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Is 2024 the year for a third-party candidate to break through with dissatisfied voters?

Voters really don’t like these candidates — especially independents

A sign on Election Day earlier this month at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
A sign on Election Day earlier this month at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With just a little over six weeks until the 2024 Iowa caucuses, rumblings about possible third-party or independent entrants into the presidential sweepstakes continue to swirl around Washington. Most of the speculation zeroes in on whether there is still room for a successful third-party or independent candidate this year.

It’s a good question but not quite the right question the two parties should be asking themselves. 

What they should be asking is this: What has gone so wrong with the two-party nominating process that voters are again facing yet another election in which the parties are producing candidates they don’t like? 

And they really don’t like these candidates — especially independents. 

An Economist-YouGov survey conducted Oct. 28-31 asked voters whether they wanted Joe Biden and Donald Trump to run again. It was bad news for both candidates and their parties, with voters by a margin of 25 percent to 61 percent saying Biden shouldn’t run. Trump got only marginally better results, with 31 percent favoring another bid while 58 percent opposed one.

But it was the independents’ numbers that should alarm both camps. Only 18 percent of independents favored Biden’s reelection bid, while 65 percent opposed; 26 percent supported Trump’s reelection, while 61 percent wanted someone else. 

There’s no denying that voters want other choices in 2024, just as they did in 2016 and 2020. But neither party is delivering, and voter dissatisfaction is becoming more and more evident as people migrate to “independent” status. 

The 2020 exit polls only reaffirmed what has been a trend toward nonpartisan self-identification, with 26 percent of the electorate calling themselves conservative Republican, 17 percent liberal Democrat and 57 percent something else. These percentages indicate that the majority of the electorate doesn’t consider themselves part of either party’s base. 

The 2022 exit polls saw similar numbers, with 25 percent self-identifying as conservative Republican, 17 percent liberal Democrat and 58 percent everyone else. That cycle also hit a high-water mark, with independents as a percentage of the electorate (from 1984 onward) at 31 percent. 

There often have been other third-party candidacies, some as the standard-bearer of generally ideological or issue-based organizations, others as independent candidates. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt ran as the Bull Moose candidate after losing the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft. He got roughly 27 percent of the vote, but he cost Taft reelection.

Eighty years later, a Texas businessman, Ross Perot, skipped the nomination process in both parties altogether, instead creating the Reform Party. He announced he would run as an independent and won roughly 19 percent of the vote, although whether he cost President George H. W. Bush his reelection is debatable. 

Another independent candidate, John Anderson, ran in 1980 but got only 7 percent of the vote. Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 also got minimal support. What they all share is a failure to catch on with voters, although some played the spoiler, impacting close election outcomes by far more than their actual influence probably deserved.

But there is another dynamic at work in this election cycle, one that we’ve seen in every election since 2016 — if not before. It is the rise of an increasingly frustrated, impatient electorate dominated by independent voters unhappy with both political parties and their potential presidential choices.

And when political parties nominate unpopular candidates, it opens the door for nonparty-affiliated candidacies. No better example is the dance D.C. is involved in with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who is not running for another Senate term but is flirting with an independent presidential bid to “mobilize the middle,” as he has put it. How he intends to do it remains a mystery. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is also pursuing an independent run, and then there is No Labels pitching the prospect of a more centrist, independent ticket that neither party wants. 

Today, both parties are facing growing dissatisfaction from a sizable portion of the electorate that has become increasingly upset with what they see as the country’s two major parties ignoring their concerns and continuing to nominate presidential candidates they neither like nor want. 

In fact, in the 2016 and 2020 elections, a majority of voters had a negative view of three of the four presidential candidates; and, as we head into 2024, a majority have negative views of both of the current front-runners. Clearly, voters are not happy with what looks to be their 2024 choices for president or the parties nominating them. 

From our most recent Winning the Issues survey, testing the party front-runners, Biden is at 40 percent to 56 percent favorable-unfavorable and Trump is at 37 percent to 60 percent. Among independents, the unfavorables for the front-runners are at 60 percent or higher (33 percent to 60 percent for Biden, 32 percent to 65 percent for Trump). Thirty-two percent of independents and 23 percent of the overall electorate have an unfavorable view of both candidates. 

More than a quarter of the electorate (27 percent) say they don’t like either party. Among independents, the brand images are worse with Republicans, at 23 percent to 68 percent favorable to unfavorable and Democrats at 29 percent to 61 percent. An even larger percentage of independents, 44 percent, is unfavorable to both. 

A Harvard/Harris poll conducted earlier this month got to the crux of the problem with a question asking voters whether they think “the country needs another alternative” if Biden and Trump are the parties’ nominees or “this is a good choice”? Overall, 67 percent of voters said they favored an alternative to a Biden-Trump matchup, with 74 percent of independents agreeing.

Numbers like these show that a majority of the country wants to vote for someone they believe in and whose policies they support — not find themselves choosing one more time between what they see as the lesser of two evils. But neither party is making an attempt to nominate candidates with that kind of broad appeal to voters, particularly independents. 

Someone will win the presidency next year. But will they have a mandate or even the ability to effectively govern with an electorate this disillusioned? 

Maybe the real threat to democracy is the unwillingness of the two parties to acknowledge a broken process that leaves too many voters without “good choices” and that might just open the door to independent or third-party candidates.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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