No one is coming to save us from Trump versus Biden 2.0

Third-party candidates are often overrated at this point in the election cycle.

March 15, 2024, 2:24 PM

Charles Riggs has a habit of backing losers: John Lindsay in '72; Michael Dukakis in '88; Ross Perot in '96. It wasn't until he went all in on former President Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries that he got a taste of victory (after his first pick, John Edwards, dropped out, naturally). "For the first time in my life, at the tender young age of 54, my candidate for president finally won," Riggs said.

This year, Riggs, a retiree based in New York, is disenchanted with both frontrunners, like many Americans. He considers former President Donald Trump the worst president the country has ever had, but doesn't believe President Joe Biden can beat him again. So, as he has so many times throughout his life (and despite considering himself an avowed liberal), he's been considering the possibility of backing someone outside of the mainstream: former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Haley suspended her campaign for the GOP nomination after Trump summarily trounced her on Super Tuesday, but buzz around her as a potential independent candidate continues. So convinced was Riggs that Americans needed a third option on the ballot, he and two friends pooled some funds to sponsor a poll to see how Haley would do in a three-way race. "After she lost New Hampshire, I said to myself, 'Where is the survey of a three-way presidential race?'" Riggs said. "At that point, I said to myself, 'Well, fuck it. I'll do it.'"

But the results were not what he had hoped: In Riggs's poll, Haley drew just 13 percent of the hypothetical vote.

The fantasy of Haley, or any other candidate, coming to save us from the inevitable — a rematch of 2020, something a majority of Americans have said they don't want — has been a popular one this election cycle. It's been especially in the air with the well-funded campaign of No Labels, the group aiming to put forward a slate of moderate candidates as a third-party option. And while the circumstances of this election make it unusual (we haven't seen a former president run for a nonconsecutive term since Herbert Hoover), the armchair punditry around a third-party candidate is nothing new. And as it has been so many times before, this time around, a third-party candidate will be at best a mirage and at worst a spoiler.

Around this point in the election cycle, interest in a potential third-party independent candidate often builds, according to Lee Drutman, a political scientist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "Support for third parties tends to decay as the election gets closer and closer," Drutman said. "People go back to their traditional parties, even if they're dissatisfied with their candidates."

This is true even in years with particularly strong independent candidates. In 1980, independent John Anderson was polling around 20 percent over the summer, but come Election Day, he garnered just 6.6 percent of the popular vote. In 2016, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was averaging just under 10 percent support in July before dropping steadily ahead of the election, finishing with 3.3 percent of the popular vote. Even Perot, who in 1992 won the highest share of the popular vote for a third-party candidate in nearly a century, also bled support over the course of the campaign, dropping from leading Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in polls the summer before the election to winning less than 20 percent of the popular vote and not a single electoral vote.

The fact that Haley, and other, non-hypothetical independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., can scrounge up double-digit support in some polls at this stage in the campaign is neither particularly unusual nor impressive. If history is any indication, that support will drop off as the reality of the November matchup sets in. This is partly because Americans are not nearly as independent as they may seem at first glance, but also because of negative partisanship: Particularly in a close race like we have this year, voters start to worry that a vote for a third party could result in the greater of two evils winning the race.

"One thing that I think happens with third parties is it's really dependent on whether you think this vote matters," said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute at Wagner College. "One of the reasons we saw very little third-party discussion in 2020 was we saw that it mattered in 2016. And there was also a big dropoff in 2004, after we saw it mattered in 2000. As people feel their vote matters, they're less likely to 'waste' it on a third party, which feels like a protest vote."

As Spivak has written, even when a third-party candidate does better than usual, the following election tends to revert to the norm, making it difficult for third parties to build enough momentum to create a viable path to victory. In the 25 presidential elections over the last 100 years, the two major parties got a combined total of 98 percent or more of the popular vote 15 times and a combined total of 90 percent or more 21 times. The four years when candidates outside the two major parties got more than 10 percent of the popular vote are notable outliers that we all remember: 1924, 1968, 1992 and (just barely) 1996.

"But this year is different!" you cry. "Everyone hates both these candidates! Nobody wanted this sequel!" Not so fast, pal.

While it's true that a majority of Americans have said they're "not enthusiastic" about a 2020 rematch and were "tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections and want someone new," the share of Americans who say they don't like either candidate is much lower. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans support their respective candidates. And even the number of so-called "double haters" — people who say they dislike both Trump and Biden — is on par with the percent who said the same about Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Polling from Morning Consult released in February found 19 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of both candidates, similar to the 18 percent who felt the same about Trump and Clinton eight years ago. Most of those voters also, when asked, ultimately expressed a preference for one or the other candidate, indicating that their distaste isn't necessarily enough to drive them to vote third party.

No Labels is not much of a factor this year, either. As my colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote last year, the group's goals are unrealistic, and the fact is, it's March and No Labels still doesn't even have a candidate. Haley — perhaps the group's best bet — has already rejected the notion, which means any candidate it runs would need to build a campaign from scratch with just a few months left in the campaign.

What is different this year is that the leading candidates for both major parties are the oldest we've ever seen in a presidential election, and one of them is facing multiple criminal charges. That introduces the possibility, however slim, that one of the candidates could no longer be able to run for one reason or another, and a third-party candidate could slip in to fill the gap. But that's a lot of ifs.

The most likely scenario is the one that many Americans are dreading: This race becomes a repeat of 2020, with little attention paid to third-party candidates by the time Election Day rolls around. Even Riggs had trouble imagining a scenario in which Haley ended up posing a real challenge to Biden or Trump — although he wasn't willing to write it off completely.

"Politics is full of events that weren't supposed to happen," Riggs said. "The so-called impossible happens in politics. It happens all the time."

It's up to you whether you dare to dream like Riggs, though given his track record, it might be time to accept the inevitable.