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It Wouldn’t Take Much for a Third-Party Candidate to Give Trump a 2024 Win
No Labels, RFK, Cornel West—the risks of a spoiler.
[On the July 14, 2023 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, host Mona Charen and panelists William Galston and Damon Linker discussed how a third-party candidate would change the dynamics of the 2024 presidential race.]
Mona Charen: When we discussed this a few weeks back, you made a point that I really would love for you to just reiterate. And namely, you said, when you look at the two parties, there is a lot more range in the Democratic party than there is in the Republican party. Namely, more Democrats say that they would be open to voting third party than Republicans do. So, if there’s a third-party choice, it inevitably is going to come out of Biden’s hide, not out of Trump’s, right?
William Galston: . . . There’s an asymmetry between the two political parties. Put very simply, the Republicans are a much more uniformly conservative party than the Democrats are uniformly a liberal party. You ask Republicans for their ideological self-identification, about three quarters of them say that they’re either conservative or very conservative, and about a quarter admit to being either moderate or liberal. For the Democrats, it’s about 50 percent who call themselves liberal or very liberal, and the remaining half of the party thinks of itself as moderate or conservative.
There are simply more center-leaning fish in the Democratic pond than there are in the Republican pond. And other things being equal, a centrist, independent candidacy is bound to have more appeal to more Democrats than to Republicans.
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Charen: I’m old enough to remember 2016 when the Jill Stein candidacy arguably cost Hillary Clinton some key percentage points in Florida and other states, other swing states. So, a small third-party candidacy, even something like the People’s party or the Green party, if it’s on ballots in enough states, critical states, can make a huge difference.
Damon Linker: It certainly can. I mean, it always can. But we’re in a dynamic now where, in addition to the very strong points Bill was making about the differences between the ideological commitments of the different electorates in the two parties, you also have now the situation of the extreme efficiency of the Electoral College for the Republicans versus the Democrats, where basically to win, Joe Biden needs to beat the Republicans in the popular vote by a few percentage points. It’s not like if we get, you know, 49–49 percent that Biden can win. If it ends up something like that, the Republican will probably end up winning. And that’s before you factor in third-party tickets. So, that means that even if in public opinion polls, it looks like Biden is slightly ahead, he could still end up losing. . . .
Then you factor in the third-party tickets weakening the showing for Biden, and then it really does get scary. I mean there is the Cornel West scenario, which very much could repeat the Jill Stein narrative from 2016. Jill Stein is supporting Cornel West so far; it looks like he might end up on the Green party ticket, and then the No Labels threat. . . .
But then there’s also RFK, Robert Kennedy Jr. I don’t know if he actually would go beyond the primaries to launch some kind of kamikaze campaign in the general election. But with his name recognition and appeal to the kind of quirky, kooky, conspiracy-addled vote out there, and appealing to—I guess you could say the Ithaca, New York farmer’s market vote, the kind of people who go to live in college towns and are kind of conspiracy-minded but not on the right, they are very much on the left. . . .
There aren’t that many of those people around anymore, but again, we’re not talking about huge numbers of voters, we’re talking about the damage that can be done by 1 or 2 percent of the public voting for these candidates.