Analysis: The Third Party Threat to Democrats

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On July 25, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. held a town hall on Fox News with Sean Hannity. If it seems odd that a Democratic candidate for president was speaking to the Trump-invested Fox News audience, it was. Hannity asked Kennedy, “You’re talking to the American people tonight. Why should they vote for you?”  

Kennedy replied, “I want to end that polarization and I want to do that by telling the truth.”

Given that Kennedy lied repeatedly when he appeared before the House last week as a guest of the GOP, that latter claim seems unlikely. At the town hall, Kennedy promoted many of the extreme talking points that have targeted him as a conspiracy theorist and an anti-Semite. Kennedy also pushed his narrative that the U.S. and Ukraine forced Russia into the war when it was Russia who attacked Ukraine. 

According to the Washington Post, “Fox News has devoted extensive attention to Kennedy on the air and its website, publishing more than 80 articles and videos about him since his campaign launch in April.” 

And as PGN reported last month, Kennedy has added a series of anti-LGBTQ+ talking points to his campaign.

Kennedy, who continues to poll around 20 percent despite these stunning missteps, is considered by some to be a threat to President Biden’s re-election by drawing votes away from the notoriously mercurial Democratic electorate. Factor in that polls show a historic number of Americans don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch

A CNN/SSRS poll found that 33 percent favored Donald Trump, and 32 percent were opting for President Joe Biden, but that 36 percent viewed neither positively. Among registered voters, 31 percent preferred neither frontrunner candidate.

Last week, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 55 percent of US adults believe Biden is unfit for the presidency, and 53 percent say the same of Trump. More concerning for Biden is that a Quinnipiac University poll shows 47 percent would consider a third-party candidate in the 2024 presidential election, though the same percentage say they would not.

Nearly two-thirds of self-described independents (64 percent) say they would consider going third-party, while just 35 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans said the same.

In 2016, Pennsylvania was one of three blue/purple states where third party and write-in voters ceded the election to Donald Trump. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a mere 77,000 votes among those three states, while third party and write-in votes totaled more than 800,000 votes.

Democratic strategists have concerns about a reprise of this in 2024. Worries about Biden’s age and a disconnect between what the administration achieved and what voters perceive have polling for Biden against the Republican challenger extremely tight or below that GOP candidate by a few points. This means no votes can afford to be lost to a Kennedy or an official third-party candidate like the Green Party’s Dr. Cornel West or the No Labels party candidate — possibly Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) or former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

In a post that got more than a million views, David Axelrod, former Senior Advisor to President Obama and CNN commentator and host, tweeted, “In 2016, the Green Party played an outsized role in tipping the election to Donald Trump. Now, with Cornel West as their likely nominee, they could easily do it again. Risky business.”

Axelrod is not wrong.  

The impact of Pennsylvania third party voters in 2016 didn’t just scuttle Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. It also deprived the state of its first female senator. Katie McGinty, former Secretary of Environmental Protection of Pennsylvania, was the Democratic candidate for Senate in 2016, challenging incumbent Pat Toomey. Down ballot voting is often hurt when Democrats don’t vote Democratic and McGinty lost the state along with Hillary. In 2024, Democratic senator Bob Casey is up for re-election and could face a similar issue if tickets are split.

Pennsylvania has become a wholly purple state since 2016 with suburban voters — particularly white women — often the key to how the state will lean. Those women chose John Fetterman over Dr. Mehmet Oz in the midterms, but presidential years pose different challenges and white voters have consistently failed to turn out for Democratic candidates. In 2016, Black women voted 94 percent for Hillary while white women voted 53 percent for Donald Trump.

LGBTQ+ issues — particularly when framed as “parental rights” or “religious freedom” — have swayed Democratic voters to vote for GOP candidates. In November 2021, about 67,000 Democrats voted for Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, swinging the seat GOP. A significant segment of Virginia Democrats also sat out the election, choosing not to vote at all — another consistent problem with Democratic voters.

Factor in that second-term candidates always lose votes — even former President Barack Obama dropped by nearly two percent of the vote in 2012 from 2008 — and the concerns are not easy to dismiss.

For LGBTQ+ people, the stakes are high. Biden has been the most pro-LGBTQ+ president in history, but some argue that he didn’t fight to get the Equality Act passed when he had the House and Senate and the powerhouse of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in place. Others argue that departments like HHS and Education have not supported LGBTQ+ people in the face of the onslaught of attacks from the GOP.

These are all issues that could coalesce next year if Democrats become complacent or contrarian. The past seven elections have hinged on three states — and while those states have shifted at times, the Electoral College-rich votes from Pennsylvania has meant that this has always been one of those swing states.

In 2016, Obama said this was not the time to have a protest vote, but protest votes there were. The result of Hillary Clinton losing the election meant Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices and more than 200 federal judges. So while Trump was only in office for four years, the Trump courts could last through 2050.

For now, the Kennedy threat and the third-party threat feel distant. But as 2024 gets closer and the slate of GOP candidates is winnowed down from a dozen to a handful or to one, the disaffection with Biden may intensify.

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