The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: It's not 2016 for third-party candidates

Placeholder while article actions load

In this edition: Shrinkage for third parties, another primary day in New England, and polls that will elevate the Democratic panic level from their usual 9 out of 10 to a solid 9.5.

There are not nearly enough candidates doing their own drum rolls in TV ads, and this is The Trailer.

The Movement for a People's Party's virtual convention invited the best-known independent populists in the country to speak last month, and some of them said yes. Jesse Ventura called in to denounce “the one political party, the corporate party” that runs American politics. Cornel West condemned the “neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.” Nina Turner called in to say some people would finally say “to hell with it” and dump the Democrats altogether.

They agreed: America needed a left-wing, populist, anti-corporate third party. Just not this year.

“We’re not contesting 2020, and we’re not running anyone in 2020,” said Nick Brana, a veteran of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign who's poured the last three years of his life into the MPP. “This is to form a party beginning in 2021, to run in the midterms in 2022 and, perhaps, to run a presidential candidate in 2024.”

This wasn't Brana's first plan — that was getting Sanders to run as a People's Party candidate. But it was the plan that made sense for this fall. Support for third-party presidential candidates, which reached a 20-year high in the last election, has fallen off in every measurable way. 

Left-wing dreams of a “dirty break” from the Democrats have been put on pause. Plans for a centrist third party imploded, as they had in 2008 and 2012, even before former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz pulled the plug on an independent bid after a combination of backlash and disinterest. And the Libertarian Party, which won its biggest-ever vote total four years ago, nominated party activist Jo Jorgensen for president after Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan abandoned his short, attention-grabbing campaign.

“It's such a completely different race,” Jorgensen said in a Monday phone interview, as she made campaign stops in Alaska. “I think having two former governors on the ticket in 2016, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, did bring some notice to the party. A lot of people thought, maybe there's some other choice out there. In fact, sometimes when people hear about me, they say, wow, I didn't know I had another choice.”

In the last election, the nomination of unpopular Democratic and Republican nominees created openings for third parties and made it easier for Trump to win. In 14 states, neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton cracked 50 percent of the vote. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as Democrats painfully remind themselves, the vote for third-party candidates was much bigger than Trump's win margin. Six percent of voters didn't vote for either major-party candidate, the biggest rejection of the system in 20 years. More than 1.2 million Americans wrote in a candidate instead of picking the options on their ballots, more than quadruple the number who did so in 2012 — when 284,920 write-ins had set a record. Thousands more just left the top of the ballot blank.

Pollsters aren't seeing the ingredients for that this year. Trump, who has consolidated Republican voters and conservative former Democrats, is viewed more favorably than he was in 2016. Biden is viewed far more favorably than the last Democratic nominee, with no single scandal or flaw defining him as the FBI's probe of her email server defined Clinton. 

“There’s no appetite on either side for a third-party candidate,” said Ray Buckley, the chairman of New Hampshire's Democratic Party since 2007. “I have not heard of any serious organizing, and four years ago, I did hear about it. There was an effort to vote for [Green Party nominee] Jill Stein, and there was a real effort to write in Bernie Sanders, and that's not there right now.”

And many disgruntled left-wing voters were traumatized by 2016, believing they were casting a protest vote against an inevitable Clinton presidency, not for unified Republican control of government. One organizer of the campaign to write in Sanders told The Post weeks before the 2016 election that Trump was “collapsing” and Clinton had “a lock on the presidency,” and then, after the election, hoped in vain that the electoral college might reject Trump.

“It’s a clear referendum election. Either you want to return Donald Trump to office, or you don’t,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which has found support for Jorgensen in key states at 1 or 2 percent, while support for other third-party candidates was negligible. “In 2016, there was so much uncertainty about both candidates, so much disagreement about whether one was any worse than the other, that a lot of people threw up their hands.”

There's been plenty of third-party organizing, but nothing like the efforts of 2016. Amash and Ventura opted against running, as did Stein, which cleared a path for New York activist Howie Hawkins to win the Green nomination. Millions of voters will get ballots that include one of the world's most famous musical artists, a child actor turned cryptocurrency entrepreneur, a former coal executive who has been running for office since his 2017 release from prison, and a California businessman who runs for office as a hobby.

But there hasn't been much enthusiasm for any of it. At the start of August, Jorgensen had raised less than $1.4 million, on track for far less than the $12 million the Johnson/Weld ticket raised in 2016. A spokesman for Hawkins said he had raised “over $300,000” for his Green Party bid, less than 10 percent of what Stein raised by the end of her 2016 campaign. (Hawkins is applying for matching funds, which could add $200,000 to his war chest.)

Kanye West's presidential campaign, announced July 4, managed to secure fewer than a dozen ballot lines, just two in states (Iowa and Minnesota) being seriously contested in November. Tellingly, he did so with the help of Republican attorneys and paid signature-gatherers, not a groundswell of support. West's first full Federal Election Commission report revealed that he has largely self-funded his campaign, with just $11,472.66 coming in from small donors — less than some campaigns for state legislature for an artist who, pre-pandemic, could quickly sell out stadiums.

“I'm not running for president,” he told Nick Cannon in one of the handful of interviews he's given about the campaign. “I'm walking.”

In Minnesota, where nearly 9 percent of 2016 voters backed a third-party or write-in candidate, Democrats fretted that West could peel off votes. But they didn't fret much, and Minnesota GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan said she didn't expect much third-party voting, either. 

“I view the Kanye West thing as someone who's got a big ego, who's famous and who wants to feel better about himself by running for president,” Carnahan said in an interview. “I think it's really between the Republicans and the Democrats at this point.”

The decline of third-party voting, so far, has been a boon to Biden. In last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent of voters who supported a third party in 2016 said they would support the Democrat this year, to just 20 percent who said they'd support Trump. Jeff Weaver, Sanders's former campaign manager, co-founded America’s Promise PAC with the goal of pulling disaffected left-wing voters over to Biden.

In an interview, Weaver said the task was easier than the one that confronted the left four years ago. Biden, he said, had worked more effectively than Clinton to persuade Sanders voters that he would deliver for them. Trump's refrain in both cycles — that Sanders, unfairly, had been robbed of the Democratic nomination — was harder to make stick after a short and decisive primary, particularly with Trump unable to run as a disrupter with no record.

“I think a lot of folks last time thought that he couldn't be elected. And lo and behold, he was,” Weaver said. “It is much harder to pull off the smoke and mirrors in 2020 than it was in 2016, when people hadn't seen him governing. He's governed very badly.”

Biden is still viewed skeptically on the left, with numerous campaigns underway to challenge him now as well as after the election, demanding quick moves on activists' priorities. The MPP was unusually direct about it, preparing to offer voters an alternative on the left within months, and pressuring Biden. That idea — telling voters that there would be a better time to bolt the two parties, after Trump was gone — got a laugh from Jorgensen.

“I'd say to them: Do you really want Trump or Biden this year?” the Libertarian nominee said. “Because somebody's going to be running the country for the next four years.” 

Reading list

“Trump employs violence as political fuel for reelection fight,” by Michael Scherer

The political power of unrest.

“How Trump's billion-dollar campaign lost its cash advantage,” by Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman

A twist few Republicans expected six months ago: Biden may head into November with more money than Trump.

“Amid Kenosha unrest, Wisconsin suburbs become a crucial testing ground for Trump’s appeals to White grievance,” by Robert Klemko and Robert Costa

The conversation in Kenosha and its outskirts.

“Why Biden could still lose the suburbs to Trump,” by David Siders

Civil unrest hasn't given voters second thoughts about the Democrats, but it could.

“Biden’s flexibility on policy could mean fierce fights if he wins,” by Annie Linskey

Would “the senator from MBNA” really crack down on Wall Street? It's complicated.

"The left secretly preps for MAGA violence after Election Day," by Sam Stein

A very different kind of wargame.

In the states

New England's primary season will wrap up today, eight short weeks before the general election, with races that have quietly fallen off the blue and red radars. Polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern in both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, with not much at stake in the Ocean State. 

While Rhode Island's 2nd Congressional District backed Hillary Clinton by just seven points over Donald Trump, one of the biggest blue-to-red swings in a place Clinton carried, moderate Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin drew no serious challenger; former state representative Bob Lancia headed into today's Republican primary against electrician Donald Robbio with less than $16,000 left to spend. The state itself hasn't gone Republican in a presidential election since 1984, and it's not competitive in November.

The same can't be said of New Hampshire, which the Trump campaign lost by just 0.4 percent of the vote in 2016. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who won by single digits in 2016 and 2018, has grown more popular during the state's response to covid-19 — though his decision not to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was taken as an early sign of how much harder 2020 could be for his party. Both Sununu and Shaheen have protest-candidate challengers in their own primaries, and both start out with sizable leads against whoever the other party nominates.

The Democrats' race for governor pits state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes against Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, one of the final primary battles between the party's left and its center. Feltes, who jumped into the race first, won the backing of the rest of his party's legislative leaders and its last two nominees for governor, while Volinsky earned the support of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Sunrise Movement and left-leaning unions. Feltes has warned that Volinsky's openness to higher taxes would sink him in a race with Sununu, though both Democrats trail the governor badly in polls.

“I don't support a broad-based income tax, [while] Andru said he'd sign a budget with a broad-based income tax in it,” Feltes said last month in the final debate with Volinsky. “We developed the most progressive budget in state history, and we've got to build off of it.”

None of the GOP's possible nominees for U.S. Senate have held elected office; one is a perennial candidate who lost races in Florida and Illinois before he started losing them here. But Trump has endorsed Bryant “Corky” Messner, a multimillionaire attorney and veteran who, like the president, has taken heat over the conduct of a namesake foundation. He's loaned nearly $4 million to his campaign, allowing him to heavily outspend retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. 

Democrats decisively won the state's two congressional districts in 2018, and Republicans struggled to find first-tier challengers this year. (Since 2008, the GOP has never won a House seat here when a race for president was on the ballot.) In the 1st Congressional District, which Trump carried four years ago, GOP strategist Matt Mowers practically cleared the field, winning Trump's endorsement and portraying first-term Rep. Chris Pappas as an out-of-touch liberal. Party activist Matt Mayberry has lagged Mowers badly in fundraising but used that money to portray Mowers as a New Jersey “carpetbagger” who moved to the state to run for Congress.

Mowers, if he wins, would start the general election with roughly one-quarter as much cash on hand as Pappas. Republicans are in worse shape in the bluer 2nd Congressional District, where nobody has raised much money to challenge Rep. Annie Kuster. Former state representative Steve Negron, who lost to Kuster in 2018, got a small boost when schoolteacher Eli Clemmer quit (or in his words, “seceded from the race”) and endorsed him last week. Former state representative Lynne Blankenbeker, who lost the 2018 primary to Negron, is running again with the backing of War Veterans PAC, created to elect more Republicans with military experience. Both of them entered the primary with less than $40,000 cash on hand, to more than $2.4 million for Kuster.  

Unlike the 1st, which includes exurbs of Boston that tend to vote Republican, the 2nd District's population centers tilt Democratic, from the city of Nashua to the towns of the Connecticut River Valley. Mowers's early fundraising strength got him a “Contender” designation from the National Republican Congressional Committee, but the party has no favorite in the 2nd.

Ad watch

Corky Messner, “President Trump Introduces Corky Messner!” When you've got a Trump endorsement in a Republican primary, you make sure everybody knows it. Messner's closing spot starts with Trump's quick reference to him at his latest New Hampshire rally (“Get 'em, we need Corky!”) and continues with Messner himself promising to “help President Trump bring jobs back.”

Don Bolduc, “Socialist Pansies.” A digital spot for Messner's challenger focuses heavily on Bolduc's military experience, with the candidate quickly registering his disgust at left-wing activism. “I didn't spend my life defending this country to let a bunch of liberal, socialist pansies squander it away,” Bolduc says.

Andru Volinsky, “Only Andru.” The left-lane candidate in the Democrats' gubernatorial primary says Volinsky is “the only progressive for the job,” touting how he's “taken on insurance companies and won” and emphasizing his opposition to property tax hikes, without mentioning specifically his own preference: more progressive taxes.

Matt Mowers, “Forgotten.” Running against a first-term Democrat can be tricky, as it's hard to portray them as D.C. insiders. Mowers, like a lot of Republican candidates this year, goes another route: He warns that Pappas simply won't stand up to radicals. “Liberals like Chris Pappas side with violent mobs over our police; with China, over American workers,” he says.

Matt Mayberry, “Two Matts.” Mowers's main competitor in today's primary has tried to slow him down with this radio ad, which calls Mowers a “scandal-ridden New Jersey operative” and uses an unmistakable audio cue to remind voters of his name: the whistling theme from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Poll watch

Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Susquehanna, 498 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 44% (-2)
Donald Trump: 42% (+1)

Polls in Pennsylvania have been tight all year, with a few exceptions, but Susquehanna has shown a trend few other pollsters are seeing: more voters growing restless and undecided. Since April, Biden's lead has declined, from six points to five points to two points. But support for the president has hovered between 41 percent and 42 percent, and the issues most relevant to voters have shifted, too. Here, Susquehanna finds a massive split when voters are asked about civil unrest; voters concerned with “racial justice” back Biden by 67 points, while voters concerned with “law and order” back Trump by 56 points.

Presidential election in Florida (NBC News/Marist, 766 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 48%
Donald Trump: 48%

Marist's first poll of the swing state this cycle is notable for how differently this tie is built from the tied polls of four or eight years ago. Biden has reversed the traditional Republican advantage with voters over 65, leading by one point with a group Hillary Clinton lost by 17 points. But Biden has reversed what Marist saw with Florida Latinos, with Hillary Clinton's 27-point lead transforming into a four-point lead for Trump. Other polling of the state has found similar trends, if less dramatic: The landslide South Florida margin that nearly won the state for Clinton, despite her losses elsewhere, narrowed as Biden polls a bit worse with Black voters and markedly worse with Cuban Americans.

Voting wars

Absentee ballots in some states started going out four days ago, but the laws that will govern this election are far from settled. The latest:

In Maine, the state Supreme Court stayed a Republican challenge to ranked-choice voting, which would allow a system that lets a sort of instant runoff be used in the presidential election. (Voters get ballots that allow them to assign numbers to candidates, with the second-choice votes being added to the total if no candidate cracks 50 percent.) The system was already in place for down-ballot races; a GOP effort to undo it with a ballot measure had put it in limbo for the presidential race.

In North Carolina, a panel of judges blocked a law that prevents former felons, those who have completed their prison terms, from voting if they are on probation or have outstanding court fees. (A similar law in Florida has been upheld, as it ping-pongs through the court system.)

And in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon sued the FEC with an argument that, if successful, would allow self-funding candidates to donate more to their parties; if not successful, it would stop Mike Bloomberg from donating leftover money from his presidential campaign to the Democratic National Committee. (The FEC lacks a quorum and can't adjudicate such things on its own right now.)

Ironically, it was McCutcheon whose successful lawsuit against candidate contribution limits to political parties led to a 2014 decision lifting the ceiling on individual donations to candidates, parties and PACs, allowing donors who might have given a combined $117,000 to all three to give, in that cycle, $3.5 million. The rules have been different for candidates themselves. Bloomberg donated $18 million to the DNC, proportionately less than the $4.5 million Beto O'Rourke donated to Texas's Democratic Party after the failure of his 2018 Senate bid. 

McCutcheon's lawsuit asks whether self-funding candidates, like Bloomberg, get to take advantage of a loophole, giving more than an ordinary donor can to a party. His argument began with a blink-and-you-missed it, 18-day run for the Libertarian Party's nomination. McCutcheon, a Trump donor, filed to run 14 days before the Libertarian convention, invested $65,000 in his campaign, spent $15,000 and wanted to give the rest to the LP.

In a short interview, McCutcheon attorney Dan Backer insisted that McCutcheon's campaign was for all the marbles, even though he entered late and won no delegates. “It seems like it would be a colossal waste of money to run and not to win,” Backer said. "He came to it late, he ran hard and he failed."

Candidate tracker

The campaign is back to normal — or, at least, the 2020 version of normal. Donald Trump held a Labor Day news conference to tout the ongoing recovery from the pandemic's economic hit. 

“Under my leadership, next year will be the greatest economic year in the history of our country, I project,” he said, while Mike Pence spent Labor Day at Dairyland Power Cooperative in LaCrosse to remind voters of Kamala D. Harris's vote against the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“She said it didn’t go far enough on climate change,” Pence said. “Now, here at Dairyland Power, you deserve to know Senator Harris put their radical environmental agenda ahead of Wisconsin dairy and ahead of Wisconsin power.” It was a relatively rare hit on Harris from Pence, who's mostly used his campaign appearances to attack Biden and the left more generally.

Harris, meanwhile, was on the other side of the state, visiting the family of Kenosha police shooting victim Jacob Blake and joining a get-out-the-vote event with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. In an interview with a Fox affiliate, Harris defended the campaign's decision not to have her or Joe Biden accept the Democratic nomination in Milwaukee as one neither candidate wanted to make.

"The decision to travel today was the decision based on the importance of being in Milwaukee and doing it in a safe way, so that's why the meetings that we had today were, as you can see, all of us wearing our masks, indoors, being at least six feet apart, not having as big of a group as we would have liked," Harris said. "This is what we have to do in a covid world."

Biden spent the day in southeast Pennsylvania, joining an AFL-CIO forum on labor's priorities and holding a 30-minute town hall meeting in a Lancaster backyard with union workers. Local TV, again, pushed him on the optics, with ABC27 asking about the Trump campaign's accusations that Biden had “lost a step” since leaving the vice presidency.

“Look at how he steps and look at how I step," Biden said, referring to Trump. "Watch how I run up ramps and he stumbles down ramps. Okay?”

Trump traveled to Florida on Tuesday to announce the reinstatement of some Obama-era offshore drilling bans that he'd lifted in 2018 and will hold a rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., in the evening. 

(Did you miss The Trailer's guide to any of these swing states? Read up on Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina.) 


… seven days until the Delaware primary
… 12 days until early voting begins (in Minnesota)
… 21 days until the first presidential debate
… 29 days until the vice presidential debate
… 56 days until the general election