I’ve been traveling a lot these days. Too much for an old man, but it’s interesting running into so many people along the way. Last week, i was at national airport and ran into a “No Labels” stalwart and he asked me a simple question: why aren’t Democrats more concerned about their efforts. This diary reflects the answer i gave.
First of all, a little context. This man was a Democrat who has long thought the country needs a “viable third party.” We have often disagreed about his definition. He thinks voters should have more choices and rejects the notion that Americans settle comfortably into binary choices. Not Christian, he has a hard time accepting the Puritanical influences that have driven this American tendency towards binary choices. It’s something he simply cannot accept, not historically and not politically. So i already knew that the easiest answer was not something i needed to say.
It’s not hard to see certain aspects of Puritanism that continue to reverberate in today’s politics. One element, especially, can be seen in both sides of the ideological divide: "Intolerance -- error must be opposed and driven out." The Ohio (and Kansas) ballot initiative on Reproductive Rights illustrates another: “Americans’ unremitting pursuit of freedom owes largely to the Puritans who denied Pope’s authority… According to Puritanism, all men were equal in the eyes of God." “The Puritans’ value system remains lodged deep in our psyches, shaping our emotions, judgments and behaviors. And its effects can be seen regardless of one’s political orientation or religious affiliation.” "So powerful and enduring are these Puritan influences in American culture that they have become part of American identity," “they did leave us with an important legacy – an ideology of individual choice and social contract.”
I won’t argue that these are good (or bad) things, for people who are focused on winning elections, they are just the parameters in which we work. But the point is that the preference for binary choices is part of American culture or identity. And this affects our political choices. (I’d argue that our focus on winning does the same thing, forcing us to choose between Republican or Democratic candidates.)
But the other, unspoken response (because he rejects it out of hand) was that there already exists a number of “viable” third parties (viable being defined as already on, or likely to be on, the ballot). So No Labels won’t be the third or even fourth “third party” on voter’s ballots in November 2024, but the fifth or sixth so-called third party on the ballot. The presidential line on our ballot is likely to take up the first page of the 2024 ballot. But here’s the thing: most states have laws or rules that favor the GOP and Democratic candidates, and they will be listed first. This is certainly the case in all the consensus Swing States. The rules are different about “third party” candidates who make a presidential line. In several states, candidates whose “third party” qualified for the ballot last time will be listed before a third party whose qualified since 2020. This was something that my friend and i had talked about last time, was the possibility that No Labels would not be listed on the first page, but on the second page of the ballot. In most places, though, elections officials will want to list all presidential candidates on a single (first) page.
Now i personally have no issue with third parties getting on the ballot, just as i personally have no problem with existing political parties or candidates enforcing the rules to get them thrown off the ballot if they can. As long as parties and candidates play by the same (existing) rules, it’s all part of the process. Having said that, this was the response i gave my old friend to explain why Democrats weren’t threatened by No Labels (or any other third party contender) at this stage:
1.) It’s Early, and we don’t know yet certain influential factors. For example, my understanding is that No Labels isn’t organized as a political party, but as a Non-Profit. Last i heard, No Labels has gotten on the ballot in 12 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and Utah). Three of those are arguably Swing States. But here’s the thing: Democrats only need to win Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for Biden to be re-elected. And until No Labels gets on the ballot in those two states, why would Democrats worry?
“Oh, but we are trying to do that!”
“But you asked me, why aren’t Democrats more concerned. Getting on the ballot in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would make Democrats more concerned.”
The bigger point is, though, that No Labels has a lot of hurdles in front of them, including actually creating a political party that will face obstacles that Non-profits don’t. Super PACs, for example, don’t qualify for the lowest-possible television advertising rate.
2.) The Collapsing Political Middle. No Labels was conceived as a party of "the commonsense majority," by which they tend to mean moderates. But the political middle has been collapsing for almost a decade, maybe longer. And it is really hard to see how a political middle navigates the age of Trump and insurrection.
The electorate has basically chosen sides and those sides have moved farther and farther apart. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump have all been polarizing figures to the other side of the political spectrum. Now my friend argues that this is exactly why No Labels exists, to act as a unifying force (i hate putting words in other people’s mouths but) because we all agree more than we disagree. Again, i reject that argument. I’m not so sure we (Americans) agree more than we disagree, i’m not even sure we share the same definitions for the same words.
Pew takes the political temperature of the American electorate all the time, and continuously updates its findings — this is something that is followed closely by both professionals and activisists alike. In a more recent finding, it notes:
Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) – Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right – have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net. What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.
As far as i can discern, No Labels seeks to overcome this difficulty through its appeal to bipartisanship. But bipartisanship requires not just a presidency dedicated to the principle (and i’d suggest we already have a president who has been committed to bipartisanship), but a Speaker and Majority Leader who are, as well. Yet No Labels contends it is only fielding a candidate for the presidency and have no designs on Congress. Regardless, my point is the No Labels justification may hit the right note for some voters but without a vision (besides bipartisanship) that it could implement. Voters need a narrative that not only has the right beginning, but provides a viable conclusion they can buy into. And No Labels has to sell that conclusion. This is where a primarily bifurcated media ecosystem really trips it up.
3. Presidential Candidates need more than just Television Ads. I’m an old field guy. Among people in my profession, this is a source of pride. Presidential campaigns are largely divided by Comms, Field and Fund-Raising. Now these aren’t mutually exclusive, presidential campaigns need all three, and they need to be formidable in all three. You ask why Democrats aren’t more concerned about No Labels, and i would point to the effectiveness of the Lincoln Project. These Republicans and former Republicans have been effective at raising money, getting their message out there and producing some absolutely brilliant ads.
And they have had little to no impact on shaping the Republican electorate.
Now my friend objects strenuously to that comparison, in large part because he is basically a Democrat, not a Republican. But what is the audience for No Labels? My friend argues that there is a need for a third party in the United States, but “the United States is home to more than 54 political parties — 37 of which have had candidates run for the presidency.”
So what would differentiate No Labels from all the others, aside from its status as the shiny, new thing? Money is the obvious response, the less than 100 individuals who are basically propping up No Labels right now. So that’s half a million dollars when No Labels organizes itself as a political party. But, wait!, No Labels has a Super PAC! And Super PACs are good at running television ads. The most recent experience for a Super PAC to engage in field (the DeSantis campaign) has failed.
The reason Democrats aren’t more concerned about No Labels right now is that there is no model of success to follow here. There are lots of examples for failure, though.
4. Donald Trump is likely to be the GOP nominee. I don’t expect 2024 to be like any other election we have seen in our lifetimes. Usually, a presidential election where one of the candidates is an incumbent is a referendum on the job the incumbent president has done. But Donald Trump is not someone who likes to let other people garner much attention. And he certainly will not allow this election to be about Joe Biden, even as he uses the president as a punching bag. No, in more than one way, 2024 will be all about Donald Trump. Those who like Trump will support the (at this moment) likely felon, while those who oppose him will fall into line behind Joe Biden. Even with Aileen Cannon’s help, this election will center around the Insurgent and his Insurgency. And there’s not a lot of middle ground here. Indeed, i fully expect both sides to be “fighting for America,” at least their version of America. No Labels needs a more nuanced election, one where voters can see agreements between both sides of major issues, not an election where both sides see existential threats to the very existence of the America they believe in.
These were the points i tried to make before we got on the plane. Democrats aren’t worried about No Labels because we have bigger fish to fry. Now No Labels insists it be a part of the political conversation, much akin to the other Republicans who actually participate in the Republican debates. It’s a weird year for a presidential campaign, and there are a lot of things that are bothering Democrats about the upcoming presidential election. No Labels isn’t really part of that conversation right now. And i’m not sure i see a way where, in 2024, they ever will be. Can anyone break through the Trump hold on the media and political oxygen? I imagine TFG won’t allow that to happen. Get ready for the Trump trials and his incessant need to stay on center stage. That, i think, we can count on...