No Labels, the 501(c)(4) “commonsense majority” political nonprofit established in 2010 to promote civility, bipartisanship, and moderation, has been marking the arrival of presidential primary season by trying doggedly to remind people that it still exists.
Last Thursday, just after news broke of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropping out of the Republican race, the centrist group let journalists know that the pugnacious pol might make a fine No Labels nominee (Christie’s disdain for the project notwithstanding). As if to broaden the third-party lane for former blue-state Republican governors, Maryland’s Larry Hogan then let slip that he had recently resigned from No Labels’ board (“in a possible sign of a 2024 bid,” noted the Associated Press headline); though on CNN Sunday Hogan played down his personal ambitions and endorsed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for the GOP nomination.
On Friday, the Washington Examiner reported that the putative political party had assembled a list of 13 possible candidates (assumed to be mostly Republican, with a Democratic veep; all as yet unnamed), to be whittled down between now and sometime in March, if and when it looks like former President Donald Trump has sewn up the GOP nomination. “They believe they have a path to victory with the right unity ticket of a Democrat and Republican,” a source told the Examiner after attending a No Labels strategy session last week in Florida, where a new associated super PAC was announced.
Fox News further reported on Monday that the leading figure among those presumed 13 candidates, Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.), recently told a private gathering in Connecticut that he would be meeting with President Joe Biden in a matter of days to try to “move him to the center” on issues like spending and regulation and personnel. “Manchin strongly suggested that [the meeting] will set the stage for a decision on his own 2024 presidential run,” Fox reported, with D-Day coming as soon as Super Tuesday on March 5.
If inserted into the race, the new presidential kid on the block would have ballot access in at least 14 states, worth 123 electoral college votes: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah. Signature gatherers have another 14 states in their sights between now and November, though the major parties are throwing up their usual obstacles.
The 2024 environment thus far has looked unusually promising for third parties and independents. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., since dropping out of the Democratic primary (in which he was polling higher than any incumbent-challenger since Pat Buchanan in 1992), has consistently drawn around 15 percent support in a three-way matchup between Biden and Trump, both of whom have been at around 37–38 percent. RFK Jr. is the only major figure in the presidential race with net favorable ratings, per a Gallup poll released last week. (Kennedy is only now starting to obtain ballot access, beginning in Utah.)
For the entirety of the campaign, a solid majority of Americans have been dissatisfied with the Trump-Biden choice, which is basically No Labels’ current theory of the case. Both Biden (at 38 percent) and Trump (41 percent) are underwater with independents, the swing voters in most 21st century presidential elections. A Gallup synthesis of its 2023 polls released last Friday showed that 43 percent of Americans last year politically self-identified as independents, tying the all-time record of 2014.
And we are no longer just talking about Republican-leaning or Democrat-leaning independents, blocs whose voting habits have been relatively predictable over time. The number of measurably independent independents has grown by 46 percent nationwide since October 2008, from 24.5 million to 35.3 million, nearly edging out the total of registered Republicans (35.7 million, as of October 2023, compared to 45.9 million Democrats). In 2004, among the 30+ states that track partisan registration, Democrats and Republicans combined for a 75 percent market share; now that’s down to 68 percent. (Registered Libertarians, meanwhile, have tripled since 2008, up to 742,000.)
Negative polarization, major-party parity, and relentlessly apocalyptic political rhetoric, it is true, have combined to send the independent-curious scampering back to the two-party fold in most every election since Trump’s shocking 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and whole swaths of the media are already in midseason form when it comes to casting this election as the last, best hope for the American experiment to survive.
“January 6th [is] a day forever shared in our memory because it was on that day that we nearly lost America—lost it all,” Biden declared the day before the three-year anniversary of the Capitol riot. “Today, we’re here to answer the most important of questions. Is democracy still America’s sacred cause? I mean it. This is not rhetorical, academic, or hypothetical. Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”
That message may yet deliver Dems one last victory over a venal septuagenarian who could never crack 47 percent of the popular vote even before facing 91 criminal counts over four separate trials. But also, Biden has never really been popular to begin with, Americans are in a long public-opinion funk, and the president’s physical and verbal decline at a time of great international uncertainty has helped make him the incumbent Democrat most vulnerable to a primary challenge since Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Rep. Dean Phillips (D–Minn.) is polling at 10 percent in New Hampshire (where Biden, through a campaign quirk, is competing as a write-in); Marianne Williamson is at 5 percent. If the Granite State decides to deliver one of its patented wake-up calls to the frontrunner, we could yet see California Gov. Gavin Newsom quickly get loose in the bullpen.
So how is No Labels weighing its options? Incoherently. In a piece published today at the new news outlet NOTUS, No Labels spokesman Jay Nixon cited on one hand Republicans trying to “burn down the Capitol,” and on the other allowing Sen. John Fetterman (D–Pa.) to break the Senate dress code. “It wasn’t a Republican who said Fetterman could wear shorts,” Nixon said.
The organization on its website claims to be mollifiable if either the Democratic or Republican parties “nominate candidates and release policy platforms that cater to the needs of [the commonsense] majority, instead of the wants of a partisan minority.” Yet their own 30-point Common Sense Policy agenda is a pile of centrist mush that either both parties would happily endorse (“America should make it a national priority to have the most efficient, most effective, and most powerful military in the world to protect democracy at home and abroad”), or would back exactly one-half, like: “America is a nation of laws, so we must immediately regain control of our borders and stop releasing migrants who enter America illegally into the country….America is also a nation of immigrants, so we should create a path to citizenship for the Dreamers and a plan to attract more legal immigrants, because more hardworking taxpayers means lower inflation and faster economic growth.”
And, not unlike then-Libertarian vice presidential nominee Bill Weld in the last days of the 2016 election, No Labels leaders insist that they would only compete against the two major parties to win, but also that they don’t want to be “spoilers,” because Trump is obviously worse.
“None of us want to be spoilers…who help reelect Donald Trump,” No Labels Chair Joe Lieberman told The Hill last week. “Because as much as we are focused on restoring bipartisanship, national interest, etc., to our government, you know, Trump represents a whole series of separate challenges, threats to our government beyond too much partisanship.”
Given that Trump is more popular among Republicans than Biden is among Democrats, and that no third-party or independent presidential candidate has cracked even 20 percent of the popular vote in over a century, it seems hard to arrive at the confident conclusion either that a No Labels candidate could plausibly win (particularly in the absence of 50-state ballot access), or that he or she would definitely ding Republicans more.
Or as Christie put it last July, “They think they know who they’re going to hurt. They want to hurt Donald Trump if he’s the nominee. But, you know, when you get into a third-party campaign—we saw this with Ross Perot, we saw this later with Ralph Nader—you never quite know who you’re going to hurt.”
Whatever the well-funded centrists decide over the next seven weeks, you can bet that two-party political operatives will be pointing maximum sleaze in the general direction of No Labels leaders and prospective candidates.
“Through every channel we have, to their donors, their friends, the press, everyone—everyone—should send the message: If you have one fingernail clipping of a skeleton in your closet, we will find it,” one participant in an 80-minute anti–No Labels strategy call said in December, according to a December Semafor article. (Attendees reportedly included representatives from the Lincoln Project, Move On, Public Citizen, End Citizens United, and Reproductive Freedom for All.) “If you think you were vetted when you ran for governor, you’re insane,” the speaker continued. “That was nothing. We are going to come at you with every gun we can possibly find. We did not do that with Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, we should have, and we will not make that mistake again.”