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The Evidence Is In: No Labels Should Get Out.
Polls and focus groups make clear that a No Labels ticket would only serve to help re-elect Trump.
SEN. JOE MANCHIN’S ANNOUNCEMENT last week that he won’t seek re-election to the Senate and will instead finish his term “traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is interest in building a movement to mobilize the middle” sure makes it sound as if he’s considering an independent presidential bid, likely with the organization No Labels. If anyone were the target audience for No Labels’s $70 million gambit to recruit and run a “unity” third-party ticket with a moderate Republican (possibly former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan) and moderate Democrat (likely Manchin), it would be me, a proud Never Trump Republican and moderate squish.
But after conducting hundreds of focus groups with voters across the political spectrum, it’s clear to me that a unity ticket in 2024 isn’t just fantastical; it’s dangerous. A centrist unity ticket appeals to exactly one demographic: swing voters who will decide the outcome of the 2024 election.
Barring extraordinary circumstances, Trump and Biden will be their respective parties’ nominees for president next year. Most Americans don’t want it, but it’s what they’re going to get. So what, then, can we expect the 2024 election to look like?
In a phrase: Very close.
In 2020, even though Biden earned 7 million more votes than Trump nationally, his actual margin of victory was alarmingly small: 1.2 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, 0.6 percent in Wisconsin, and just 0.3 percent in Arizona. If those thin margins had gone the other way, Trump would be president right now. Part of the explanation for how Biden managed to pull off that narrow victory: He won 11 percent of historically Republican voters (compared to 9 percent for Hillary Clinton four years earlier).
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No Labels is aware of all of this. They’ve promised that if they thought their third-party project would result in Trump’s re-election, they’ll call it off. That promise is prudent and noble. It reflects a concern for the fate of American democracy, because giving the American people more choice in the short term isn’t worth putting Trump back in power and degrading American democracy in the long term.
And now is the time. We have enough information right now to make the call: No Labels should pull the plug.
THE ELECTORAL COALITION that propelled Biden to office is heterogeneous and unruly. It ranges from older, more moderate black Democrats to young activists to suburban moderates who, before 2020, had never voted for a Democrat in their lives. Biden needs to keep as many of these voters in his coalition as possible, because, by contrast, Trump’s coalition is more homogeneous and more enthusiastic.
The upshot is that a No Labels ticket would draw votes away from Biden and barely any from Trump, almost certainly resulting in a second Trump presidency. In recent focus groups with partisan Democrats and Republicans, as well as swing voters, I’ve seen a consistent pattern in who expresses interest in a third-party option—and it’s exactly the people Biden needs to keep on his side. The coalition that will defend American democracy in 2024 isn’t pro-Biden but anti-Trump, and No Labels is perfectly positioned to split that coalition.
In an April 2022 focus group, we asked eight Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 about their preferences for 2024. One would have returned to Trump, two would have stuck with Biden, and the remaining five expressed openness to a third party. One of the five explained, “I feel like more people would be open to it now, because this is clearly not working, what we’re doing. So pick something different, but I think a lot of people would be open to that.”
In focus groups in September of this year with 2016 Trump voters who switched to Biden in 2020, the appetite for a No Labels-style third party was significant. One voter thought three parties should be the norm:
I feel like our country runs the best when you have three parties to choose from. . . . Why is everything Democrat and Republican? Doing something else could give somebody else something to vote for.
If we had a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat as the top two on the ticket for president and vice president, I think it would go a long way to pulling the moderates in the Senate and the House of Representatives together and weeding out the extremism in both parties.
In one focus group of voters who switched from Trump to Biden in 2020, eight said that if the election were tomorrow, they would vote for Biden, while only one would go back to Trump. But when offered the option of an unnamed moderate third-party candidate, three said they would stay with Biden and six switched to support the third-party candidate. It’s clear based on these conversations that the No Labels project is popular with moderate Republicans, former Republicans, and independents who don’t like Trump but don’t feel at home in the Democratic party.
By contrast, neither Democratic nor Republican partisans have any interest in the No Labels plan. One Democrat from a swing state recently told me, “I just wouldn’t want to, to split the vote to where Trump was the president again.” Another volunteered, “I just don’t want Trump back in office at all. So whatever it takes, if I have to go with Biden, that’s who I’m going with.” A group of Pennsylvania Democrats I spoke with in August was unanimous in backing Biden over Trump or a third-party option. It didn’t seem like a hard call for any of them.
The story is the same for Republicans. In a group of college-educated, two-time Trump voters, none would consider any option but Trump—and the choice wasn’t hard for them either. A Trump voter I talked with in 2022 summed up the common sentiment: “I’d love to see a third party that, you know, takes votes away from the Democratic party, which would make it easier for Republicans to get elected.” In fact, the only time I saw Republicans struggle with a third-party question was in response to a hypothetical DeSantis-Biden matchup in which Trump was the independent. A Bulwark poll in January found that 28 percent of Republicans would back him in an independent bid.
OTHER POLLING DATA bear out what I’ve found in focus groups. A June poll found that No Labels candidates—either a generic candidate or the hyper-popular Hogan—pull more from Biden voters than from Trump voters, and would tip the balance of the election toward Trump (without, it’s worth noting, coming anywhere close to winning). A series of five polls in May and June found that, in a two-way race, Biden had a slim lead over Trump, but in a three-way race, Trump was ahead. Swing-state polling from June found that Biden would lose nine points in Wisconsin, six points in Arizona, and five points each in Georgia and Pennsylvania—enough to lose the presidency.
It’s hard to look at these results and not think of Jill Stein’s decisive 1 percent of the vote in Michigan in 2016 that, had she not been in the race, likely would have secured the state for Hilary Clinton. And since then, Biden’s polling has only gotten worse, leaving even less room for his coalition to splinter, especially considering Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Stein may also be on the ballot in some states.
If No Labels runs a ticket in 2024, they will attract strong support from the very people whom the country is relying on to defeat Trump. Neither Democratic nor Republican partisans will defect to a new tribe—and thanks to the Electoral College, Trump will win. We no longer need to consider these possibilities as hypotheticals. If No Labels is truly interested in the health of American democracy, they’ll wait for another year.