Joe Manchin’s decision to retire from the US Senate is not surprising. The tea leaves have been there for a long time. But what is surprising is how immediately and explicitly he made clear that he is entertaining the possibility of entering the 2024 presidential contest. It is a decision that could prove monumentally important to the 2024 outcome — and unlike most third party candidates, Manchin has a real shot at being more than a protest vote. For the last true independent-minded moderate in the Democratic Party, it should be an easy choice: he has every reason to run.
The Republicans and Democrats are both headed toward nominating two of the most unpopular politicians in America. The challenges they face are unique and unavoidable. Donald Trump will be running under a cloud of pending convictions that every poll indicates will render him toxic to independent voters. Joe Biden will be doddering through an election where it often seems he has no idea where he is at any given moment.
Americans want someone else, even to the degree of entertaining the possibility of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has never been elected to anything, just because he is a good podcast guest with different ideas — and early indications are he takes more from Trump than from Biden. But RFK has limited resources and is anathema to the mainstream media, while Manchin has spent years proving his capability on that stage.
The typical reasons that prevent politicians from running on a third-party line simply don’t apply to Manchin. Rather than have to go through the heavy task of gaining ballot access, he has the well-funded No Labels effort waiting eagerly for him. There is already an awareness that a significant amount of center-right donor money stands ready to flow to a candidate who won’t spend it paying for all their lawyers. And he doesn’t have to worry about his political future. Since he is truly at the end of his political career, if he loses, he can just go write the book he would have written anyway.
As I wrote recently at the New York Times, we are entering a period where the party machines which were once essential to winning elections have been thoroughly weakened. The party organizations are largely ineffectual or incapable of motivating voters. The great cultural sort has led to a significant opening in the political middle, one which has only increased in the wake of the Dobbs ruling and the takeover of the Democratic Party by the radical racialized cultural left.
Manchin is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this, if he avoids one key mistake: he should immediately dismiss the gadfly effort to have him run on a ticket with Mitt Romney. A spokesperson for the retiring Utah senator has already put out a statement saying this is not happening despite an announced effort to draft him. But it would be a huge mistake to saddle any campaign with two aged candidates, especially one with Romney’s unnecessary baggage.
While Manchin is far more level-headed and physically healthy than Biden or Trump, whoever he chooses to run with must be younger, media-savvy and appeal culturally to his political right. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing his move, Manchin holds up his attempt to codify Roe in the Senate only to be blocked by Democrats who wanted more extreme legislation as an example of his moderation. That type of move would be repugnant to pro-life voters post-Dobbs who might otherwise entertain voting for a third party ticket.
This does not mean that Manchin needs to choose a conservative. There are a host of moderate politicians politically aligned with Manchin on fiscal matters who can serve to reassure Republican-leaning voters they could in good conscience vote for a lifelong Democrat.
For Manchin, any path to winning involves maximizing the support of Independents, bringing over enough of a percentage of partisan voters turned off by both Trump and Biden and appealing to voters who have been turned off by politics to the point where they feel bound by no party label.
In the assured event that Joe Biden continues his obvious decline, and in the likely event that Donald Trump is convicted in the courts in at least one if not more cases, it makes a Joe Manchin campaign the greatest possibility for a third-party presidency since Ross Perot in 1992. It’s a challenging task, but not impossible. And for someone who has talked for so long about the toxic nature of the two-party system, it would be Manchin putting his money where his mouth is.