On a recent episode of the influential liberal podcast Pod Save America, hosts Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer agitated over the primary challenges being mounted against Joe Biden and the possibility that a third campaign might help throw the 2024 presidential election to Donald Trump. Here’s how the exchange begins:
FAVREAU: How much of a threat are these potential third-party candidates to Joe Biden’s reelection and what, if anything, can be done?
PFEIFFER: They’re an absolutely huge threat. Donald Trump has never received more than 47 percent in either of his two elections. And, the more people are on the ballot getting votes . . . it lowers his win number from 50.1 to something closer to 47. He won in 2016 largely because, in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the combined third party vote from Jill Stein and Gary Johnson — who was running on the Libertarian ticket — exceeded the margin by which he beat Hillary Clinton. So it is a big problem . . .
FAVREAU: . . . I mean, all people need to know is that, if the people who voted for Jill Stein in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had voted for Hillary instead, Donald Trump would have never become president. That’s it, right? And so, you know, I’m sure there’s a lot of Cornel West fans out there [who] live in a swing state. [But if] you vote for Cornel West, you’re helping Trump become president. That’s it. And you can say “Oh well it’s Joe Biden’s fault . . .” No, no, it’s your decision. You get to decide whether you want to help Donald Trump become president or you don’t.
In many ways, of course, the whole thing is just a tiresome relitigation of 2016. Some of the claims made by both hosts, moreover, fall apart when subjected to even basic scrutiny. For one thing, it’s untenable to assume that all or most of the United States’ relatively small third-party electorate would automatically vote Democrat if there were only two options. The average enthusiast for Gary Johnson, a Libertarian and former Republican governor, probably wouldn’t have counted Hillary Clinton as their second choice. Moreover, one could argue that Johnson’s 9 percent showing in New Mexico actually helped Clinton win there.
As for the Green Party, its biggest raw vote totals came from decidedly non-swing states like California and New York and, again, there’s no reason to assume that its voters in any state would simply have switched to Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine had Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka not been on the ballot.
All of this, however, is really beside the point.
Debates about the blame that should or should not be assigned to third-party campaigns whenever Democrats lose elections invariably get bogged down in granular discussions of state-level data that typically ignore the much bigger elephant in the room. According to the United States Election Project, more than 40 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote at all in 2016 — a figure that completely dwarfs the less than 6 percent who backed a third party.
Contrary to the stereotype so often invoked by a certain breed of extremely online liberal, nonvoters aren’t all Brooklyn-based leftist podcasters either. Data from Pew Research suggests that a near majority of those who didn’t vote in 2016 were non-white, with half of them having incomes of less than $30,000 a year. Wisconsin, which was so integral to Trump’s electoral college victory, is a good case in point. As Malaika Jabali observed back in 2018, black turnout there dropped between 2012 and 2016 by 86,830 votes — a figure considerably larger than either the 31,072 who voted Green or Clinton’s 22,748 margin of defeat — the sharpest decline occurring in the poorest districts of Milwaukee.
Even granting all of this, there’s still a problem with the basic logic typically at play in debates about the impact of third-party campaigns. Relatedly, here’s how the exchange quoted above continued:
FAVREAU: Now, I think messaging to voters who might actually make this decision [to vote for a third-party candidate] is probably a little different I would say . . .
PFEIFFER: No, chastising works!
FAVREAU: [laughs] Like, I do think you need to explain why these candidates would not be good candidates for president. I really do . . . because I think if you are one of these voters and you hear a bunch of people yelling at you to vote for Joe Biden because you have to, I don’t think it’s going to be very effective. And I think you have to say why RFK Jr is not a good choice, why Cornel West is not a good choice, why Joe Manchin or whoever it may be is not a good choice. So that is something that I think Democrats are gonna have to figure out in the next year.
To Favreau’s partial credit, he is at least gesturing at the idea that elections necessarily involve persuasion. Nevertheless, what he describes still sounds a lot more like scolding or talking down than anything else. As he formulates things, third-party voters are less a constituency to be courted than they are a problem to be managed — and not even with policy, just better messaging. (It’s notable that Favreau didn’t bother to hint at any positive case that might be made for Joe Biden.) Viewed this way, there’s much less daylight between his position and Pfieffer’s “chastising works” argument than it might otherwise appear.
Either way, the whole debate is absurd. Democrats went hard on voter shaming in 2016 and, if it actually worked as a tactic, the former host of TV’s The Apprentice would definitely never have been elected president. Regardless, the very idea of embracing chastisement as a tactic at all speaks to both a much deeper problem with how certain liberals have come to conceive politics, and the wider attitude of contempt liberal elites have developed for the very electorate whose votes they are ostensibly seeking.
In the political cosmology of something that calls itself the “Democratic Party,” it is now a widespread belief that support is owed from below rather than earned from above. Instead of building popular coalitions by seeking to represent the hopes, dreams, and interests of a democratic majority, a posture of absolute, uncritical deference toward elite politicians is presumed to be axiomatic — even when an election is still well over a year away.
Amid all the endless and breathless discussions of how self-indulgent third-party voters cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, the idea that her campaign could have offered them anything or made its pitch more attractive has rarely been entertained. By the same token, if voters who might back a candidate like Cornel West are going to be so significant in 2024, the Democratic Party’s likely nominee for president could take their concerns seriously and conduct his campaign accordingly. That such a possibility has become more or less inadmissible in polite company speaks volumes.