Third Party Candidates Widening Trump’s Lead Over Biden

February 8, 2024   |   Tags: ,
Independent presidential candidate Cornel West addresses demonstrators in Los Angeles at an October 28, 2023 protest against Israel’s war in Gaza. | Adam DelGiudice/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Though the majority of general-election presidential polls at this stage of campaign 2024 feature only President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, a growing number are beginning to reflect what most voters' ballots are going to actually look like: pretty crowded.

So what happens when other names are added to the two least popular presidents in the modern polling era? Led by former Democrat and current independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., they combine to attract support in the low double digits, usually. But what really has Democratic operatives in a funk is how the introduction of competition affects the spread between the Big Two. Long story short, it widens Trump's lead. At least as of now.

There have been at least 19 polls taken since mid-January that include both the simple Trump-Biden option and a choice that adds 1–5 additional candidates, thereby allowing an apples-to-apples numerical evaluation of the third party/independent impact on the same set of voters. In only two of those polls—one in Pennsylvania, the other in Georgia—did Biden's position vis-à-vis Trump improve with those extra names; in 13, Trump gained ground.

For example, an I&I/TIPP survey of 1,266 registered voters released Wednesday showed Trump leading the two-way race within the margin of error—43 percent to 41 percent (with 10 percent saying "other" and 6 percent undecided). But adding five new candidates to the mix extended Trump's lead by 4 points: 40 percent to 34 percent, with Kennedy receiving 8 percent, presumed No Labels candidate Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W. Va.) 3 percent, independent progressive Cornel West 2, and presumed Green nominee Jill Stein and presumed Libertarian Lars Mapstead tied at 1 percent apiece. ("Other" shrinks down to 2 percent, and undecided shoots up to 10.)

No Labels will decide whether it will jump into the fray, and if so with what ticket, sometime after the March 5 Super Tuesday primaries; the organization has amassed ballot access in 14 states and expects to achieve 32, with hopes that any eventual nominee can elbow onto most of the remaining 18. Cornel West, who raised just $250,000 in the third quarter of 2023 (compared to RFK's $8.7 million in the third and $7 million in the fourth), and whose personal finances are notoriously shambolic, nevertheless has unofficially qualified for ballot access in two states, and is (like RFK) forming new political parties in selective states to reduce his petitioning burden.

The Libertarian Party, which has led the non-Democratic/non-Republican field for presidential ballot access five elections running, says it expects to be on 48 ballots; the Greens north of 30.

While much of the Democratic Party's freakout over third-party challengers has focused on No Labels, with its untold millions and clustering of well-known centrist politicians (Manchin, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and perhaps former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), at least two factors suggest a low electoral ceiling for the group: 1) As I pointed out last July, "the centrist moneybags lane of presidential politics over the past half-decade is full of carcasses: Evan McMullinLarry HoganJohn KasichHoward SchultzMichael BloombergBill Weld, and American Renewal, for starters." And 2) the organization and its floated candidates are considerably more hawkish on foreign policy than Joe Biden, at a time when much of the political passion being expressed particularly on the left is focused on criticizing Israel (and Biden's support thereof) for its war in Gaza.

"It will be difficult for [Biden] to talk about redeeming the soul of the nation when he is enabling genocide," Cornel West told The Washington Post in an article published Thursday.

Biden in his public appearances has been serially hounded by anti-Israel protesters. White House staffers in the hundreds have been engaging in semi-regular protests against his Mideast policy. Fifty-one percent of Democrats, per a YouGov survey in November, and 55 percent of all Americans ages 18–29 (a key Democratic Party demographic) consider Israel's actions in Gaza to be a "genocide," compared to just 29 percent of independents and 20 percent of Republicans.

A December New York Times/Siena poll showed that the 18–29 cohort thinks that Biden has been too supportive of Israel (45 percent vs. 6 percent who said too supportive of Palestinians); that the Palestinians were the most sympathetic side (46 percent to 27 percent for Israelis); that America should not send more support (55 percent); that Israel is not seriously interested in a peaceful solution (59 percent); and that Israel should stop the war even before all its hostages are free (67 percent). All of those numbers are way out of whack with the rest of American adults, and help explain why—in this one poll, anyway—the under-30 vote prefers Trump over Biden 49 percent to 30 percent.

"Forget No Labels. Biden's Third-Party Peril is on the Left," went the headline on a Politico magazine article this weekend written by the influential campaign journalist Jonathan Martin. "How many Biden speeches must be shouted down," Martin wondered, "until Democrats realize that a hot war in Gaza this fall may mean 30,000 fewer votes apiece in Madison, Dearborn and Ann Arbor and therefore the presidency?"

In five-way general election polls this cycle—Trump vs. Biden vs. Kennedy vs. Stein vs. West—Stein and West are polling at around 2.2 percent apiece. That may not sound like a lot, until you consider that a combined 4.4 percent for left-of-the-Democrat candidates would be the highest number since the Progressive Party's Robert La Follette over a century ago. Also, in the five such polls taken in 2024 that also feature the simple Trump vs. Biden matchup, the bigger ballot saw Trump's lead widen by an average of two percentage points.

Both Stein and West and the entire field currently seeking the Libertarian Party nomination are decidedly more anti-interventionist, and critical of the American empire, than Biden or Trump. For most of the 21st century, comparative foreign policy skeptics have punched far above their weight in presidential elections: Ralph Nader in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004, Ron Paul and Barack Obama in 2008, Paul again in 2012, Trump in 2016.

The wild card this time around might be RFK Jr., who initially thrilled many anti-interventionists with his dovish take on the Russia-Ukraine war only to alienate them with his staunch post–October 7 support for Israel. According to The Washington Post, Kennedy's advisers "say he will deliver a speech soon to address concerns both among leftist activists and libertarians that his approach to Israel is too hawkish."

You will rarely go broke betting against independent and third-party candidates to undershoot their expectations and to fail (as they have every presidential election after 1968) to win a single state. Many, though not all, of the conditions that dampened third-party enthusiasm in 2018, 2020, and 2022 remain in place, chiefly high negative polarization and the related anxiety that the worse of the two major parties will introduce authoritarianism. Third-party poll numbers almost always march steadily downward from February to November, and even the final day's polling typically overstates support by a third.

But America's anti-interventionist sentiment almost always dwarfs that of their highest representatives in Washington, even those who were elected promising a more humble foreign policy. And it's not hard to imagine overseas entanglements sprouting all over the globe this calendar year, against a domestic backdrop of highly charged politics and profound youth-vote alienation from the rest of the country.

"This is a disaster politically," an unnamed House Democrat told Politico's Martin. "The base is really pissed—and it's not just the leftists. I have never seen such a depth of anguish as I've seen over this Gaza issue."

Expect that anguish to nudge Biden further toward confronting Israel over the conduct of the war, even while his own coalition derides him as "Genocide Joe" and plays footsie with third-party candidates to his left. Even if the major-party primaries turned out to be an uncompetitive dud, the general-election campaign is already trending toward weird.

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