There’s been a lot of talk about one of the big variables in 2024, but not a lot of precision. I tried to provide a bit more at New York:
Between 2016 and 2020, the nonmajor party share of the presidential vote dropped from 5.7 percent to 1.9 percent. It’s impossible to determine whether that factor had a decisive impact on the fact that Donald Trump won the former race and lost the latter; after all, he lost the popular vote in both elections. But if you accept the proposition that his conduct and character have placed something of a cap on his popularity, the availability of robust minor-party or independent candidacies to divert anti-Trump votes seems significant. Beyond that, nonmajor-party votes that might have gone to a major-party candidate always matter to some degree. Indeed, critics of Joe Biden may believe there’s a cap on his popularity as much as on Trump’s, thanks to his age or stubborn negative perceptions of his presidency.
Early 2024 polls have shown a massive uptick in possible willingness to vote for a nonmajor-party candidate, along with low-approval and favorability numbers for the likely major-party candidates, Biden and Trump.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls testing Biden and Trump against announced independent candidates Robert F. Kennedy and Cornel West and likely Green Party candidate Jill Stein shows 18.2 percent of voters willing to go rogue. This is obviously a lot higher than the nonparty vote in 2016 and 2020, and about double the maximum I could find in 2016 polls when minor/independent candidates were last the rage. That’s without a Libertarian (the largest-standing minor party) in the mix, by the way; there are so many candidates running for that party’s nomination that most pollsters are waiting for a name.
There are definitely reasons to assume the number of people willing to vote independent/minor party will decline before November 2024. The first is history, as Jacob Indursky explains in an article on the difficulty of third-party polling:
“Third-party candidates routinely fade in the stretch. A June 2000 Gallup survey found Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and Green Party nominee, and Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan combining for roughly 8 percent. Still, on Election Day, they only won 3 percent of the national vote, albeit enough to tip Florida, and thus the presidency, to George W. Bush. In 1980, Republican congressman turned independent presidential candidate John Anderson scored around 20 percent in Gallup polling for most of the spring and summer but wound up with under 7 percent of the popular vote.”
A major reason for this nonmajor-party fade is one that is high relevant to today’s grumpy electorate:
“When voters are underwhelmed by the major party nominees and want to express their frustration to a pollster, they may claim to back a third option. With the average favorability of Trump and Biden well underwater, according to FiveThirtyEight, the double-digit polling numbers for RFK Jr. are essentially a ‘cry for help’ from the voting public.”
Indursky also mentions the fall in support that often accompanies minorparty candidates becoming better known. RFK Jr., a man with a famous name and some superficially attractive populist poses, is likely to lose altitude with some of his more erratic conspiracy-theory leanings and a largely incoherent worldview become manifest to voters, as the major-party campaigns are guaranteed to ensure. As the New York Times observed last month, Kennedy was briefly popular among Democratic primary voters before he switched to an independent bid in part because his numbers were crashing:
“The durability of Mr. Kennedy’s appeal to voters remains an open question. Shortly after he entered the Democratic primary race in April, polls found him drawing support from up to 20 percent of the party’s primary voters.
“But as he gained more attention from the news media and articulated more positions that are out of step with the Democratic base, his numbers dropped to the low single digits.”
He’s not as big a factor in the polls as RFK Jr., but Cornel West is already drawing some very hostile press about his personal life and financial probity. Jill Stein’s candidacy, moreover, will bring back bad memories of her alleged role in tipping key states to Trump in 2016.
Still another reason nonmajor-party candidates sometimes poll better than they actually perform in elections involves the difficulty of accurately measuring their supporters’ likelihood to vote. The voters most disgruntled with the choice of Biden and Trump — the “double haters” as they are sometimes called — are disproportionately marginal, and often young, voters, who are less engaged with politics and most likely to just stay home.
And even with the major-party primaries beginning next month, it’s possible additional general election candidates could join the fray and confuse everything. The centrist group No Labels will decide in April whether to field a candidate and claims it will only do so if said candidate could actually win (which seems an extremely dubious proposition). Until its ruled out this option, it must be considered a factor and as deadly a threat to the other nonmajor-party candidates as to Biden and Trump.
And finally, there is the crucial question of how many voters in the states that will decide the Electoral College winner in 2024 will even have the opportunity of voting for these candidates. According to veteran political observer Doug Sosnik, the nonmajor-party candidates have had variable success in obtaining the ballot access necessary to affect the presidential election:
“Jill Stein announced that she is running again as the Green Party candidate and thus far she has qualified to be on the ballot in three battleground states — Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Stein will likely attack Biden from the left on a variety of issues, including his support for Israel. This could have a significant impact in Michigan, with a population of over 300,000 Arab Americans. No Labels will be holding a convention on April 14 in Dallas to determine if it will field a candidate. So far it has achieved ballot access in the swing states of Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina. Robert Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West are running, but neither has qualified to be on the ballot in any state.”
However large the minor party/independent vote looks at any given point, we will hear arguments that either Biden or Trump would have had an additional advantage if the other candidates weren’t around. So far the 2024 polling shows the minor party vote helping the 45th president though not massively; the RealClearPolitics head-to-head polling averages show Trump leading Biden by 3.2 percent; while the more limited five-way polling that includes Kennedy, West, and Stein shows Trump leading Biden by 5.7 percent. That could change a bit once a Libertarian candidate is in the field. But for all we know the non-major-party vote could split so evenly that it will still be a Biden-Trump race to the finish. Most experts now believe the most successful independent candidate of recent decades, 1992 and 1996 presidential aspirant Ross Perot, didn’t really affect the outcome of either election, other than marginally influencing the mix of issues the major candidates addressed. So while a smaller non-major party vote is good for the major parties, the outliers in the field could just add to the noise.