Why Democrats and Republicans are so worried about third parties

Americans have been telling pollsters for months that a 2020 rematch is the last thing they want

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In the closing months of the 2022 midterms North Carolina residents began receiving text messages and phone calls from unfamiliar numbers, a ritual all too familiar to a swing-state voter. The benevolent voice on the line had seen the recipient’s name on a petition to allow the Green Party on the ballot and wanted to ensure the signature was on the up and up. With validity confirmed the anonymous caller would reveal himself to be a Green Party representative.

“If the Green Party is on the ballot, it’ll take votes away from Democrats, giving Republicans a…

In the closing months of the 2022 midterms North Carolina residents began receiving text messages and phone calls from unfamiliar numbers, a ritual all too familiar to a swing-state voter. The benevolent voice on the line had seen the recipient’s name on a petition to allow the Green Party on the ballot and wanted to ensure the signature was on the up and up. With validity confirmed the anonymous caller would reveal himself to be a Green Party representative.

“If the Green Party is on the ballot, it’ll take votes away from Democrats, giving Republicans a huge advantage. It will help them win North Carolina in 2022 and 2024. There’s far too much at stake to let this happen. Are you interested in asking to have your name removed from this petition or leave it as is?”

It must have caused the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee some embarrassment when one of the Green Party’s state co-chairs played that audio on the local evening news, but the gambit proved worthwhile. Two days after the segment aired the Democrat-controlled state Board of Elections voted 3-2 to remove the Green Party from the ballot, citing “an ongoing investigation into evidence of fraud and other irregularities.”

Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything these days except for their hatred of third parties, but even here they differ strategically. Republicans laugh at the likes of the Evan McMullins and Gary Johnsons who threaten to siphon off the not-at-all-coveted fedora bloc. Democrats have a different attitude. As much as they hate Trump, they may hate Jill Stein more. The Massachusetts eco-populist-pacifist may have been an adorable gnat on the donkey’s backside with Obama atop the ticket, but she morphed into Public Enemy #2 after scoring a million and a half votes in 2016 — roughly one-third the Libertarian Johnson’s voter haul. People often forget that she too was subjected to the same “Agent of the Kremlin” accusations and malicious leaks as Trump was following 2016 — even after she lobbied for recounts in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in search of GOP malfeasance. To this day James Carville insists Stein is “almost certainly an agent of the Russian government,” as he told Anderson Cooper in July. CNN let the accusation go unchallenged (the Senate Intelligence Committee could not find any Russo-Green Party collusion either).

“That smear lives on about me even though I was cleared,” Stein says. “What’s really different is these kinds of vicious smear campaigns are happening much earlier in the cycle now.”

Stein is not running in 2024; instead she has chosen to serve as campaign manager for former Harvard professor and civil rights activist Cornel West, who is seeking the Green Party nomination. For his entire career, Dr. West has been attacked by conservatives as a commie, but these days all the “Moscow Stooge” attacks are coming from the left. It is easy to see why. Despite a better than expected showing in the midterm elections, liberal data firm Catalist declared Def Con-217: black voter turnout had receded below pre-Obama levels. The Green Party, already a thorn in the Democratic Party’s side for peeling off aging hippies and young Marxists, could now be coming for its most reliable voting bloc.

“[West] seems to be a very charming man and he is also a menace and threat to the continued constitutional order in the United States,” Carville told Cooper.

Democrats have been equally paranoid about the utopian technocrats of the Forward Party and the mild-mannered suits over at the No Labels social club, errr, Party. Both of the self-proclaimed centrist parties are basically campaigning on platforms that appear to consist of “don’t use foul language,” “don’t be ancient” and “don’t socialize medicine, maybe?” but that hasn’t stopped the Carvilles, Axelrods and New Yorker resistance fighters of the world from sounding like Birch Society newsletters. The hysterics are the point.

Americans have been telling pollsters for months that a 2020 rematch is the last thing they want, but the lack of Democratic competition against Joe Biden’s reelection campaign appears to be driving the party establishment into a fever dream. No amount of anti-Trump rhetoric from third-party candidates can shake Democratic activists or sympathetic reporters from the rock-solid belief that they are Trump sleeper cells. It does not matter that No Labels issued a statement declaring, “Donald Trump should never again be president.” Too subtle. Nor does it matter that Cornel West called Trump a “neo-fascist” in 2020 and accused him of “pushing us towards a second civil war at home” in his July appearance with Anderson Cooper. If anything, the attacks on Trump demonstrate to Democratic operatives that the third parties are coming for their voters. The mainstream media are beginning to sound like the type of MAGA patriot who spent four years calmly explaining the principles of 5D chess to the rest of us.

No Labels is in the process of gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to get on the ballot in all fifty states, even though it lacks the infrastructure for even nominating a candidate at this point, according to Ryan Clancy, a senior strategist for the group. The nonprofit does not expect to choose a ticket — which will consist of one Republican and one Democrat — until the fall, and only if the nation faces a Trump-Biden rematch. They are borrowing from the playbook Michael Bloomberg successfully deployed in the 2020 Democratic primary when he strategically burned $1 billion rather than see Bernie Sanders win the nomination.

“We will never put up a ticket that looks like it’s going to be a spoiler. We are not going to put up protest candidates or left-wing candidates because by definition our ticket would appeal to the vast middle of the country,” Clancy says. “Do you think we would throw away everything we’ve ever done and believe in to elect a guy nobody in our organization supports? It’s laughable. This is a one-ticket, one-time effort.”

No Labels and the Green Party don’t agree on, well, anything, but Stein and Clancy are both convinced the Democratic attacks are rooted in insecurity. “Parties don’t think they have to offer good product any more as long as they know you, the voter, hate and fear the other guy,” Clancy says, echoing Stein’s assertion that “a political system driven by hate and fear is voter extortion.”

Democratic panic traces its roots to one of progressivism’s biggest success stories. The youth vote has been instrumental to their post-2016 winning streak, and it is the demographic most at risk of defecting. Gen Z, we are told, is shockingly liberal compared to any other youth generations that came before, but only 4 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds strongly approve of Biden’s job performance; just 17 percent want to see him win the Democratic nomination. It is noteworthy where Biden surrogates are directing their fire. The same New York Times-Siena poll found spiritualist guru Marianne Williamson trailing Biden by just seven points among young Democrats. And yet no one has called her a Trump sleeper agent or Russian asset.

Democrats seem keenly aware that young people may give up on a loser, but they will not miss an opportunity to express their special brand of identity. All the strident young college students are called idealists when they ditch religion to explore their own DIY spiritual identity (with the help of Williamson) or reject the gender binary, but Democrats act flabbergasted that the same voters may bristle at the notion of a two-party system.

Andrew Yang’s Forward Party and its targeted outreach to young people on popular internet forums was greeted with the same denunciations as the Greens and No Labels (only more so) during its midterm launch. The surprise hit of the 2020 Democratic primary was suspected of white supremacy for founding a new party rooted in the hot-button culture war issue of ranked-choice voting.

“The environmental factor and the historically dysfunctional presidential race has driven an early amount of criticism and fear among partisans in both camps. There’s an unhealthy focus on the presidential race,” says Forward Party executive Joel Searby, who previously managed Evan McMullin’s third-party run. “One of the ways we’re hacking the system is we’re not going after highly contested races. We are building a bench who will eventually run for higher offices to prepare ourselves for the long term.” Another life hack the Forward Party has discovered: the hit pieces and attacks vanish when you announce that you are not putting up a candidate in 2024.

The vote totals third-party candidates attract are always assumed to come from one side’s tent, but that is always an after the fact assessment. Most American partisans do not pay any attention to a Green Party or Libertarian candidate until they’ve woken up in the morning to see their candidate has lost. No one ever stops to think about the largest third party in America: absenteeism and its 40 million-strong supporters. Third-party candidates often turn out people who would otherwise be at home enjoying Quiznos.

The easy thing to do is dismiss those who sit out the election and cry “spoiler!” It is much harder for Washington to recalibrate in a manner that would move those Never Voters off the couch by promising them an agenda that will allow them to upgrade to Jersey Mike’s. One thinks of the missing white voters in 2012: the GOP had planned to go right on ignoring them when the next cycle came around until a former third-party candidate stormed the gates using only a golden escalator and the world’s most comprehensive plan for assigning hilarious nicknames. When his debate rivals tried to land blows they pointed to Donald Trump’s past affiliation with the Democratic Party, rather than his Reform Party bona fides. The GOP establishment ignored the third-party tendencies of absentee voters at their own peril. Whether Trump cruises to the 2024 nomination or not, they will have to reconcile with the base.

When Democrats cry “spoiler” or its synonym “RUSSIAN,” you get the sense that they are not too worried about any of these candidates spoiling the general election. In fact, they all seem rather gleeful that Trump’s primary numbers appear to skyrocket with every new court docket. In talking with No Labels, or the Forward Party, or the Greens, you’re struck by their unity in thinking that the only thing being spoiled is the party’s hold on the electorate.

“The political elites do not own our votes; they have to earn our votes,” Stein says. “People are going to stay home with the same old zombie candidates that just run on [the] dwindling momentum of this very archaic political system.”

But if Biden and his surrogates get their way, they may not have to worry about scaring the electorate. While several states have made permanent Covid-era changes to mail-in balloting and early voting, ballot-access requirements for third parties have mostly reverted to pre-pandemic norms.

“Democrats are leading the charge on censorship and on political repression. They talk a lot about the right to vote and take great pride in advancing communities of color, then turn around and shoot down their right to vote for the candidates of their choosing,” Stein says. “The Democrats coordinate illegally with attorneys from all over the country to simultaneously swamp Green Party candidates with lawsuits to tie them up and exhaust their financial support. These are the games the Democratic Party has been famous for.”

She points to what became of that 2022 North Carolina Senate race. The Green Party spent the summer tied up in federal litigation before being restored to the ballot. Republican Ted Budd won by 120,000 votes. The Democrats’ phone bank scheme was not enough to pull its candidate over the line, but the Green Party candidate finished with fewer than 30,000 votes — 20,000 shy of the Libertarian. In a midterm full of good for- tune for Democrats, none was more promising for Biden’s reelection prospects. Call it proof of concept, a path forward without Andrew Yang, Jill Stein or any of those pesky missing and dissatisfied voters.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2023 World edition.