There’s not a lot of love for the two-party system. Over the past decade, a majority of Americans have repeatedly told Gallup that the Republican and Democratic parties do such a poor job representing the American people that the country needs a third party.
Given the dissatisfaction with the broader political environment, and with the 2024 Democratic and Republican front-runners specifically, the political group No Labels has come up with a solution. It has laid out plans for what it calls an “independent unity ticket,” which it hypothesizes could collect 286 electoral votes, winning states ranging from reliably red Utah to deep-blue Hawaii. The group, which lobbies for political centrism and bipartisanship, argues such a ticket could win by turning out and garnering support from the sizable share of voters who say the country is on the wrong track, identify as independent and are open to supporting what No Labels describes as a “moderate independent” contender. While No Labels has said it won’t back a bid if there’s no path to victory — and third parties have a lengthy track record of failure — it’s currently trying to gain ballot access in all 50 states. Democratic-aligned groups are clearly worried, criticizing No Labels for being a potential “spoiler” that could help former President Donald Trump win by peeling away middle-of-the-road voters who might otherwise back President Biden.
It’s too early to evaluate whether No Labels’s candidate could be a spoiler for the Democratic nominee, but the group’s belief that it could mount a victorious campaign rests on several misconceptions about contemporary politics. First and foremost, the share of the electorate made up by independent moderates isn’t large enough to win a presidential election. Secondly, despite distaste for Biden and Trump, each remains well-liked by his party, reducing the potential draw of a No Labels candidate. Meanwhile, the group’s aim of markedly increasing turnout over 2020’s record-high mark will require the difficult task of getting even more low-propensity voters to turn out. Lastly, finding a candidate who could maximize No Labels’s appeal won’t be easy because there’s nobody named “moderate independent” who embodies the varied preferences held by voters disenchanted by the idea of another Biden-Trump matchup.
The independent, moderate middle isn’t that big
On the surface, No Labels’s argument that there’s a sizable contingent of independent, moderate voters has some merit. After all, Gallup found in 2022 that 41 percent of Americans identified as independent, on average, while only 28 percent each identified as a Democrat or a Republican. The pollster has also found a bit more than one-third of the country identifies as “moderate” when it comes to ideology.
But in reality, there isn’t a huge cohort of centrist and independent voters out there — and strong partisan forces limit its size. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman noted in 2019, the electorate is composed of many moderates and a smaller group of independents who don’t lean toward either party. But the share of the electorate where these traits overlap is actually small — Drutman found only about 5 percent of voters were both independent and moderate. And even if we often describe these voters as centrists, many hold inconsistent ideological positions on issues that only average out to “moderate.”
Most critically, most moderates and self-identified independents tend to identify with or lean toward one of the major parties. Let’s look at Gallup’s data on party ID. Although around 2 in 5 Americans said they were independent in 2022, it turns out about 4 in 5 of those self-identified independents actually leaned Democratic or Republican. As a result, only around 1 in 10 Americans identified as truly independent, a figure replicated in other surveys.
Now, these independent “leaners” might seem attainable for No Labels. After all, polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that, compared to full-fledged partisans, leaners are more likely to view themselves as moderate, want more options at the ballot box and believe none of the candidates represent their views well. But those views only matter insofar as they can sway vote choice, and research suggests that independent leaners vote for the party they lean toward at nearly the same rate as openly partisan voters.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but negative partisanship is a heck of a drug. Surveys have found that those who identify with a party or lean toward it increasingly hold negative feelings toward the opposition party. Various factors have contributed to this trend, such as our increasingly nationalized politics and greater sorting of voters into the parties based on their ideological views and where they live. As a result, even leaners are less likely to vote for the opposition party.
Fact is, even as Americans say they’re unhappy with the two main parties, they’re more likely to see them as significantly different. In 2020, 90 percent of voters told the American National Election Studies that there were important differences between the parties, the highest share in the ANES’s 70 years of survey data.
All of this makes voters reticent about the idea of the other party taking power and inclined to vote in a way that will keep that from happening. Additionally, the systemic pressure of the Electoral College to consolidate behind two parties and concerns about the other side winning — accentuated by Democratic or Republican campaign ads framing No Labels as a “spoiler” — could keep dissatisfied voters from straying to a third party if they believe doing so might make it easier for the opposition to win.
The parties like their front-runners
It’s true that Americans seem — to put it mildly — uninspired by a Biden-Trump rematch. An April poll by NBC News found that 70 percent of adults didn’t think Biden should run again, while 60 percent said the same for Trump. But Biden and Trump are relatively well-liked by members of their own party, even independents who lean that way, making it far from guaranteed that No Labels can draw support from more partisan voters.
Overall, around 4 in 5 Democrats and Republicans had favorable views of Biden and Trump, respectively. And there’s a good chance that partisanship will help encourage some of those who hold unfavorable views to back the candidate anyway.
|Poll||Dates||Pop.||Biden among Democrats||Trump among Republicans|
|Cygnal Political||June 20-22||LV||81||81|
|Harris/Harvard CAPS||June 14-15||RV||77||77|
|Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour||June 12-14||A||85||78|
Now, those numbers don’t tell the whole story because they measured self-identified members of the party in question and not independents who leaned toward the Democrats or Republicans. And it’s true that leaners are not as positive about their respective front-runners as self-identified partisans. A June survey from Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour found that 78 percent of Democratic-leaning independents had a favorable opinion of Biden, compared to 85 percent of Democrats; comparatively, 70 percent of Republican-leaning independents and 78 percent of Republicans had favorable opinions of Trump. Still, the limited polling we have that breaks out partisans and leaners shows that both groups tend to hold positive attitudes about their respective front-runners.
Turnout probably won’t dramatically change the electorate
In its 2024 outline, No Labels argued it could increase turnout by appealing to millions of voters who didn’t vote in 2020, many of whom told pollsters they didn’t like either candidate. No Labels’s path to victory would then involve capturing most true independents, picking off a small minority of party-identifying voters displeased with their party’s nominee and expanding the electorate to bring in more nonvoters. In doing so, No Labels said it could attain 37 percent of the vote and win the presidency.
Never say never, but it’s probably safe to look somewhat askance at promises of even higher turnout than in the 2020 presidential election. That year, 67 percent of the voting-eligible population turned out, according to the U.S. Elections Project — the highest turnout of any voting-eligible population in a national election since 1900. So could turnout be even higher next year? Perhaps it could, thanks to a combination of 2020-level intensity plus a well-funded No Labels candidate seeking to appeal to less-engaged independent voters. But as FiveThirtyEight found in a September 2020 survey conducted by Ipsos, around one-quarter of voting-eligible Americans rarely or never vote. Whomever No Labels puts on their ticket will likely need to be especially appealing to such individuals, who tend to be younger, poorer, less educated and more likely to be a person of color.
Additionally, one of the other problems for No Labels is that independent voters — whether we’re talking those who lean or those who don’t — are less likely to vote than more partisan voters. And with leaners still more likely than not to back their preferred party, it’s worth noting that true independents are the least likely to vote, in part because they are less likely to be politically engaged. No Labels would have to find a candidate who could appeal to low-propensity voters and actually turn them out — no easy task.
There’s no clear candidate for the campaign
That brings us to the final challenge for No Labels: Picking candidates for president and vice president. No Labels has said that it will make a determination about nominating a ticket following the Super Tuesday primaries in March 2024, and in the meantime is working on ballot access in all 50 states.
No Labels is essentially a movement-based organization trying to run a ticket in a candidate-centered political system. In American politics, candidates — rather than parties — do much of the decision-making and organizing for campaigns, and they are the foremost focus of the media and voters. Today, we have a system of strong partisanship and weak parties, and the parties tend to serve the candidates more than the other way around. This is exemplified perhaps most emphatically by Trump’s capture of the GOP in 2016. Now, No Labels may take on the functions of a political party by putting someone on their ballot line, but they still need candidates who can attract eyeballs and gain support from a disparate voter pool — unhappy Democrats and Republicans, independents and largely disengaged nonvoters.
There is a running list of possible candidates No Labels could get behind. Most commonly mentioned is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate-conservative Democrat whose No Labels dalliance may be an effort to appear less partisan ahead of a tough reelection bid in his deep red state (should he even run). Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, meanwhile, is a Republican whose moderate tone, anti-Trump bona fides and narrative as a cancer survivor might offer a more appealing story. (Hogan is also national co-chair of No Labels.)
No Labels can point to polling that ostensibly suggests a third-party bid could be competitive in November 2024. For example, a June survey by Suffolk University/USA Today found that 23 percent of registered voters said they’d support a “third party candidate” over Biden (34 percent) or Trump (32 percent). Similarly, No Labels’s own polling in December found 20 percent would back a “moderate independent,” not far behind Trump (33 percent) or Biden (28 percent).
But these numbers form more of a very hypothetical ceiling than a solid foundation for a new campaign. Frankly, an individual who embodies most of the values held by the politically mixed group of voters who said they’d support a third party or moderate independent probably doesn’t exist. As CNN’s polling analyst Ariel Edwards-Levy recently put it, “the nebulous idea of an alternative to the actual candidates” isn’t going to be on the ballot next year.
The moment No Labels has a ticket, it will have to deal with the pros and cons that those candidates bring to the table. For instance, a recent YouGov/The Economist survey found Manchin underwater among Americans, with 26 percent holding a favorable opinion and 37 percent an unfavorable one. And a Data for Progress survey released in June found Hogan attracting 6 percent in a matchup against Biden and Trump. Such numbers could change with campaigning and ad buys, but they speak to the mountain either would have to climb. And when it comes to appealing to typical nonvoters, are Hogan or Manchin going to spark outsized turnout among a group that’s disproportionately young and nonwhite? Where’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when you need him?
The impulse to run a third-party candidate is totally understandable, given how unhappy American voters are with the political status quo. But in reality, No Labels’s specific pitch relies on a fundamental misread of the electorate and what a single candidate can manage in terms of uniting such disparate groups. From a public relations standpoint, No Labels understandably needs to maintain a veneer of competitiveness as it seeks to raise money and gain support. It could also have a long-term goal of backing candidates for president and down-ballot races in years to come, too. But the overwhelming likelihood is that a Democrat or Republican will take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025, and that a No Labels-backed candidacy will not have carried a single state in the 2024 election.
Author: Geoffrey Skelley