Let’s cut to the chase: Perhaps against our better judgment, the American project is deeply enmeshed in a ’24 rematch between a 77-year-old multi-bankrupted insurrectionist facing innumerable legal woes and an 80-year-old incumbent whose competence and vitality are questioned daily. We don’t need to philosophize about how we got here, other than to note that the coming national election cycle is uniquely enticing to a rabble-rousing, opportunist third-party candidate able to exploit the fatigue, unpopularity, and general ennui shrouding the two major party candidates. After all, two-thirds of Americans say they don’t want to see a Trump–Biden rematch.
The known unknown, of course—and the question occupying the billable hours of consultants around the country—is which candidate is most susceptible to be spoiled by a third-party contender. During an election that will likely feature split-ticket voting and more focus on candidate over party, these gadflies could impact a few thousand votes in key districts in a few battleground states—more than enough to swing the electoral map. “We have a lived experience. Our memory is not good,” James Carville told me, recalling how Ralph Nader spoiled the race for Al Gore in 2000, and Jill Stein negatively impacted Hilary Clinton by taking a few thousand votes from her in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016. “The one that worries me the most is Cornel West,” Carville continued. “We’ve seen the left two times cost us the presidency in races where we won the popular vote.”
Interestingly, however, a few recent polls and theories posit that Democrats may actually have some advantages if these gadfly candidates get some traction. Indeed, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. increasingly looks like a liability for Trump rather than Biden as he builds support with an even more conspiratorial crowd. Operatives are also closely monitoring polls that show how independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema, after months of being bashed by Ruben Gallego, the Democratic challenger for her Arizona Senate seat, could actually cannibalize Republicans in a three-way race. And then there’s the shift in thinking about No Labels: Could they possibly help Biden by putting a center-right Republican at the top of their ticket, rather than a moderate Democrat like Joe Manchin, whom they’ve floated as their nominee?