One of Democrats’ many nightmares heading into the 2024 election involves the schemes of No Labels. The shadowy centrist organization has been planning an independent presidential candidacy designed to break the major-party duopoly in American politics and (allegedly) force those parties to work with each other. Up until now, the main source of reassurance for Joe Biden supporters fearful that a centrist third candidate might throw the election to Donald Trump has been that No Labels’ leadership has sworn not to launch a candidacy unless there’s a chance of actual victory (though the fact that the organization’s pollster, Mark Penn, is married to No Labels CEO Nancy Jacobson could make for some slippery polling on its candidates’ viability). While plenty of voters invariably express openness to a theoretical centrist option, support for actual candidates (especially the kind of marginal figures alienated enough from the two major parties to entertain this sort of demolition exercise) isn’t that impressive.
But now there’s evidence that No Labels is moving the goalposts in deciding what would justify an independent ticket. The centrist Democratic organization Third Way, which has adopted a Paul Revere role in charging that No Labels, with its undisclosed corporate donors, is really a MAGA Trojan horse, is sending out alarms in a memo about No Labels’ new strategy:
Since they launched their third-party presidential effort last year, the No Labels Party has repeated a central refrain: “our bipartisan ticket, led either by a Democrat or a Republican, will not be a spoiler — we are in this to win.” But that has now changed. No Labels has made clear that their new plan is to put a Republican at the top of their ticket. And because they can’t win the presidency outright, they’ve indicated that their intention now is to exercise leverage over the winner by denying both major parties 270 Electoral College Votes (ECVs). That radical new plan would ensure a second Trump term.
The idea of picking a Republican to head the ticket (possible names include former governors Jon Huntsman of Utah and Larry Hogan of Maryland) is presumably intended to rebut claims that No Labels wants to take more votes away from Biden than from Trump. But as Third Way points out, No Labels’ own published polling shows a Republican-led ticket is more likely to actually carry a few battleground states and deny either major-party candidate the 270 electoral votes necessary for victory:
None of this is speculation. No Labels put out a chart based on their new polling that shows their candidate (from either party) can’t win …
Their chief strategist has said publicly they are preparing for a contingent election in which they try to win a few states and deny Trump and Biden 270 electoral votes. This, No Labels believes, would give them leverage to cut a deal by promising their electors’ support to whichever major party candidate they deem more worthy.
Barring some sort of outrageous bargaining by faithless electors, it’s more likely that a deadlocked election would send the contest to the U.S. House, where under the 12th Amendment each state delegation would have one vote. Republicans control, and are very likely to continue to control, a majority of House delegations. That’s the basis for Third Way’s argument that the “contingent election” strategy is ultimately just another path to the Donald Trump victory that is No Labels’ real goal:
Whether a Democrat or Republican tops a No Labels ticket, Donald Trump wins — but in different ways. When a Democrat is at the top, No Labels throws seven battleground states to Trump. With a Republican leading their ticket, No Labels prevents Biden from winning any battleground outside of Pennsylvania, while Trump wins three battlegrounds and nearly reaches 270 ECVs. In this scenario, No Labels believes their GOP-led, third-party ticket wins a handful of electoral votes.
Whether or not you accept Third Way’s attribution of stealth MAGA motives to No Labels, and even if you believe the group wants to keep equal distance from the major parties, it’s very significant that it is flirting with a strategy that is almost certain to give a green light to an independent bid that could wreak havoc on the 2024 election. All it really requires is polling showing a close major-party election (which almost everyone foresees) and a potential No Labels win in one or two states. That’s a vastly different threshold than the previous No Labels requirement of a plausible path to 270 electoral votes.
If the “contingent election” scenario actually occurred, creating either an unsavory moment of wheeling and dealing among candidates and their electors or the first House election of a president in two centuries, the chaos surrounding the outcome would reach genuinely dangerous levels. We’re already looking at the high probability of a contested election if Trump loses by anything other than a landslide and an atmosphere of mistrust and fear that could damage faith in democracy for a long time. If No Labels is consciously trying to muddy the waters even more, its professions of high-minded nonpartisanship are even more mendacious than we realized.