Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As he was planning his 2000 third-party bid for the presidency, Ralph Nader asked me to meet with him. Nader strongly believed that he could launch a viable Green Party, seizing at least 5% of the national vote, which would qualify the Greens for federal matching funds, and begin to erode what he called “the two-party duopoly.”
“I’m not sure if you can do that,” I told Nader. “But I am sure of this: If you succeed, you’ll elect George W. Bush.” Nader vehemently disagreed. He thought that then-Vice President Al Gore would still have enough votes to win comfortably, and he wanted to pull him to the left.
Some might say that third-party presidential candidates are like cockroaches in the kitchen. To quote legendary Texas Longhorn football coach Darrell Royal, “It’s not what they eat and tote off, it’s what they fall into and mess up that hurts.”
The good folks of the political organization No Labels are diving into the presidential election of 2024. The organization describes itself as a group that “demands American leaders and citizens alike declare their freedom from the anger and divisiveness that are ruining our politics and, most importantly, our country.” And yet their central project – organizing a moderate third-party candidacy for president in 2024 – would, despite their stated intentions, likely reward the most extreme, most divisive, most angry forces in our politics.
In a video on their website, chief strategist Ryan Clancy explains his group is working to get a spot on the ballot in all 50 states, “to create an opening for a presidential ticket that stands for the kind of ideas that appeal to most people, even if it drives the extremes crazy.” What ideas? Well, Clancy says in the video, they’re coming. “Soon.”
No Labels, thus far, has offered no concrete ideas or policies. Nothing about whether corporations should pay more in taxes, as Democrats want, or less, as Republicans do. Nothing about whether health care should be more driven by private markets, as Republicans favor, or more heavily subsidized by the government, as Democrats do.
All we know is that No Labels rejects partisanship and division and extremism. Here’s the simple political reality, as I see it: In recent elections, most voters who reject extremism have tended to vote Democratic. This means the vast majority of votes that a No Labels presidential candidate would receive would likely come out of President Joe Biden’s pool of potential voters, not former President Donald Trump’s – assuming the 2024 election turns out to be a 2020 rematch.
Third Way, another centrist public policy group, has a more compelling answer. According to their analysis, a third-party candidate “would act as a spoiler,” and that the kind of post-partisan candidacy No Labels calls for would pull disproportionately from the Democratic nominee. Simply put, there is no way in the world a third-party candidate can win. But a moderate third-party candidate would, in my estimation, almost certainly elect Mr. Trump.
Ross Perot, the most successful independent candidate in modern times, who spent millions of his money on campaigning, won nearly one out of every five votes in 1992 – and earned precisely zero electoral votes. What made Perot different from the No Labels effort is he drew from both parties. His pro-change, pro-choice, anti-Gulf War, anti-NAFTA positions drew from Democratic candidate Bill Clinton’s voter base, and his pro-business, anti-deficit positions drew from Republican President George H.W. Bush’s base.
The strongest third-party candidate ever was former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who got 88 electoral votes – not near enough to win, but more than enough to swing the 1912 election away from his former GOP protégé William Howard Taft and give the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The best performance by an independent since Roosevelt was Democrat-turned-independent George Wallace, who in 1968 won five states. In the half-century since, not a single independent presidential candidate has won a single electoral vote.
Democrats may not want to hear this, but Third Way does not flinch from the facts: Trump got more votes in 2020 than in 2016. After two impeachments, after banning people from Muslim-majority countries, after siding with Putin over US intelligence agencies in Helsinki, after initially saying Covid-19 would “disappear.”
After all that, he got more raw votes and a higher percentage of the vote in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But whereas Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost those states in 2016, Biden won them. Why? As Third Way states, “In 2016, there was a third slice eating into Clinton’s support. In 2020, that third party segment shrank, so Biden’s support eclipsed Trump’s.” In 2016, two third parties – the Libertarian and the Green parties – both competed heavily across the country, drawing almost 6 million votes between the two of them. In 2020, voters pulled back from third parties, and they drew closer to 2 million votes.
Though that was not the only reason for Biden’s success, as Third Way points out, “Biden won 2016 third-party voters by a 30-point margin.” Of course, there was not a wholesale rejection of Trump’s brand of extremism in 2020, nor is there likely to be in 2024. But a sensible, centrist, moderate, anti-partisan candidate, as No Labels is seeking, will succeed in electing Trump, the most divisive, polarizing politician of modern times.