Inside Story

Is No Labels heading off-label?

A bipartisan group calling for moderation might make life difficult for Joe Biden’s re-election bid

Lesley Russell 21 July 2023 1760 words

Looming opportunity? Democratic senator Joe Manchin at the “Common Sense” town hall meeting sponsored by No Labels in Manchester, New Hampshire, on 17 July. John Tully/Washington Post via Getty Images

Sixteen months before the US presidential elections, before even a single state primary has been held, it is already clear — barring unforeseen circumstances — that the race will be a contest between Joe Biden and the man he beat in 2020, Donald Trump. Despite this certainty, polling shows that most Americans don’t want either man to run.

This is just one strange, chillingly undemocratic, dimension to what promises to be a very strange election. The two oldest men ever to run for president are recontesting an election Trump believes was stolen from him in 2020 — a claim he will certainly propagate again if he loses again. Where he is burdened by historic indictments and a raft of legal probes, Biden’s ability to claim a successful term has been hampered by an intractable, do-nothing Congress and a series of US Supreme Court decisions that have rolled back federally enshrined rights.

Republican-controlled states, meanwhile, continue their efforts to gerrymander electoral districts and undermine voting rights. And the same polls that show Americans want neither Trump nor Biden also show they don’t know who they do want to see on the presidential ticket.

Into this scene emerges a little known, putatively bipartisan group enigmatically called No Labels, which claims to have an “insurance policy in the event both major parties put forth presidential candidates the vast majority of Americans don’t want.” The policy? It will put forward a yet-to-be-named bipartisan presidential/vice-presidential ticket. To this end the group is promoting a US$70 million effort to get its ticket on general election ballots across the nation.

Democrats and Never Trumpers are especially fearful that No Labels’s actions will divert support from voters who might otherwise back Biden. (Trump holds on to disaffected Republican voters more tightly than Biden holds disaffected Democratic voters.) Under the first-past-the-post system used in presidential elections, this would increase Trump’s chances of winning.

But Republicans have reason to worry, too. In a poll conducted for No Labels earlier this year, 59 per cent of respondents said they would consider a moderate independent ticket if faced with a Trump–Biden rematch. But, as others have pointed out, without names on the ticket these numbers demonstrate only a yearning for an alternative. To translate that desire into votes, No Labels needs candidates who can win real support from voters of both parties and independents.

Third-party candidates aren’t uncommon in US presidential elections. In some cases they are barely noticed; in others the evidence shows they affected the outcome. Ralph Nader’s candidature in 2000 is often seen as ensuring that George W. Bush won Florida, and hence the election. Jill Stein, the Greens candidate in 2016, received 49,941 votes in Pennsylvania, a state Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by 44,292 votes.

Perhaps the best-known of all, Ross Perot, received 18.9 per cent of the popular vote (the highest percentage of any third-party candidate ever). But he was seen to have pulled votes equally from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Founded in 2010 by former Democratic operative Nancy Jacobson, No Labels was a response to the rising Tea Party’s attacks on Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. It describes itself as a bipartisan movement for Americans who are “tired of the extremes on the left and the right.” Rather than help Obama, its aim was to support lawmakers willing to meet in the middle, irrespective of their party affiliation. Current co-chairs are former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman, former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis, and Larry Hogan, the Republican former governor of Maryland.

Because No Labels is a non-profit organisation rather than a registered political party it needn’t declare its sources of funding. Most donors appear to be wealthy individuals working primarily in the finance sector who have also made big donations to the major parties. No Labels also oversees a number of political action committees, or PACs. Experts in campaign finance law say the organisation has reached the limits of what is permissible under electoral law.

Until recently, No Labels has mostly advocated procedural reforms aimed at limiting the power of the majority party in Congress. In 2017 it helped start the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and later it launched fundraising efforts to support candidates who backed the caucus’s agenda. That agenda is more centre-right than centrist: on healthcare, for example, it has pushed to compensate health insurance companies for the rising costs imposed by the pre-existing conditions that Obamacare requires them to cover, and for the elimination of a medical device tax that was also part of Obamacare.

Notably, the lifespans of No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus encompass the very period when Washington politics has become increasingly partisan and nihilistic. But whatever No Label once was, it is now clearly an organisation in transition, intent on a new agenda that would make it a player in the national political arena. Suddenly the “national movement of commonsense Americans pushing our leaders together to solve our country’s biggest problems” is in the business of proposing who voters might choose to be the president and vice-president.

Americans got a glimpse of what this might mean a few days ago, at a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire, when No Labels launched the group’s policy agenda, “Common Sense.” Headlining the event were West Virginia senator and rogue Democrat Joe Manchin, who has hinted at a presidential tilt, and Utah’s former Republican governor Jon Huntsman, who ran for president in 2012.

One think tank has described the policy plan as timid and vague. It is a mish-mash of middle-of-the-road pabulum, dodges tough issues like abortion (it urges “a sustainable abortion compromise most Americans can live with”) and provides no definitive solutions to the problems confronting the nation. Manchin and Huntsman, presumably there as exemplars of the proposed presidential ticket, were equally obtuse on how a bipartisan team might govern. The memo on the No Labels website laying out a third-party presidential plan also dodges crucial issues, including whether and how the campaign would avoid handing the election to Trump.

It is no easy matter to compete against the two major political parties in a presidential election. Just getting names on the ballot papers requires complicated efforts to meet a variety of state-specific filing requirements and timelines. Typically, petitions must have a requisite number of approved signatories.

The group has already gained ballot access in Arizona, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon and signature-gathering efforts are under way in other states. No Labels is providing the names of “placeholder” candidates who will be replaced by the actual presidential and vice-presidential candidates when they are selected. As part of this effort, the organisation has established a number of state affiliates, some with deep Republican roots, which have declared themselves political parties.

Presidential and vice-presidential candidates will be selected between Super Tuesday (5 March) and the No Labels convention, scheduled for April in Dallas, where the candidates will be endorsed. But who will make these decisions and endorsements is never stated.

Realistically, this push for political action is likely to be driven from the top of No Labels by Jacobson and Lieberman, with sidelines support from those, like Manchin, who may see personal opportunities looming — especially as he apparently faces a tough race to retain his senate seat, and buoyed by favourable polling. (No Label’s pollster is HarrisX, owned by Mark Penn, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who has distanced himself from the Democratic Party and who is married to Jacobsen.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, splits have emerged inside the organisation and reports indicate a toxic work environment. One of the founders, William Galston, has resigned over the presidential push and the Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus are described as being in open revolt.

There does seem to be an element of outsiders’ revenge to what has been characterised as a spoiler intervention that will strengthen Trump’s chances. When challenged on this, Jacobsen has said that No Labels will nominate a ticket only if polling shows a viable path to victory (“if our rigorously gathered data and polling suggest an independent unity ticket can’t win, we will not nominate a ticket”) and that the ticket will be pulled from the ballot if the campaign tilts the race to a competitor, especially to Trump. “We will not spoil for either side. The only reason to do this is to win.” Lieberman told the Atlantic. “The last thing I’d ever want to be part of is bringing Donald Trump back to the Oval Office.”

But these statements only raise more questions. Can Jacobson and Lieberman be trusted to make these decisions? What is the metric they will use? Where do they think the votes to deliver a third-party win will come from?

Only the latter question can be answered here. At a time of hyperpartisanship, centrist and independent voters are, at least theoretically, up for grabs. Biden already occupies much of the centre and Republicans like Trump, Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence are preoccupied with the right. Pew polling shows that while 38 per cent of Americans describe themselves as independents, only 7 per cent identify as an independent leaning towards neither of the two major political parties.

What distinguishes the small share of Americans who are truly independent is their low level of interest in politics, and that makes them hard to engage in the swell of support No Labels needs. Most analysts (including at Third Way and in Politico) agree that No Labels’s hopes of any electoral college votes, let alone the 270 mentioned on their website, are based on flawed premises.

For the time being, though, Democrats and Never Trumpers must worry about No Labels’s intent. Some small reassurance comes in Aaron Blake’s Washington Post analysis of polling by Monmouth. The pollster found that Biden leads Trump by seven points (47–40) in a head-to-head among those who will “definitely” or “probably” vote for either candidate. In contrast to other polls (including HarrisX’s), Monmouth’s shows no significant shift when a third-party ticket is introduced. With a generic third-party ticket, Biden edges ahead by nine points; with Manchin and Huntsman named as candidates, Biden still has a six-point edge.

As Blake observes, while Americans generally like the idea of an independent candidate, what No Labels is offering is not an independent or a third-party ticket but a fusion Republican–Democrat ticket. And he reminds us that third-party tickets almost always poll better than they perform on election day because voters ultimately want to choose between candidates who have a chance of winning. •