Joe Manchin Would Like Your Attention, and He Is Not Alone
It seems to be quite the year for third-party presidential candidates.
There’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running as an independent alternative to President Biden and Donald Trump. There is Cornel West, a professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, who is also running as an independent. And there is Jill Stein, running again for the Green Party nomination.
And later we may have another entrant: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who will retire from the Senate in January at the end of his term.
“Privately,” reports Edward-Isaac Dovere for CNN, “the West Virginia Democrat has told people that a Joe Biden health scare or a Donald Trump conviction could give him an opening to run as an independent this year.”
If Manchin runs, he would probably do so under the banner of No Labels, the centrist political group devoted to bipartisan political activism. No Labels — whose backers, according to a 2023 report in Mother Jones, “are donors who contributed millions of dollars to Republican causes,” including groups supporting Trump’s re-election in 2020 — has been promoting a unity ticket for the upcoming presidential election. Manchin, a conservative Democrat, seems to think he’d be the perfect standard-bearer should the effort materialize.
According to CNN, Manchin is motivated by the notion that “there’s a role for him as a national icon in the ‘fiscally responsible and socially compassionate’ middle, comparable with the role Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders plays for the progressive left.”
Of course, if Manchin decides to run, he’ll be disappointed to learn that while there are moderate voters, there is no mass electorate that pairs fiscal retrenchment with social liberalism. Instead, to borrow a typology from Christian Paz of Vox, moderate voters fall into three broad groups. There are “true moderates,” who hold political opinions broadly to the right of the Democratic Party and to the left of the Republican Party; “disengaged moderates,” who hold a mix of ideologically extreme opinions on the left and right; and “weird moderates,” whose mixed views and hostility to partisanship put them outside the party system.
Perhaps Manchin could rally all of these moderates under a Beltway-approved standard of bipartisanship. But he would still struggle to win a presidential election. The same is true for every third-party candidate and has been true for every third-party campaign for president, from the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832 through the Liberty Party in 1844 to Ross Perot in 1992 and beyond. (At first glance, the Republican Party looks like an exception to this rule, but by the time Republicans nominated their first candidate for president, in 1856, the Whig Party was moribund, close to the end of the road. The Republicans were, effectively, the other major party.)
Yes, the number of Americans who want a third option for president is larger than ever. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released last summer, 47 percent of voters said they would consider a third-party candidate in this year’s election. Surely, under those conditions, there’s room for a third-party candidate to win?
The answer, again, is no. And the reason has less to do with the voters than it does with the voting system. The Electoral College, in particular, makes it almost impossible to run a successful third-party campaign for president.
The Electoral College is the reason we choose the president in 50 separate state elections and not in a single national election. What this means, in practice, is that it is not enough for a third-party candidate to have a large national constituency. That candidate could win a lot of votes — as Martin Van Buren accomplished in 1848 under the banner of Free Soil, as John Anderson did in 1980 and as Perot managed to do twice, in 1992 and 1996 — but would have a hard time winning electors.
Instead, to have any hope of fulfilling the constitutional requirement to win a majority of electoral votes, a third-party candidate would need at least a plurality of voters in a huge number of states. The party would need, on a state-by-state basis, to outcompete one of the other two parties, so that it could notch electors under the winner-take-all rules that apply in most states.
This, unfortunately for anyone with third-party dreams, has never happened. The closest any candidate has ever come is Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election, when his Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party) eclipsed the Republican William Howard Taft to win electoral votes in California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington. But Roosevelt still lost in a landslide, with 88 electoral votes — and 27.4 percent of the national popular vote — to Woodrow Wilson’s 435 electoral votes and 41.8 percent in the popular vote. Taft, the incumbent president, won two states.
The sheer unlikelihood of anyone pulling a repeat performance of Roosevelt in 1912 raises the question of how a third party could succeed under the current rules. And the answers lie with the next most successful third-party presidential campaigns, both of which won several states concentrated in the former Confederacy. In 1948, with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate, the States’ Rights Democratic Party — better known as the Dixiecrats — won four states and 39 electoral votes despite gaining just 2.4 percent of the national popular vote. Twenty years later, George Wallace and the American Independent Party won 46 electoral votes and 13.5 percent of the popular vote.
What both results suggest is that under the Electoral College, the next best alternative to a large and well-distributed national constituency is to have a small and intense regional one. It is, it seems, the only other way to win electoral votes as a third party. And while there’s no chance that a regional third-party candidate could become president, he or she could — if neither major party candidate won an electoral majority — decide the result of the election in the House of Representatives through savvy negotiations with lawmakers.
So there will apparently be several third-party and independent candidates on the November ballot, and none of them have a chance to win, much less shape the Electoral College process. There are other, practical questions to ask about third-party candidates — who would serve in an administration, for one — but they’re all a bit pointless, because we know it will never happen. The next president will be either a Democrat or a Republican, even if many people prefer otherwise.
The important thing to understand, however, is that this won’t be because of some cabal or lack of will on the part of the voting public. It will be because we have an electoral system that is essentially designed, in all its elements, to produce a two-party system so durable that when one party collapses, like the Federalists or the Whigs, another quickly takes its place.
If Americans want different choices, they will need a different system. But these days, changing the Constitution is probably the one thing harder than being a third-party candidate.