No Labels is toying with a risky idea. The centrist political group is considering running a third-party presidential “unity ticket” in 2024 with one Republican and one Democrat. It’s an intriguing idea—one that would theoretically appeal to Americans who feel abandoned by both major parties—but depending on who you ask, the plan is either a necessary last resort to pull the country back from the brink or a doomed strategy that will guarantee another four years of President Donald Trump. So which is it?
If you ask No Labels itself, the organization will clarify a few things about its 2024 strategy. First, it says, a third-party ticket is by no means a done deal: Rather, it is an “insurance policy” to be invoked only if both the Republican and Democratic parties nominate candidates that a majority of the country considers extreme. Second, it will only proceed with fielding a ticket if there is a real path to victory. Third, the group is currently focusing its efforts on attaining ballot access in all 50 states, which could serve as a “launching pad” for its unity ticket.
It sounds reasonable as No Labels describes it, but not everyone is so upbeat about the project. Critics say that No Labels is drawing a foolish false equivalence between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and that a third-party bid would accomplish little more than guaranteeing the former’s reelection. William Galston, one of No Labels’ five co-founders, resigned from the group in protest for these reasons. Other historical allies of No Labels—including moderate Democratic lawmakers and centrist think tanks—are similarly disapproving of the effort.
These critics have a point. Polling shows that voters who dislike both Trump and Biden—so-called double haters—lean toward Biden when pressed to choose between the two. These reluctant Biden voters would likely be the first to opt for a No Labels ticket. With presidential elections decided by just a percentage point or two, this could be enough to tip the election to Trump or another GOP nominee. Another recent poll found that Biden leads Trump by two points in a head-to-head match but trails him by one point when the question included West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin as an independent presidential candidate.
The historical record also speaks to the potential risk of a No Labels ticket. The 2000 election arguably turned on the presence of a third-party candidate. That year, the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, a state that Al Gore lost by just 537 votes. George W. Bush instead won Florida’s electoral votes—and, as a result, the presidency. There’s no way to know for sure how Nader voters would have split in Nader’s absence, but preelection polling indicates that more of these left-wing environmentalists would have opted for Gore than Bush.
Unfortunately, No Labels has not been willing to face these concerns head-on. Rather than acknowledging the riskiness of a third-party bid, the group seems intent on downplaying how an independent run could go wrong. On a leaked call between the group’s leadership and donors, for instance, top staffers brushed aside a question about whether their unity ticket could be a spoiler for Trump by explaining that nobody knows for sure how a third-party bid would play out.
That might be technically true, since nobody can see into the future. But polling and history does indicate that a moderate third-party ticket would very likely lead directly to a second Trump term. It’s No Labels’ willful ignorance of this fact that has the critics up in arms.
A More Workable Third-Party Approach
But just because No Labels has acted imprudently up to this point doesn’t mean its idea is completely without merit. Done right, a bipartisan third-party ticket would be a valuable way for dissatisfied voters to register their frustration with the two parties and encourage moderation in a time of polarization and extremism. Accomplishing that, however, would require a much more deliberate and cautious plan than the one that No Labels has put forward, one guided by clear principles and stable guardrails.
To start, any playbook for a moderate third-party bid should include four rules for itself.
First, the campaign must prove that it can appeal to a critical mass of voters on both sides of the aisle before it launches. The idea that there is a moderate majority just waiting to be harnessed is far from obvious. To show that it has a path through the middle, the group looking to field such a candidacy should run polls and focus groups to demonstrate with clarity and precision which voters its ticket and message will appeal to and that it will not siphon off voters from one party at a disproportionate rate.
Second, once it launches, the campaign must prioritize winning equal levels of support from would-be GOP voters and would-be Democratic voters. This parity must be the number one objective upon launch, even if it means winning fewer votes in total. To ensure this, the campaign must continuously run polls assessing where its support is coming from. If there turns out to be an imbalance, the group should invest in messaging and outreach to the other side of the aisle in order to balance the scales.
Third, a third-party ticket must set a “kill switch” date by which it will withdraw from the race if there is an imbalance in where its support is coming from or if it’s obvious that it has no chance at victory. Ideally, this date would come sometime in late summer or early fall of 2024, in order to give the race enough time to rebalance and stabilize following its withdrawal.
Fourth, any organization behind a third-party ticket must be squeaky clean. There cannot be questions about the group’s motives, and there must be absolute transparency into how the group is organized, who funds it and how decisions are made. That’s the only way that both Democrats and Republicans can trust that this isn’t a tactical operation being engineered by the other side.
So far, unfortunately, No Labels has not committed itself to anything resembling this set of rules. The group has not made it clear how it plans to appeal to Democrats and Republicans at equal levels. It hasn’t said that it will conduct regular or rigorous polling to ensure that its support is balanced between the parties. And perhaps most damningly, No Labels is not close to having the healthy reputation that a third-party group would need to have, because it refuses to disclose information about its donors, is exceedingly secretive about its internal operations and is notorious for its toxic workplace culture.
Ultimately, if No Labels is going to appease concerns that it is merely sponsoring a spoiler, it will need to change course. Rather than continue to pretend that all criticism of its attempt is driven by partisanship and ignorance, No Labels—or any other group behind a third-party campaign—should address head-on the repercussions that a third-party bid could have and develop a clear plan for avoiding the worst of them. Only then will there be any hope of fielding a unity ticket that is anything more than a gift to Donald Trump.