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Why A Third-Party Candidate in 2024 Threatens American Democracy

Al From sets the stakes for why we cannot afford a third-party spoiler this year: "Former President Trump has called for terminating the constitution and retribution against his political opponents. He poses an existential threat to our democracy. President Biden has made the preservation of democracy the central cause of his campaign."
Published:March 12, 2024

By Al From
With the rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump virtually assured, the presidential election most Americans tell pollsters they don’t want to see is now at hand. 
In an ordinary presidential year, a third-party challenge might seem like a logical option. Last week, the political group No Labels decided, in a secret session on Zoom, to continue its search for a challenger to Biden and Trump.
But in 2024, that’s a bad idea — one that could very well endanger the future of our democracy.
Here’s why.
2024 is not an ordinary election year. This election will be the most important our country has faced since the Civil War. Democracy will be on the ballot.
Former President Trump has called for terminating the constitution and retribution against his political opponents. He poses an existential threat to our democracy. President Biden has made the preservation of democracy the central cause of his campaign. 
To me, safeguarding our democracy and freedom must be our single highest priority for the November election.
With the stakes so high, Americans need a clear up or down choice: do they want to continue as a democracy with Biden or become an autocracy with Trump?
A third-party candidate would confuse that choice. A third-party candidate cannot win — indeed, no third-party candidate has won even one electoral vote in more than half a century — but would almost certainly play spoiler by splitting the pro-democracy vote and helping to elect the authoritarian Trump.

For that reason, the bipartisan group Citizens to Save Our Republic has asked No Labels and all other potential third-party candidates to sign a pledge that they will not play the role of spoiler in this pivotal election for our democracy.

All third-party candidates who sign the pledge would commit to withdrawing their names from the ballots in the swing states that will decide the election if, by July 1, they have no chance of accumulating the 270 electoral votes they need to win and are not competitive in major public polls.

Under our system, the winner of the popular vote is not automatically elected president. Rather, to win, a candidate must win enough states to accumulate a majority of votes (270) in the electoral college. Each state is assigned a number of electoral votes based on the size of its congressional delegation — and, with a couple of exceptions, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state gets all its electoral votes. 

That means it is possible for a candidate to lose the national popular vote and still win states with enough electoral votes to win the presidency. That’s how President Trump won the White House in 2016. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but won a majority of electoral votes.

When Trump is on the ballot, voters tend to vote either for him or against him, no matter his opponent. His supporters are rock-solid. Anti-Trump voters are just as passionate. But their passion is to vote against Trump, not necessarily for a particular opponent. If they have a choice of two anti-Trump candidates on the ballot, they are likely to split their votes between them. In 2024, that would be a disaster for democracy.

Like the last two elections, the 2024 election will be very close and likely decided by outcomes in five swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those five states have 74 electoral votes. 

In both 2016 and 2020, the other 45 states voted the same way, and their electoral votes were almost evenly split — 233 for the Democrat and 232 for the Republican. The candidate who won the majority of electoral votes in the five swing states won the White House. In 2016, Trump won all five. In 2020, all five flipped to Biden. 

In both years, the margins were razor-thin. In 2016, Trump’s margin of victory in three of those five states was less than one percentage point. In 2020, Biden also won three of the five by less than one percent.

In both elections, Trump won the exact same 48.8 percent of the vote in the five swing states. In 2016, that was enough for him to win. In 2020, it was not.

The difference was the third-party vote. In 2016, the third party vote was 4.5 percent — most of it came from Hillary Clinton, driving her vote in those states down to 46.7 percent, so Trump’s 48.8 percent was enough to win.

In 2020, the third-party vote decreased by two-thirds — to 1.4 percent. Biden was the beneficiary of that decline — he won 49.8 percent of the vote in the swing states, enough to best Trump’s 48.8 percent.

The bottom line is this: if a third-party candidate wins even two or three percent of the anti-Trump vote in the swing states this year, he will likely flip those states back to Trump, Trump will win the presidency, and our democracy will be in danger.

Al From is the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of “The New Democrats and the Return to Power.” He joins his Republican commentator and friend, Craig Fuller, on the Spy’s From and Fuller video podcast every week.  


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