Democratic alarm over third-party challengers spoiling President Biden’s reelection has been growing in recent weeks, prompting a new push both inside the party and among allied outside groups to step up their efforts fighting back.
The Democratic National Committee hired a new communications adviser last month to counter the third-party candidates, while outside groups working for Biden’s election have been having discussions about a new organization that could coordinate about the wide range of threats.
A recent five-way national poll by Quinnipiac University that named Biden, former president Donald Trump, attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., scholar Cornel West and activist Jill Stein showed the combined third-party candidates drawing nearly 1 in 5 voters. A separate effort, by the bipartisan group No Labels, continues to move forward in its search for candidates that could challenge the major-party duopoly.
That polling, combined with increased activism on the left in reaction to Israel’s war in Gaza, has provided a boost to outsiders who are traveling the country in an uphill battle to gain ballot access. Kennedy is seeking to establish a new We the People party with candidates who can run downballot of him in some states, while West has launched a less-well-funded effort to create the Justice for All party, and Stein has sought to expand the reach of the Green Party.
All three candidates are expected to attend this month’s California convention of the Libertarian Party, which aims to have access to nearly all state ballots by November. Kennedy has not committed to pursuing the Libertarian ballot line, though he has been courting the group while independently seeking ballot access. Advisers say he will deliver a speech soon to address concerns both among leftist activists and libertarians that his approach to Israel is too hawkish.
“I get the feeling that he wants to feel it out,” said Angela McArdle, the chair of the Libertarian National Committee, which has welcomed the attention. “We love the courageous stance he took against lockdowns and mandates, but foreign policy is the biggest hurdle that he has to overcome.”
Supporters of Biden have tried to cast Kennedy, in particular, as an outcropping of the Trump movement, noting the overlap with Trump on issues like vaccine mandates, border security and U.S. funding for Ukraine. They have also noted that the top donor to the super PAC supporting Kennedy is Timothy Mellon, a historically Republican donor who has also given to a Trump-aligned group in the past.
“It’s clear that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is being propped up and funded by Donald Trump and his allies because they believe that he is a useful stalking horse who could throw the election Trump’s way,” said Lis Smith, a former top adviser to the presidential campaign of Commerce Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whom the DNC hired last month to push back against third parties, in a statement. “We need to sound that alarm every day between now and the election.”
Tony Lyons, a Kennedy supporter who runs American Values 2024, the group that has raised $15 million from Mellon, said the group has received donations from both Republican and Democratic donors.
“The DNC is in panic mode and rolling out tired old political games,” he said in a statement. “While Bobby Kennedy is crisscrossing the country speaking truth to passionate supporters, describing ideas, policies, common sense solutions to complex problems, Biden surrogates are pushing the usual conspiracy theories.”
No third-party candidate has won an electoral vote since Alabama Gov. George Wallace took five Southern states in 1968 on an American Independent Party platform that opposed the Civil Rights Act. But recent campaign history is littered with candidates — Ross Perot in the 1990s, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in 2000 and Stein in 2016 — who had impact on the major-party results, a factor that could be decisive in another close contest.
Democratic strategists worry not only about the upstart vote share, but also whether strong third-party voices will give less-likely voters a reason to stay home. The fact that so many Americans are unhappy with both Trump and Biden as the major-party nominees has deepened the concern, along with polls showing less party base voter enthusiasm for Biden than Trump.
“The question is no longer people choosing between Trump and Biden,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a strategist for the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “The question is, ‘Do I vote for Trump, do I vote for Biden or do I not show up for all?’ And I think with the volume and intensity of third parties, Democrats can’t rely on the notion that voters will come home in October.”
That has prompted groups such as the Democratic opposition research effort American Bridge to reallocate staff to focus on third-party candidates, while other groups such as Third Way have launched major efforts to dissuade support for No Labels. Another group called Citizens to Save our Republic, led by former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), called on all third-party candidates this week to sign a pledge to leave the race in six swing states by July 1 if they have not qualified in enough states to win the electoral college and have not polled competitively.
Biden allies have also discussed creating another organization to coordinate the anti-third-party efforts.
“A lot of Democrats have come to the realization over the last month that RFK and West are real electoral threats and not just curiosities, and the Middle East crisis is partially driving that, especially in West’s case,” said one Democrat working on the effort to push back on third parties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. “The RFK problem is not that he gets 18 percent. It is that he gets 3 percent or 2 percent or 1 percent.”
Allies of Donald Trump have also raised alarm, though at this point they remain hopeful that the impact of the outsiders will primarily hurt Biden. The calculation may change if Kennedy appears on the Libertarian ballot, which tends to draw more from Republican voters. Surrogates such as Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, have tried to cast Kennedy as a “a radical liberal” and “a great alternative as a Democrat,” a clear effort to keep Republicans from crossing over.
No Labels, which has been the focus of Democratic fury for months, is now focused on finding candidates to run on their ticket. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) has expressed interest, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) — who abandoned a long-shot campaign for the GOP nomination — recently opened the door to considering it. The group’s leaders have said they will move forward only if there is a clear path to victory that will not help elect Trump.
“It is now time for the brave souls to come forward that want our line,” said one No Labels official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Democrats are particularly concerned about the impact of third parties on their base of young and Black voters in swing states. The Quinnipiac poll found Biden with a six-point head-to-head lead over Trump, which shrank to a two-point lead if Kennedy, West and Stein were added to the question. Both Kennedy and West polled at 13 percent among Black voters in the five-way contest; Biden won with 87 percent of the Black vote in 2020 exit polls.
West, a past supporter of Sanders’s presidential campaigns, said the war in Gaza has been pushing Democratic voters away from Biden.
“It will be difficult for him to talk about redeeming the soul of the nation when he is enabling genocide,” said West, who is preparing to announce a running mate this month, in an interview. “The establishment Republican Party is dying and almost done, and the establishment Democratic Party is in a deep crisis and state of decay.”
Kennedy — who says he is also preparing a running mate announcement — has been campaigning heavily within the Black community, sometimes attacking Biden by name for his support of the 1994 crime bill and his support early in his political career from segregationist senators. While falsely claiming that scientific data shows the coronavirus vaccine killed more people than it saved, he has tried to echo some of the big government solutions championed by his uncle, former president John F. Kennedy, in the 1960s, including a dramatic expansion of the AmeriCorps program to give Americans federal jobs if they are willing to make a four-year commitment.
″Our campaign spends a lot of time with those who have given up on honest government, people who know all too well the toll of government abuses,” Kennedy campaign manager Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, who is married to the candidate’s son, said in a statement. “Mandates and censorship have a long and disturbing history in the Black community, in particular. These are Americans who know their history and reject the idea that we must destroy freedom to save it.”
Fox says that the Kennedy campaign expects his support to grow over the coming months, eventually clearing the way for electoral-college victories by winning states typically excluded from the swing-state map with as low as 34 percent of the ballot in a three-way contest. If Kennedy is on enough ballots to win the electoral college and polls above 15 percent nationally, he could also qualify for events sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, though the major-party candidates have not yet committed to that traditional format.
Such a path would break from recent historical patterns, however. Third-party candidates repeatedly underperform their polling, and support for them tends to fall as Election Day approaches. Some Democratic strategists believe the fall could be even sharper this year because of increased polarization, which has left many voters fiercely opposing one of the major-party candidates even if they are not enthusiastic about the other one.
“It’s much more turbulent and complicated than the last four years for sure,” said consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who ran as a third-party candidate for president four times and regularly underperformed his polling in the vote count. “But remember the American voter all has one common characteristic: When push comes to shove, they want to vote for a winner.”