A slate of new polling released last week was a further indication that all the talk about third parties’ impact on 2024 isn’t going away. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West are running for president as independents. No Labels continues mulling how it wants its own third-party run to play out. Voters seem unhappy with a rematch between former President Trump and President Biden, which nevertheless seems quite likely at this point.
Since Kennedy’s announcement, polls show third-party candidates getting the highest numbers we’ve seen since Texas businessman H. Ross Perot ran as an independent in 1992 and 1996. Now, there are a lot of caveats to that—the largest being that it’s still a year before the election and independent candidates must secure their place on the ballot. The other huge issue is that voters might just be venting their frustration with politics by choosing a third candidate, rather than actually recording an intent to vote for them.
Polling on these candidates is always a conundrum. If you ask voters, they will say they want a third-party candidate. If you name the independent (or Libertarian Party or Green Party) candidates in the ballot-test poll question, it is almost always true that more people will say they want to vote for that person than actually do. If you leave them out of the poll question, you are by definition underestimating third-party and independent candidates’ support.
Yet in the last two elections—and likely for a third consecutive election in 2024—the two major-party candidates have been broadly disliked by majorities of voters. This was a new phenomenon in 2016, when an already unpopular Trump faced off against an unpopular Hilary Clinton. The numbers weren’t much better for Biden in 2020 against a still-unpopular Trump. And as multiple polls have pointed out, there is a strong contingent of voters who still dislike both Biden and Trump as we head into 2024.
What those voters do is incredibly important for the outcome in 2024, and polls don’t have a good handle on this group—because they’re volatile. The pollsters at Marquette University Law School note that in their May national poll, these voters favored Trump by double digits, but in their September poll the group favored Biden by double digits.
Similarly, back in July, scholars at the American Enterprise Institute examined polling that showed Ron DeSantis would do better with these “double doubter” voters than Trump would against Biden, highlighting the fact that concerns about Trump more than Biden are driving this group.
Neither Marquette nor AEI discussed how third-party or independent candidates fit into this picture, but No Labels fills that gap with its own new polling—although probably not in the way the group intended. No Labels’ polling shows that a Democrat at the top of the group’s third-party ticket would push things more toward Trump, while a Republican at the top of its ticket would push the race toward Biden.
Those are predictable results. The group claims to show “the alternative American voters want,” yet its own poll shows its ticket winning only in one state and most people continuing to vote Republican or Democrat. Third Way offers a conjecture about the strategy No Labels is pursuing—that the group is trying to create a contested election in which neither party gets 270 electoral votes and the House of Representatives has to step in. Notably, this strategy is not about getting a win for its ticket based on Americans’ votes.
That brings us back to the question of how much third-party candidates will affect the election, knowing that they are unlikely to win. Will disaffected voters take a chance on candidates who won’t win, or are they just telling pollsters that as a signal of their frustration?
Every poll is screaming with evidence of how unhappy people are with where we are as a country. Solutions to critical problems like border security and immigration, family-support systems, and the cost of living seem evasive to many voters regardless of who holds the White House in recent years. The Marquette and AEI polls show that voters unhappy with both candidates are up for grabs. No Labels thinks that provides an opening, but its own polling shows that a third-party ticket can’t win.
Some voters will choose the third-party option, but we also know that polls are probably overstating that number, especially a year out from the election. My instinct is to say most of these people who pick a third party on a poll are grumpy Charlie Brown voters who have grown tired of trying to kick the political football but will still line up and vote Democrat or Republican—that is, if they don’t ghost the election entirely.
Weekly column written by Vice President Natalie Jackson for National Journal.
This column was originally published on October 31, 2023, on nationaljournal.com and is owned by and licensed from National Journal Group LLC.