Two developments over the last week significantly increased the likelihood that Donald Trump will be elected president next year. First, Cornel West announced his candidacy for the presidency, first on behalf of the People’s Party, before switching to the Green Party. Next, No Labels revised its criteria, and now says it plans to run a third-party presidential candidate unless Joe Biden is “way, way out ahead” in polls.
Biden is going to be facing at least one, and quite possibly two, spoiler candidates splitting the non-conservative vote.
West’s intentions are straightforward. The academic and activist is one of those left-wingers who hates liberals more than anything else. He believes the Democratic Party stands for neoliberalism and warmongering, and does not care whether Biden defeats Trump.
Chris Cuomo recently asked West why he won’t just run a Democratic primary campaign, which would allow him to discuss all the ideas he wants to publicize but without helping Republicans. Here is his word-salad response, in its entirety:
Well, because the Democratic Party has shown itself over and over again and you know, my love for my dear brother Bernie Sanders. It’s shown itself that both parties now stand in the way of coming to terms with the plight of poor and working people. Sixty percent of our fellow citizens no matter what color, barely making it day to day, month to month, both parties tied to Wall Street, both parties tied to military expansion, look at the debt-ceiling agreement, pull from the poor military expansion, both parties agree, and so if the Democrats were concerned about a brother like me or any other voice, then they would have candidates that would speak to the needs of poor and working people.
The end of this diatribe comes close to forming a coherent argument, but it is an argument for the exact opposite of what West is doing. He insists the Democrats don’t have any “candidates that would speak to the needs of poor and working people,” which would be a good case for West being that candidate.
Anyway, West is immune to consequentialist reason. He’s running.
Meanwhile, No Labels has taken a cagier, but nonetheless alarming, posture. The organization has previously stated that it absolutely will not run a candidate who helps Trump.
“I would not be involved if I thought in any account that we would do something to spoil the election in favor of Donald Trump. That’s just not going to happen,” promised Benjamin Chavis Jr., an adviser to the group. Ryan Clancy, a senior adviser to the group, said, “We have very tight guardrails around this effort.”
Exactly what these guardrails are, and how they would prevent a result that seems disturbingly plausible, they don’t say. And now the guardrails appear to be even looser than before. Chavis now tells NBC the group will stand down if Biden has a huge polling lead:
“After Super Tuesday next year [and] before the [No Labels] convention in Dallas in April, there will be a decision,” Chavis said.
“If we find that the polls are changed and Joe Biden is way, way out ahead, and the person who the Republicans may choose — and if they continue to choose Donald Trump, even though he’s been indicted — then No Labels will stand down.”
Biden being “way, way out ahead” is a fairly unlikely situation. Indeed, it’s the kind of scenario where a No Labels run would be less damaging. The worrisome scenario is one where Biden has a small polling lead and No Labels peels off enough moderate voters to eliminate his margin of victory. Chavis is now saying that is a situation in which the group will run a presidential candidate.
To be sure, there’s no way to know for certain what effect a No Labels candidacy would have. It would depend in part on who the candidate is. But common sense suggests that Trump’s polarizing personality would essentially cleave the electorate into pro- and anti-Trump voters. Running a third-party candidate on a platform of moderation and bringing the parties together, which is very much part of Biden’s persona and very much not part of Trump’s, would likely take more Biden votes than Trump votes.
It is probably not a good idea to put too much weight on statements in the media by No Labels, an organization containing a number of people who may have different goals and probably lack a coherent plan to do anything. Still, the prospect it blunders into the presidential race fueled by self-delusion seems hardly far-fetched. Moderate Democrats are taking the threat very seriously, as Gabriel Debenedetti reports.
No Labels also has a lot of money to spend on this effort. It could shave a couple points off Biden’s net vote margin, which might well be decisive. Then throw in West taking a percentage point or so (which was Jill Stein’s vote total in 2016 — West is more compelling and less obviously flaky than Stein) and you have spoiler candidates carving up the anti-Trump vote on both sides.
That doesn’t totally doom Biden. In 1948, the New Deal coalition splintered on both ends. On the right, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond led segregationist Southern Democrats out of the party in protest of Harry Truman’s support for civil rights. On the left,
People’s Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (a former vice-president under Franklin Roosevelt) led anti-anti-communist Democrats protesting Truman’s support for the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, and other measures to defend Western Europe from Stalinism.
Truman managed to win anyway. But his victory was far from easy. And Biden may be forced to match the same feat: defeating a unified Republican Party in the face of two spoiler campaigns.
This post has been updated.