It is no longer particularly far-fetched to think that Donald Trump’s restoration is possible—perhaps even more likely than not, given President Joe Biden’s dreadful polling numbers as of Monday. Those polls, already a fairly accurate snapshot of what is likely to happen in November, get more predictive by the day from here on out. But thus far, most analysis of the election has focused almost exclusively on the two widely disliked elderly men who are all but assured of claiming the Democratic and Republican nominations, especially after their romps through the Super Tuesday contests. But a number of other candidates and parties are in the process of getting on November’s ballot, and for the first time in almost 20 years, one of them is consistently polling in double digits. That’s to say nothing of the independent organization No Labels, which has yet to identify a standard-bearer after getting spurned by Sen. Joe Manchin and Larry Hogan, a former Republican governor of Maryland; No Labels announced on Friday that it would press forward with its presidential bid. The combination of historic unpopularity for the major-party nominees, the presence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. polling well enough to get into the televised debates, and an unusually large slate of other third-party candidates could make this the wildest, most unpredictable presidential election in living memory.

In the 19 presidential elections held since the end of the Second World War, only two independent or third-party candidates have cracked double digits in the national popular vote: Texas businessman Ross Perot in 1992 and segregationist George Wallace in 1968. The folksy Perot actually led his three-way 1992 race against incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton for a period of time before dropping out abruptly in July 1992. Perot campaign manager Edward Rollins told the Washington Post at the time that the press scrutiny, policy complexity, and campaign demands were too much for the mercurial Perot and that it “was just no fun.” Haunted by the possibility that he had betrayed his volunteers, Perot jumped back into the fray in September, but by then it was too late. Perot took just under 19 percent of the vote, won zero states, and is widely believed to have cost Bush reelection. Political scientists, however, have never bought that story, and indeed, election modeling and mapping site Split Ticket dove deep into the data last year and concluded that without Perot, Clinton would have won an even more decisive victory over Bush, based on exit polls about voters’ second preferences. The Perot lesson, then, is that strong third-party finishes on major-party performance cannot be assumed before Election Day based on whom they seem like they would draw votes from.

Other than Perot, it has been at least a century since a third-party candidate had a realistic chance at becoming president, and that won’t change this year. But Kennedy’s outsider campaign has to worry the Biden camp.

For one thing, Kennedy is polling better than any third-party candidate in a generation, sitting at 15 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of a three-way race as of March 11. Those numbers are almost certainly soft, but there’s no getting around the enduring (and I would argue unfathomable) appeal of the Kennedy brand and the fact that dissatisfaction with the two major-party nominees is so broad that it seems as if you can throw any famous last name out there and hit double digits. The fact that Kennedy SuperPAC American Values 2024 spent $7 million on an ad during the Super Bowl suggests that the campaign intends to go all the way to November.

Kennedy is best known in political circles for his strident anti-vaccine beliefs, but much of the rest of his platform is a pretty unorthodox hodgepodge of ideas from across the political spectrum. He proposes, for example, forcing the mortgage interest rate down to 3 percent, offering free child care to families, and making student debt dischargeable in bankruptcy, all variations on left-populist ideas that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear in a Bernie Sanders speech. But he also talks tough on the border and spends a lot of time hanging out on Fox News, peddling his vaccine disinformation, saying, for example, that Anthony Fauci “caused a lot of injury” and that he would consider prosecuting him. He has some other, uh, out-there ideas. But if someone could ever persuade him to latch his yap about COVID, he would seem like a much bigger threat to Biden from the left—a Ralph Nader who starts out with double-digit support and God’s greatest gift of a last name.

Kennedy actually has a pretty good shot at being the first third-party candidate since Perot to qualify for the general election debates, operated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which require candidates to be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning the Electoral College and to average 15 percent or higher in five reputable national surveys. At 70, Kennedy is a veritable baby compared to Biden and Trump, and despite a condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which causes the timbre of his voice to waver, I’m betting that his camp likes his chances of coming out of a televised tilt with Biden and Trump with some momentum and the sense among many viewers that he’s the only one of the three up for the job. But it’s also not clear whether there will be any debates at all. The Republican National Committee withdrew from the CPD in 2022, and though Trump has been beating his chest about wanting to debate Biden, neither man’s campaign has publicly committed to participating in them.

The Kennedy campaign has completed its petition work in Utah, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and American Values recently announced that it had gathered the requisite number of signatures in Arizona and Georgia. By the standards of third-party vanity runs, this looks like a fairly serious operation, backed by a sufficient number of rich people to keep itself afloat for months, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Kennedy’s team got themselves on the ballot in all 50 states plus D.C. But if Kennedy wants to appeal to the growing pool of young voters and progressives disillusioned with the Biden administration’s Gaza policies, he’ll have to find another approach than calling the Palestinians “the most pampered people by international aid organizations.”

Though Kennedy is 2024’s most popular alternative, he’s not the only third-party candidate who could scramble things. He will be joined to Biden’s left by both Cornel West, a professor and activist running under the banner of his newly launched Justice for All Party (and a few other minor-party lines in different states), and whoever claims the Green Party’s nomination, which looks as if it will once again be 2016 villain Jill Stein. As of this writing, the Green Party had gained ballot access in 21 states, including swing states Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. The West campaign has already gotten itself on the November ballot in South Carolina, Utah, Oregon, and Alaska, with a number of critical swing states including Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire listed as “in progress.”

No Labels has an available ballot line in 24 states, with more on the way. But the high-profile snubs by the party’s preferred candidates in Manchin and Hogan have left the effort reeling, as polling continues to show Manchin (or a Manchin-like figure) drawing more support from Biden than Trump. The No Labels grifters have always said they wouldn’t put a ticket together if it looked as if their efforts would throw the election to Trump; judging from their Friday announcement, that was a self-serving lie. The scale of the organization’s threat to Biden, though, will depend significantly on whether they can persuade anyone with stature to accept their nomination.

There is also the Libertarian Party, which will have close to universal ballot access and whose candidates tend to draw somewhat more votes from Republicans than Democrats. Despite the party holding some conversations with Kennedy, it is unlikely that there is going to be a fit there. The current leader in the Libertarian Party’s privately run selection process is a true unknown, a 37-year-old named Chase Russell Oliver. As is quite common for these kinds of third-party gadflies, Oliver has made a career out of running unsuccessfully in multiple federal elections. Unless they can secure someone with higher name identification, the Libertarians are going to have a hard time finding oxygen in 2024’s crowded space. And several parties on the hard-right fringe will be there too on multiple state ballots, including the Constitution Party, which is set to hold its nominating convention in late April.

Together, Kennedy, West, Stein, and the also-rans are garnering an average of 17 percent in polling averages. That is much higher than the very marginal number that third parties were registering in 2020, higher than the summer 2016 high for third parties of around 12 percent, and right in line with how Perot was polling at this point in 1996 during his second run, when he ultimately garnered 8 percent of the popular vote. Only the 1992 version of Perot was running stronger at this point in the cycle. If third parties finish with a total vote share somewhere between Perot’s 1992 and 1996 finishes, either Biden or Trump could conceivably triumph with under 45 percent of the popular vote. If Kennedy improves his standing over the course of the campaign, or the No Labels candidate joins this throng with 5 to 10 percent, the election winner could emerge with less than 40 percent of the vote.

Third parties struggle to win elections of any kind at any level in the United States for a number of reasons. Academic political scientists will insist that the electoral system used in the U.S. for most House and Senate elections, single-member district plurality, makes it hard for third-party candidates to win any representation at all. Countries that use the U.S. election system tend to have two-party systems. The logic is pretty straightforward: A Green Party slate that won 15 percent in every single House election across the country, for example, would get zero seats, unlike smaller parties in systems that use proportional representation. Although scholarship on this idea is now more nuanced, the reality is that American third parties, their candidates, and their ideas more or less vanish in between cycles unless they are seen as having a disruptive effect on the previous election.

They also disappear because Democrats and Republicans have been quite ruthless about co-opting their positions. As political scientists Shigeo Hirano and James Snyder wrote in an influential 2007 Journal of Politics article, this is how FDR’s Democrats headed off the threat of smaller progressive parties. It’s why, two years after Perot’s shock showing in 1992, a lot of his ideas, including term limits and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, had found their way into GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. And it’s part of the reason why the Democratic Party has moved incrementally to the left since the disastrous 2000 election, which saw Nader pull just enough of the vote in Florida to keep Al Gore out of the White House. As J. David Gillespie wrote in his 2012 history of third parties in America, “Many of the nation’s most important policies and institutional innovations were third-party ideas,” including ”abolition, women’s suffrage, transparency in government, popular election of senators, and child labor, wages and hours legislation.”

That does not mean you should vote for them in 2024.

Third-party candidates also struggle because this basic spoiler dynamic is not exactly a secret, and voters tend to cast their ballots strategically in the end. For that reason, third-party candidates tend to see their polling decline as the election draws nearer, then do even worse than their election-eve numbers would suggest. In 2016, for example, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson hit a high of 9.2 percent in polling averages before declining to 4.7 percent before the election, and ultimately pulling just 3.3 percent of the national popular vote. Green Party candidate Jill Stein had the same arc that year at a lower level. But that creates another reservoir of uncertainty. Not only will pollsters have to think about how the true undecided voters will break, but they will also have to assume that some significant chunk of Kennedy, Stein, and West supporters will ultimately pick Biden or Trump. As bad as Biden’s numbers look in surveys that include these candidates, he is more likely to be the beneficiary of the near-inevitable decline in their support than Trump is.

Third-party boosters face a lot of other obstacles to success in America. They face high hurdles to ballot access. State governments effectively run Democratic and Republican primaries for each major party, embedding the two-party structure in voter registration practices. Journalists routinely ignore third parties or cover them exclusively as potential spoilers. Still, the percentage of Americans who say that a third party is needed hit a 21st-century high in Gallup polling last year at 63 percent. But even the most well-known voices in favor of multiparty politics in the United States, like New America’s Lee Drutman, argue that electoral system reform must happen first. We can’t have more than two plausible options until our electoral laws are amended to give representation to smaller parties—who can build on that initial success to become more effective challengers to the major parties. The movement to do just that, through things like ranked choice voting and multimember districts in Congress, is growing but nowhere near fruition.

That leaves us stuck with the system we have heading into 2024, and it’s why Trump or Biden could win reelection with more than 60 percent of Americans voting for someone else. And although there are good reasons to think that third-party support will crater as Election Day approaches, it isn’t guaranteed—especially not if Kennedy in particular is able to stay visible throughout the cycle by participating in televised debates and scoring press coverage that goes beyond treating him like a spoiler. And that means we’re all facing another round of vote-shaming and counter-vote-shaming as panic about third-party spoilers sets in, especially on the left. Where this is all headed is anyone’s guess, but the days of talking about 2024 as a contest between only Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be coming to an end soon. Buckle up and enjoy thinking about how this might someday be over.

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