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From No Labels to RFK Jr. to ‘Literally Anybody Else’ — is third-party momentum a major storyline in presidential race?

It’s been consensus for the better part of two decades that a third party alternative is needed to challenge the two-party system. A Northeastern political scientist talks about the latest developments.

Texas Drivers License of the presidential candidate who changed his name to 'Literally Anybody Else'.
A Texas man changed his legal name to “Literally Anybody Else” in gimmick presidential campaign. Courtesy of Literally Anybody Else campaign

The 2024 presidential race features Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump, but the chatter surrounding third-party candidates has reached a fever pitch.

Support for Robert Kennedy Jr., for example, continues to draw from both parties, while the “No Labels” party has declared its intention to move forward with a candidate.

At the same time, “uncommitted” and #LeaveItBlank campaigns are gaining momentum.

And in a most bizarre but telling development, a 35-year-old Texas man who changed his name to “Literally Anybody Else” recently launched a presidential bid, shining an exaggeratedly bright spotlight on U.S. electoral dissatisfaction writ large. 

It’s been a consensus for the better part of two decades that a third-party alternative is needed to disrupt the two-party paradigm. Has third-party momentum finally materialized, and could it make a difference in 2024?   

Nick Beauchamp, associate professor of political science at Northeastern University, talks about these developments — and more. 

His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Headshot of Nicholas Beauchamp.
Northeastern Associate Professor of Political Science Nicholas Beauchamp talks third party impacts on the 2024 election. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

What do you make of all this third-party chatter?

There’s two different ways to think about this. Of course, there’s public opinion and the attitudes of the nation as a whole — or the various groups within it. And the other is the electoral prognostication side. 

They’re broadly related, but in some ways they are two different discourses, because the latter thinks about, for example, who’s on the ballot; which of the two candidates they draw from; and to what degree do they attract nonvoters or disaffected voters relative to drawing from the pool of Trump and Biden voters. 

And those are pretty interesting questions. On the other hand, irrespective of technicalities about whether they are going to be on the ballot or not, there are questions about what all of this third-party momentum says about people’s attitudes, feelings and so forth.

On that point, what does “third party” even mean? Does it mean they’ve gotten their name on the ballot in a particular state, or are at least associated with an official political party? Do political scientists consider “write-in” candidates as third-party candidates?

Technically, it means on the ballot with a party affiliation. That means you’ve gone through all the state hoops to get on to the ballot. But one of the things I have wondered is, as social media makes it much easier to coordinate campaigns, does it become less important to have the actual box a voter can simply check? 

In the past, it was fairly difficult to organize unless the person was very famous; but it seems to be the case that in some of these primaries, write-ins can hit a decently large number. Never enough to win, of course. But you could imagine a write-in candidate easily getting 1 to 3% of the vote — roughly comparable to many of these third-party candidates, who have gone through the trouble of getting their name on the ballot.

RFK Jr. did an interview earlier this afternoon on CNN and said that Biden is a greater threat to democracy than Donald Trump. Does this read to you like a true independent bid, or support for the former president?

It’ll be interesting to see where he goes because from what I’ve seen, RFK Jr. has higher approval levels among Republicans than among Democrats these days. He still seems to be drawing equal percentages of intended votes from people who are leaning Republican and Democrat. But his approval levels are a little bit higher among Republicans these days. 

Presuming that they are aware of that, if he’s purely in it to maximize votes, maybe that will affect his strategic moves and cause him to focus more on the disaffected Republican voters than disaffected Democratic voters. It’s sort of a weird strategy because, one way or the other, either he’s praising Trump and attacking Biden or vice-versa. You’d think that either of those tactics would hurt him because he’s still endorsing one of them, which might just cause voters to swap from one major candidate to another. But you can also imagine that he’s targeting the people who strongly dislike Biden and also dislike Trump, so the double haters — but the double haters who are slightly more hostile toward Biden than Trump, who in that case, might vote for RFK Jr.

Do you have any predictions about the third-party impact come November?

We know that everyone is unhappy with these two candidates. But then you move over to the electoral game, and now you’ve got this crazy world where you have two main candidates who are strongly disliked, plus this sequence of third-party candidates; and the question becomes: what kind of effect is this going to have on the outcome? (And the outcome is either going to be Trump or Biden, barring any unforeseen developments.)

Two points are important here. One is how much is this “other vote” — again, representing this bundle of different options — going to be when we count it all up? And, two, how will this affect which one of the two main candidates wins? Then you do some back-of-the-envelope calculations; like, RFK Jr. plus Cornel West plus Jill Stein plus others might add up to about 15% — at least, that’s what the polls are saying right now. 

Usually, that shrinks down when we get to the election for various reasons. One is that many voters “come home”; the other is that a lot of people who say they’re going to vote for these third-party candidates are those least likely to turn out, so they just don’t vote. Imagine that number shrinks to 8-10% in the end, then you have to ask: of that remaining group, what’s the differential effect on Biden and Trump for each of them? At this point you’re down to pretty small numbers.

Ultimately the answer is that we don’t know and in some ways we’ll probably never know because these are two fine gradations for political scientists to be able to measure with polling, and even exit polling. There are still fights about whether Ross Perot helped Bush or Clinton more. 

Everyone seems to think it’s a wash, but mathematically it’s very hard to do. So it doesn’t take much to affect the outcomes. It’s not clear that if Biden has gone up one point in the last month, which is plausible, it’s due to the State of the Union, or a change in conditions — and it’s really unclear where that 1% is coming from.