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Third-party candidates won't win, but could make a difference

What do Larry Hogan, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman and Jay Nixon all have in common?

They’re former officeholders seeking to regain a place on the political stage by touting the “no labels” movement as an alternative to the two major candidates. All are pretty much estranged from their lifelong parties.

So increasingly is West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the sole current officeholder among those mentioned as prospects to head a “no labels” ticket. Polls indicate he will likely lose his Senate seat if he seeks reelection in 2024.

No alternative candidates have won the presidency since the current two-party system solidified in the mid-19th century. Despite widespread dissatisfaction over the likely 2024 choice, that seems unlikely to change with a pairing of political has-beens seeking a return to relevance.

But history suggests they could play havoc with the outcome. And polls show they almost certainly would help the Republicans — probably Donald Trump — beat President Joe Biden.

Past alternative candidacies can be divided into two general categories: those who made strong national efforts — and those who focused more on specific regions or states. Five candidates fit the first category:

  • In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was a popular former president who mounted an independent bid after losing the Republican nomination to the man he earlier tapped as his successor, President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt polled 27%, more than Taft, but the resulting GOP split helped elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
  • In 1924, the Democrats were split. Prominent Wisconsin Progressive Sen. Robert LaFollette led an alternative to the conservative party nominee, John W. Davis. He polled 17% (Davis had 29) in an election swept by Republican Calvin Coolidge.
  • In 1968, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace broke with the national Democratic Party over its support for civil rights, polling 14% and capturing five Southern states. Most would probably have backed the winner — Republican Richard Nixon — not Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
  • In 1980, Illinois Rep. John Anderson launched an independent candidacy after his unexpectedly strong showing in Republican primaries. He polled nearly 7% but was a non-factor in Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter.
  • In 1992, billionaire computer mogul H. Ross Perot led both major party candidates at one point. Ultimately, he polled 19% — the most for an independent since Roosevelt. But exit polls showed he didn’t determine a single state. In 1996, he ran again and got 8%.

Many others have challenged the two major parties, and several influenced the outcome because of support in specific states or regions.

  • In 1948, two dissident Democrats — liberal former Vice President Henry Wallace and segregationist South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond — nearly enabled Republican Thomas Dewey to defeat President Harry Truman. Thurmond took four traditionally Democratic Southern states, but Truman’s support of civil rights helped him withstand Wallace in key northern states.
  • In 1976, former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, running as an independent, took enough votes in Iowa, Maine and Oregon to put them in Republican President Gerald Ford’s column. But it wasn’t quite enough to prevent Democrat Jimmy Carter’s election.
  • In 2000, consumer crusader Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party ticket, kept Democrat Al Gore from winning Florida and New Hampshire. Either would have enabled Gore to win the election.
  • In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein polled more votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than Trump’s narrow margins over Hillary Clinton.

That could happen again in 2024, thanks to the “no labels” effort and author Cornel West, who is seeking the Green Party nomination.

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, nearly half of those sampled said they would consider voting for an alternative candidate. But when polls list specific alternatives, that proportion drops substantially.

Still, West could attract Democrats who think Biden isn’t liberal enough, like Stein did in 2016. A “no labels” candidate might attract those who consider him too liberal and Trump too conservative, though the appeal of their current prospects seems questionable.

Manchin would certainly attract votes in West Virginia, but probably not enough to prevent a Republican win. He might tip nearby Pennsylvania to Trump. But his appeal elsewhere is questionable, and he says he won’t run unless he thinks he can win.

Lieberman’s home region appeal is questionable. Connecticut Democrats rejected him in 2006, forcing him to win reelection as an independent, and he finished fifth in the 2004 presidential primary in New Hampshire, New England’s chief swing state.

Democrat Nixon is unknown outside Missouri, where he served two terms as governor. But the state is so Republican, an alternative would likely have little impact.

Republican Huntsman’s 2012 presidential bid flopped badly, and he withdrew after finishing third in an all-out New Hampshire effort. He lost a 2020 bid to regain Utah’s governorship.

Republican Hogan served two terms as governor of heavily Democratic Maryland. But his chosen successor lost the Republican primary to a Trump supporter.

Still, even a small vote could influence the result in closely contested states. The “no labels” group may be able to raise substantial money — much of it from Republicans — and qualify for multiple state ballots. It’s already done so in Arizona, which Biden carried by only 10,000 votes in 2020.

But history indicates only a prominent nominee can make a major national impact and, even then, is unlikely to do more than influence which rival candidate wins.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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