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who was up by 22 points in a May East Carolina University poll.

“Manchin has to run in a state that is overwhelmingly Republican,” Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster based in Florida, said. “It forces him to engage in a lot of this performative stuff that is about highlighting how he’s independent and how he’s not susceptible to the Democratic Party — how he’s his own man.”

Perhaps nothing would separate Manchin from Biden and the Democrats so much as running against the sitting president. And that’s led some observers to speculate that if Manchin does run for president, he may do so briefly, before launching another bid for his Senate seat. Though Democrats have had a contentious relationship with him over the past few years, many see him as their best chance for holding the seat.

“It seems bizarre to me, that after spending the last two-and-a-half years helping Joe Biden and his agenda, Manchin is going to come in now at the 11th hour and sabotage Biden’s reelection chances,” Amandi said. “Even if he gets in the race, I think he will pull out before the election and endorse Biden.”

It’s true that Biden owes much of his legislative success at least in part to the senator. Without him, Biden wouldn’t have been able to pass laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Still, it might be too early to say what Manchin will do, and only he knows how seriously he’s actually entertaining a White House run.

“There’s a cottage industry of people whose job it is to convince people they can become president, and no one is immune to flattery,” Kessler said.

What would a third-party candidacy look like?

A third-party candidacy generally tries to carve out unique policy positions distinct from the major parties. (See, for instance, Cornel West’s bid from Biden’s left.)

No Labels has put out what it calls a “Common Sense” policy platform that appears to be a blueprint for a third-party candidate, and that tries to split the difference between Republican and Democratic positions. However, it fails to acknowledge major sticking points: For example, it asserts that “America must strike a balance between protecting women’s rights to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life,” but doesn’t articulate what that balance is except that it’s not Florida’s six-week abortion ban.

The group has said that any third-party nominee it recruits would have the freedom to diverge from that platform. But those kinds of vague platitudes won’t help the case of any such candidate, risking offending both sides of an issue over which the country remains bitterly divided.

Even with the backing of a group like No Labels, a third-party candidate is unlikely to gain much traction at all given the history of such failed bids. Without the infrastructure of a major party behind them, every step of the electoral process is decidedly more difficult, including building name recognition, earning endorsements, getting on the ballot or a debate stage, and fundraising. But even just a little bit of traction could undermine Biden’s razor-thin margins in states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, where he won by just 44,000 votes altogether in 2020.

“Under the guise of this gauzy, mythical bipartisan ticket, No Labels is actually trying to hurt the chances of reelection of the incumbent Democratic president, because that is what this election is — a referendum on the first term of the Democratic president,” Amandi said. Lieberman, for his part, claimed on ABC Sunday that No Labels is just aiming to fix the problem that the “American people are not buying what the two parties are selling anymore.”

Even widespread discontent with major party nominees may not present the opening it appears to. Voters had similar ennui with both former President Barack Obama and then-Senator John McCain in 2008 and with Ronald Reagan when he sought reelection in 1984 and went on to win in a landslide.

“This current environment is as common as can be,” Kessler said.

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