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How the ‘No Labels’ Gambit Could Wreck the 2024 Election

The group says it doesn’t want its (as-yet-unchosen) third-party candidate to be a spoiler—but it also doesn’t say who all its funders are.
March 17, 2023
How the ‘No Labels’ Gambit Could Wreck the 2024 Election
Voting booths are seen at Glass Elementary School's polling station in Eagle Pass, Texas, on November 8, 2022. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)

Those politics watchers—including most journalists—who are envisioning the 2024 presidential election as a contest between a Democrat (presumably President Joe Biden) and a Republican (perhaps former President Donald Trump) are missing a big part of the story. Last week brought the warning flash of a significant storm brewing for the upcoming election. The political organization No Labels qualified to place its third-party presidential candidate on the ballot in battleground Arizona twenty months from now.

No Labels is aiming to shake up American politics by running an independent candidate for president. In the process, it may be shaking apart our democracy.

Fox News reports that No Labels is courting politicians like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and Susan Collins as it seeks to build a so-called “unity ticket.” Soothing as the sound of “unity” may be to ears tired of the divisive screeching of our politics, third-party presidential bids have been, without exception, fools’ errands. This one may be worse.

It starts with a faulty premise. The No Labels website says:

We are the voice for the great American majority who increasingly feel politically homeless. We’re . . . laying the groundwork to ensure the American people have a real choice in the 2024 presidential election . . . to bring our divided country back together and solve our most pressing problems.

In fact, the great majority of Americans do not act as if they feel politically homeless. While a plurality of voters call themselves independents, as Geoffrey Skelley noted in FiveThirtyEight, “roughly 3 in 4 independents still lean toward one of the two major political parties, and studies show that . . . [i]ndependents who lean toward a party also tend to back that party at almost the same rate as openly partisan voters.”

Third-party candidates have never come close to winning a presidential election. Even the immensely popular Teddy Roosevelt, the most successful third-party candidate ever, gained only 27 percent of the popular vote running in 1912 on his “Bull Moose” ticket. But he had a decisive effect on the election nonetheless: He split the Republican vote, and by taking 88 Electoral College votes he handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

We could see that party result flip in 2024, with a No Labels candidate taking enough electoral votes to cause the incumbent Democrat to lose to the Republican.

A second scenario: A No Labels candidate could collect enough electoral votes so that neither of the two major party candidates wins the 270 needed to capture the presidency outright.

That would throw the election to the House of Representatives, where the president would be selected in a balloting that gives one vote to each state delegation—26 needed to win. Each state’s ballot is settled by a vote of the representatives in that state’s delegation, so the party that has a majority in each delegation is expected to decide that state’s ballot.

In recent years, Republicans have controlled more state delegations than Democrats, even when Democrats held the majority of members. That is likely to be the case on January 6, 2025, meaning that a House vote would give the country a Republican president. Even if a No Labels candidate somehow eked out a plurality of the popular vote, it is difficult to imagine that a House with no partisan adherents to that candidate would spurn their own party’s choice.

And there’s another dangerous possibility, one where the third-party candidate does not get any electoral votes but wins enough popular votes to skew the outcome away from what most voters want. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who didn’t even crack 3 percent of the national popular vote, received 97,488 votes in the Florida presidential election that George W. Bush won by 537 votes, almost certainly costing Al Gore the state’s Electoral College vote and the presidency.

Some third-party efforts are not worth paying attention to—perennial gadflies, say, or minor parties that don’t make it onto ballots. No Labels is not in that category. They are making a serious effort: They’ve hired hundreds of signature collectors and plan an April 2024 nominating convention in Dallas. In addition to Arizona, they have gained ballot access in bluer Colorado and Oregon. They’re targeting twenty other states. As of last summer, No Labels reportedly had pledges of $46 million on the way to a $70 million goal.

Any moderate No Labels candidate will almost certainly drain more votes from the Democratic side than the Republican. According to Pew Research, “third-party 2016 voters who turned out in 2020 voted 53%-36% for Biden over Trump.”

Recall how slender Biden’s 2020 margin of victory was: In three battleground states that turned the Electoral College his way—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin—he won by a total of 44,000 votes. That’s .028 percent of the national vote.

The leaders of No Labels may not be intending to elect Donald Trump or his Republican successor. But that could be the goal of some of their funders. While No Labels operates “dark money” PACs whose contributors are hidden, one of its backers has been billionaire Republican megadonor Nelson Peltz, a contributor to Georgia Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both defeated in 2020; election denier Sean Parnell, who was Trump’s original endorsed Senate candidate in Pennsylvania last year; Democrat-turned-Fox News contributor Tulsi Gabbard; and House Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise. And the Daily Beast reported in 2018 that No Labels raised money from “recurring” megadonors including Trump supporter John Catsimatidis and Marc Rowan, a contributor to Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, and Mehmet Oz in the midterms.

In the interest of transparency, No Labels should reveal the identities of all its donors. And in the meantime, investigative journalists should work to uncover more details so Americans can see as early as possible whose interests are being served. After all, the surest route to understanding an operation of this sort is, as the saying goes, to follow the money.

No Labels has said it would “stand down” if it appears that their only realistic role becomes that of spoiler. The engineers at Norfolk Southern might have something to teach them about the difficulty of braking a locomotive once it builds up real momentum, even when the warning light is strobing. It’s not easy to take names off a ballot once they’re on.

Before it gets much further down the track, let’s find out who’s fueling this freight train aiming at our democracy. And let’s speak out to convince this effort’s well-intentioned leaders that they don’t want history handing them the liability for a 2024 crash.

Norm Ornstein and Dennis Aftergut

Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (Twitter: @NormOrnstein). Dennis Aftergut, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Supreme Court advocate, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.