early and often

The Fallacy Behind No Labels’ Independent Unity Ticket

Is soon-to-be-ex-senator Joe Manchin really going to light up the sky as a presidential candidate? Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The nonpartisan group No Labels wants to put a hypothetical independent unity ticket on the presidential ballot in 2024. There are a lot of problems with this plan. The biggest is that the group says it won’t launch such a candidacy unless victory is entirely possible. This means if it doesn’t get on enough ballots to ensure 270 electoral votes, the whole thing will have been a waste of time and of the money the group’s shadowy donors have ponied up.

Another problem is figuring out who will determine the ticket’s viability before it is (potentially) unveiled at No Labels’ April 2024 convention in Dallas. Will it be No Labels CEO Nancy Jacobson? Her husband, the pollster-strategist Mark Penn (who has supplied the group’s … interesting past polling showing that Joe Biden’s Delaware is in play)? Or perhaps the same shadowy donors who are paying for the show?

Moreover, what if the theoretical viability of an independent unity ticket falls apart when the actual candidates are unveiled? There are lobbyists who swoon over the two senators whose names are most often mentioned as possible independent unity presidential candidates, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But both politicians are very likely in the process of losing their Senate seats next year; it’s unlikely either would light up the sky as a presidential candidate. And even if they looked good initially, there’s a rich history of third-party candidacies (particularly the prior two “independent centrist” efforts, by John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992) polling well for a moment until reality sets in and the “maverick” option fades.

Beyond all these questions, though, is a more fundamental problem with the No Labels premise, based on the idea that the two “broken” political parties are holding a largely centrist nation hostage to the fanatical ideologues who control them. Perhaps you could make an argument that the party caucuses in Congress or powerful partisan interest groups are keeping Republicans and Democrats in Washington from the “commonsense” policies that are supposedly so easy to discern. But when it comes to the presidential nominations, “centrists” have every opportunity to influence the outcome, particularly in the Democratic Party.

To begin with, the idea that the plurality persuasion in American politics is “independent” is a much-exploded myth. Most independents regularly vote for one party or the other and just prefer to think of themselves as “independent”; many register as members of a party or participate in their preferred party’s primaries. Estimates of the percentage of the electorate that are “true” independents usually range from 7 percent to 9 percent. They aren’t typically “centrist.” And their most distinct characteristic is political disengagement, not a desperate, hand-wringing desire for more options.

But disengaged or not, independents are far from locked out of the presidential primaries. Independents participate in partisan primaries in 24 states, and 22 states allow voters to change their party registration and vote on Election Day. And along with the phony independents who regularly vote in such primaries, they could mount a serious effort to get rid of Donald Trump (who is going to have plenty of credible opponents) or Biden if they choose to do so.

No matter what they tell themselves, the No Labels ticket isn’t going to succeed, which means its most likely impact, as Democrats keep warning (including those affiliated with Third Way, an organization whose centrist credentials are as good as Jacobson’s and Penn’s, and with No Labels ex-supporters like Bill Galston), would be to toss a close election to Trump. And that brings to mind the most important false premise promoted by No Labels: that the two parties and their likely presidential nominees are equal threats to democracy and the future of sensible, “commonsense” governance. Anyone who believes that should watch or rewatch Trump’s wild performance at the recent CNN Town Hall event, which should scare any advocate of constructive centrist politics half to death.

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The Fallacy Behind No Labels’ Independent Unity Ticket