When West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin announced Thursday that he will not seek reelection in 2024, speculation immediately turned to whether or not the centrist Democrat is considering a third-party bid for the presidency.
If Manchin does decide to mount an outside challenge to the candidates nominated by the Democratic and Republican parties, he won’t be alone.
When U.S. voters go to the polls to elect a president in 2024, they may be confronted with more familiar names on the ballot than they are used to seeing, as relatively high-profile third-party candidates seek to take advantage of a year in which the likely candidates of the two major parties are suffering from low favorability ratings.
President Joe Biden is currently expected to be the nominee of the Democratic Party, and despite a crowded primary field, Donald Trump is the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Both men have public approval ratings well below 50%, and a majority of Americans have, for months, been telling pollsters that they do not want to see a rematch of the 2020 election, in which Biden unseated Trump.
Alternative candidacies declared
Voter dissatisfaction with the choices on offer from the two major parties has led to a number of alternative candidates and organizations considering their chances.
Manchin is associated with No Labels, an organization that bills itself as politically centrist and is building the infrastructure necessary to place candidates for the presidency and vice presidency on the ballot in all 50 states. No Labels has said its ticket will contain one former Democrat and one former Republican.
Because he has frequently made common cause with Senate Republicans during his time in Washington, Manchin has been mentioned as a possible member of the group’s ticket.
On Thursday, Jill Stein, a physician who has run as the presidential nominee of the environmentally focused Green Party, announced that she will seek the party’s nomination again in 2024. Stein ran on the Green Party ticket in 2012 and 2016, but sat out the 2020 contest. In 2016, Stein received 1.4 million votes and the opprobrium of many Democrats, who blamed her for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump.
Another candidate who has announced an independent bid is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy and the son of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. An environmental attorney, Kennedy has made a name for himself as a prominent anti-vaccine activist, and a purveyor of conspiracy theories.
Also planning an independent run is Cornel West, a prominent left-wing public intellectual who has taught at a number of prestigious universities, including Harvard and Princeton. West first declared that he was seeking the nomination of the People’s Party, then the Green Party, before deciding to run as a true independent.
The Libertarian Party has not yet nominated a candidate for president but is expected to do so before the election. In recent years, its presidential candidates have reliably come in third in the popular vote. The party’s high-water mark was in 2016, when candidate Gary Johnson won a little more than 3% of all votes cast.
In an email exchange with VOA, Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that third-party candidates could significantly disrupt the 2024 presidential elections.
“The conditions are ripe for third party candidates to get a bigger share of the vote than they typically do,” Kondik wrote. “If Biden and Trump are nominated, both have weak favorability numbers, meaning a significant slice of the electorate will hold an unfavorable view of both candidates.
“This is what happened in 2016, when third party candidates got 6% of the vote. Third party candidates very often poll better than they perform, but they still, collectively, should get some level of combined support.”
More so than in a typical presidential year, Kondik said, there are multiple third-party candidates with relatively high levels of name recognition who can appeal to a range of demographics.
“There also will likely be a lot of different third party candidates, all potentially appealing to different kinds of voters: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for the conspiracy-minded, Jill Stein and Cornel West for the far left, a Libertarian for some conservatives, and a No Labels candidate for moderates.”
It is important to point out that in U.S. presidential elections, there is no requirement that the winner receive a majority of the vote. The winner is the individual who receives 270 or more votes in the electoral college — an arcane system under which the candidate who receives the most votes in each state is awarded that state’s electors, the number of whom is determined by the state’s population.
This means that not only can someone who receives less than 50% of the popular vote become president, but that under certain circumstances, a candidate can win the presidency despite losing the popular vote to his or her opponent. This has happened several times in U.S. history, most recently when Donald Trump won the 2016 election.
Not running to win
Experts say it is extremely unlikely that a candidate who is not the nominee of one of the two major parties will actually win the presidency. However, that does not mean their collective presence in the race will have no effect.
“I think we can be pretty confident that none of those people or any other sort of third party candidate is going to be elected president in 2024,” said Hans Noel, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.
“What’s vastly more likely, though, is that one of those candidates, or some combination of them being on the ballot affects the outcome of the election,” Noel told VOA.
The difficulty, Noel said, is trying to discern which of the major party candidates is more likely to lose voters to third-party alternatives. On balance, Noel said, and especially if a former Democrat like Manchin receives the No Labels nomination, it seems most likely that the presence of third-party candidates will hurt Biden more than it will hurt Trump.
Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, agreed that the most likely role that any third party candidates will play next November is that of a spoiler.
Masket said that you have to look back only as far as the 2016 race between Clinton and Trump to see that, even in years when the two major party nominees are unpopular, they still command the loyalty of the vast majority of their voters.
“This was a telling election where you had two of the least popular party nominees in the history of polling,” Masket told VOA. If in any year, you were going to see a lot of defection from the major parties, it would have been then, and it really didn’t happen. Ninety percent of the Democrats voted for Clinton and 90% of Republicans voted for Trump.”