Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. Credit: CTNJ file photo

Why is it that, in the political realm, Americans are convinced that three is a crowd? A third (or fourth) candidate in an election featuring Democrats and Republicans is viewed as an interloper who runs off with votes that rightfully belong to the two major parties? As the hackneyed saying goes, “Only in America.”

As the presidential election season gets underway, we’re going through this tired exercise yet again. The two presumptive major-party nominees have abysmally low approval ratings and polls have consistently shown that a majority of voters wish someone else was running.

The low standing of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump – the presumptive nominees of their respective parties – has emboldened centrist politicians and their allies to strengthen a movement, known as “No Labels,” to produce a bipartisan “unity ticket.”

One of the movers and shakers behind No Labels is Connecticut’s own Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator who had his own experience running as an independent candidate. Lieberman is founding chairman of No Labels. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Lieberman cited polls showing the common-sense concerns most Americans have – e.g. fiscal responsibility, public education, a fair and practical immigration policy – that have gone unaddressed by presidents of both parties:

“They aren’t getting common-ground ideas on these priorities or others from Democrats and Republicans or from President Biden and former President Donald Trump, which likely explains why both have sub-40% approval” in the polls. Lieberman added that another poll has Biden carrying only one in six battleground states that he won last time in a head-to-head matchup with Trump. Clearly, his concern is that Biden can’t beat Trump and he’s convinced that the “Common Sense Majority” embodied by No Labels can provide a viable alternative to the disgraced ex-president.

Lieberman’s own independent candidacy, however, was born not of disenchantment with the two parties, but of necessity. He was defeated in the 2006 Democratic primary by current Gov. Ned Lamont, largely because of Lieberman’s vote to authorize President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Running as an “Independent Democrat” (whatever that is), Lieberman marched on to victory that fall, getting 50% of the vote against the more progressive Lamont and a weak Republican nominee, former Derby Mayor Alan Schlesinger.

This time around, Lieberman and his colleagues might be onto something. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found voters evenly split at 47-47% on “whether they would consider voting for a third-party candidate” for president in 2024. Then again, “consider” is kind of a weasel word. If a chef walked into my dining room and asked me if I would “consider” eating boiled rattlesnake, I might answer in the affirmative. But when the plate actually arrived, I might also “consider” pushing it away.

And therein lies the problem the U.S. electorate faces when confronted with independent candidates. Most people talk a good game about openness to those outside the two-party system, but as the election approaches and they examine their ballots, the vast majority of voters take a pass. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are repeatedly told by Republicans and Democrats that they’re “throwing their vote away” – that is unless one party or the other thinks they stand to gain by having an independent on the ballot.

The best performance by an independent presidential candidate in my lifetime was segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a former Democrat who mounted a third-party bid. He was unsuccessful, but won five southern states, as Republican Richard Nixon defeated incumbent Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the big prize. It was widely believed that Wallace had peeled off votes from racist Democrats who had become disenchanted with Lyndon Johnson’s aggressive civil rights agenda, thereby dooming Humphrey’s chances.

In 1992, wealthy businessman Ross Perot ran as an independent against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush. Despite spending about $100 million, Perot got 19% of the popular vote but not a single electoral vote. The best he could do was to come in second in one state: Maine. While Perot is often credited with costing Bush his re-election, the reality is more complicated. It’s not clear whether it was Perot’s position on the issues that won him those votes or whether he benefited from his aggressive attacks on Bush. In addition, exit polling showed that the second-choice candidates of Perot voters were evenly split between Bush and Clinton.

And of course, everyone remembers the 2000 Green Party presidential candidacy of Connecticut’s own Ralph Nader, who received 97,000 votes in Florida, a state Democratic nominee Al Gore lost by only 537 votes. If Gore had won Florida, George W. Bush would likely have become a footnote in the history books.

So the influence of third parties on presidential elections is mixed. Still, it seems that any time an independent candidacy is announced, Democrats go into panic mode and assume they will be hurt. In the case of No Labels, however, they might be right.

An anti-No-Labels group headed by former Democratic House Leader Dick Gephardt has commissioned private polling showing that a “moderate, independent” generic candidate would pull down about 20% of the vote in a hypothetical three-way  contest with Biden and Trump. A poll from No Labels itself found similar results. Both polls show that the third-party would pull more from Biden than Trump.

More troubling about the nonprofit No Labels is that it refuses to say where its money comes from, arguing instead that “we live in an era where agitators and partisan operatives try to destroy and intimidate organizations they don’t like by attacking their individual supporters.” If you’re a nonprofit that investigates those in power or helps victims of domestic abuse, I could understand your desire for donor anonymity. But if you’re a political group whose goal is to elect the next president of the United States, you have a moral obligation to be transparent about financing.

It’s also worth noting that, if it does field a candidate, No Labels won’t be the only alternative to the two major parties. There are some who believe that People’s Party presidential candidate Cornel West poses a greater threat to Biden’s re-election than No Labels does. Though he will only be on the general-election ballot in a small number of states, West, who maintains the support of legions of Bernie Sanders fans, could embolden some progressives to turn on Biden and rain on his parade.

As a longtime unaffiliated voter, I have sympathy for what the No Labels movement is trying to accomplish. Like No Labels, I think the two likely major-party nominees for president are dreadful. But one is far worse than the other. I cannot support an effort whose likely outcome is to re-elect a man who incited an insurrection and ripped open a scab of racism that has been trying to heal since the days of Bull Connor. Come back in four years, Joe, and let’s talk.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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