X Close

No Labels was too Beltway to ever succeed

Joe Manchin: what could have been. Credit: Getty

April 5, 2024 - 4:00pm

After months of searching, the No Labels political group seems poised to admit defeat, having announced that it will not be running a third-party presidential ticket.

Theoretically, 2024 should have been an ideal year for this centrist political group. Polls show that many Americans would prefer something other than a Biden-Trump rematch, and both men have high disapproval numbers. No Labels claimed that it had already secured ballot access for a potential nominee in many states.

Yet one high-profile candidate after another ruled themselves out of running under the No Labels banner — from former New Jersey governor (and Trump nemesis) Chris Christie to West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who has announced his retirement from the Senate. Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan had long flirted with No Labels, but he resigned from the group’s board a few months ago and is now running for the Republican nomination in the state’s Senate race.

Ironically, the very polarisation that No Labels purports to redress might itself have helped block the group’s presidential bid. Over the past 20 years, the Republican and Democratic parties have become more disciplined partisan actors, and recent presidential cycles have been dominated by appeals to the parties’ bases. This base-driven strategy denies parties landslide blowouts, but it also gives them a very high floor. Since 2000, no Republican or Democratic presidential nominee has received under 45% of the popular vote. If each major party has the baked-in loyalty of over 40% of the electorate, a third-party candidacy premised on appealing to some hypothetical disaffected middle faces almost-impossible odds.

This challenge is particularly keen for the kind of centrism associated with the No Labels brand. In the Beltway, “centrist” politics often involves some synthesis of fiscal conservatism and social moderation. This combination might not appeal to many undecided voters, who are often sceptical of cuts to government programmes.

What’s more, this kind of centrism is particularly targeted toward highly educated and engaged voters. But this slice of the electorate has increasingly become part of the Democratic base. Exemplifying this trend, John Avlon, one of the co-founders of No Labels, has since repudiated the organisation and is now running as a Democrat for a New York congressional seat. If much of the Beltway establishment sees itself as part of a broader anti-Trump coalition, it’s not surprising that No Labels has been the target of a punishing pressure campaign, with Biden allies launching both public attacks and behind-the-scenes threats.

Biden’s campaign strategy seems focused on channeling public distaste with Trump and denying the electorate any off-ramp: “it’s me or Trump”, in other words. Likewise, Trump hopes to turn out voters through a combination of his unique political celebrity and popular dissatisfaction with Biden’s tenure as president. In the clash between those two figures, a centrist third party might seem the palest of pastels.

It’s telling that the third-party candidate who has received the most traction in polls so far is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His offbeat, all-over-the-map political profile might be more attuned to the American voters who are actually open to a third-party alternative. The United States is weirder and wilder than the worldviews of many Beltway wonks, and outside-the-box candidates might actually be a more plausible model for a third-party bid. After all, perhaps the most influential third-party candidate in recent memory was Ross Perot, the eccentric Texas billionaire whose views on trade and other issues were dismissed by the Beltway elite.

Even RFK might fade as election day nears and the gravitational pull of each political party increases. Despite the idealism of a certain “no labels” worldview, perhaps one of the strongest political forces is, after all, the label.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
1 month ago

Good points. People say that they wish other people than Joe Biden and Donald Trump were running, but a large majority also pick one of those two as the candidate they would support. In other words, they want some unnamed person, but when it comes down to naming the person, they don’t.
I’m the same way. I can’t think of a better Democrat than Joe Biden, or a better Republican than Donald Trump. A Gavin Newsom or a Nikki Haley just doesn’t do it for me. No interest at all in those two.
As to third-party candidates, we’re down to three. Cornel West’s candidacy is a joke. I’m not sure he’ll get on the ballot in any state. He doesn’t seem to care. Jill Stein is likely to be the Green Party nominee, but will probably not be on the ballot in all 50 states. Even if she is, she’ll be lucky to get 1% of the vote. A blip.
Bobby Kennedy will do better, but he’s having issues getting on ballots too. So far he’s on the ballot only in Utah. That’s not going to help him much.
Bobby Kennedy has flirted with the Libertarian party, but they are having their own ballot issues this time around. With a liberal as vice-president, they’re likely to turn a cold shoulder to Bobby Kennedy even if he wanted to be on their ticket. The Libertarians will pick someone else, a no-name who will get 1% or less.
The upshot? If Bobby Kennedy gets more than 4% or 5%, I’ll be surprised. All three or four third-party candidates added together will total well under 10%.
So it’s not going to matter who’s running besides the Democrat and the Republican. One of them will win. That the No Labels party did not field a candidate will just be a footnote to the election, along with the third-party candidates who do run.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago

You dance around the truth but don’t quite say it.
The campaign of destruction that has been waged against Trump and anyone seen as even slightly “Trump-adjacent,” and even anyone who questions the censorship regime being imposed by and on behalf of the Democrats without saying a kind word about Trump, has served much of its purpose of intimidating into silence any potential heterodox voices. Musk was denied billions of dollars of his contractual compensation by the Delaware chancery court (Delaware, Biden’s home state, of all places) and suddenly facing multiple federal investigations even as NASA depends on SpaceX for launch capability. The host of tortured criminal and civil cases against Trump, none of which has any validity or precedent. And so on.
Anyone who would fly into that hurricane is either a saint or a fool. Neither of which describes any political players.
Democratic norms are dead in the United States, at the national level and in numerous states. And those Republicans who support the persecution of Trump, or just turned aside and let the crocodile eat Trump, first (to use Churchill’s metaphor), will learn soon enough that they are next in the gaze of the beast.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
1 month ago

Pretty good take. The other thing I would add is that the idea that there’s a large majority of Americans who are ‘centrists’ is, I think, over-stated.
There is a large majority whose political views are driven more by emotional appeals than by the rational compromise of necessary trade-offs – so their answers to poll questions vary dramatically with the way the questions are phrased. They often endorse seemingly contradictory policy goals or approaches. The result is people who say they tolerate trans-genderism… except when it comes to their own family and schools and workplaces, or people who oppose petroleum production but don’t want to spend any more for energy, etc. This isn’t centrism but simply cognitive dissonance – their privilege since they don’t actually have to vote on these trade-offs.
There is also a large number of Americans who hate the soap opera of politics – the lies, the hyperbole, the hypocrisy, etc. – yet at the same time find themselves drawn to it and happy to inhabit it in casual discourse. But their supposed distaste for the soap opera can create an appearance of ‘centrism’ when really they’re just too busy with normal life to really fully engage with the messy reality of politics. Again, this is not centrism – it’s treating politicians as celebrities as a way to create a narrative to understand our lives and circumstances – narrative which requires characters, plot twists, etc.
But if you go behind the polling, and behind the drama of our political class, you find that Americans are pretty significantly divided over what Sowell (with Haidt and others) calls the ‘Clash of Visions’ – a large number of Americans prioritize the ‘liberal’ values and think they lead to social success and human flourishing, and others endorse the ‘conservative’ values. But trying to reconcile these abstract differences is very difficult – they are too vague and multi-factored to be amenable to hard data, they are too deep and ingrained, too dependent on factors like family history, religion, etc. to be easily altered or even argued with. They are also in many cases not in conflict, which can undermine the seriousness of the fact that often they are. But underneath the difficulty of measuring this gulf, is a very real gap in America, between people who have leaned fully into one strain of traditional American values (freedom, rebellion, self-actualization) and those who have taken up another (duty, community, loyalty).
Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be easy or painless to rebuild a common culture in America. We have further to go down before we go back up (if we ever do).

Howard S.
Howard S.
1 month ago

The possible candidates all got the message when the public face of the party, former Senator Joe Lieberman, died from a “fall”. There weren’t any third story windows in his single-level home (it was difficult for him to climb stairs at his age) for him to fall out of, and since there were no stairs there were no stairs for him to fall down, and he had plans for a summer vacation, so no immediate possibility of a suicide a la Epstein. So just a simple, generic fall, and the rest of the troops got the message.