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How No Labels’ Spoiler Bid Suddenly Entered Full Meltdown Mode

When Joe Manchin passed on a third-party run, it opened a window on a behind-the-scenes campaign to stop the centrist group from enabling Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

Senator Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol in January 23

Around six months ago, when speculation raged that Senator Joe Manchin might join a third-party presidential ticket on behalf of the centrist group No Labels, he privately consulted with Richard Gephardt, the former congressman who has taken up the cause of stopping No Labels in its tracks. 

Gephardt showed Manchin private polling that he’d bankrolled himself, illustrating that such a bid could only help Donald Trump beat President Biden, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Gephardt reminded Manchin that even third-party bids that win real public support have routinely failed to garner many, or even any, Electoral College votes. 

In short, Gephardt pointed out, a third-party bid could never succeed on its own; it would mostly take votes away from Biden. Manchin absorbed the argument, the person says, and then expressed an acute worry: Above all, Manchin said emphatically, he did not want to become the person who handed the presidency to Trump. 

That argument finally seemed to prevail with Manchin last week, when he announced that he will not be part of any third-party ticket after all. Manchin declared that he didn’t want to be a “spoiler,” having apparently realized that by far the most likely consequence of such a bid would be a second term for Trump, as he began to fear six months ago.

Manchin’s evolution illustrates why No Labels’ effort to mount a third-party bid is suddenly in serious trouble. The group, which hopes to run a “unity ticket” consisting of one Republican and one Democrat, had been eyeing Larry Hogan, the former GOP governor of Maryland, along with Manchin, perhaps with Hogan at the top of the ticket. Manchin’s decision, along with Hogan’s recent announcement that he’ll run for Senate, dashes that dream for good.

Yet No Labels faces a problem that runs deeper than the lack of high-profile candidates willing to take the third-party plunge: The group’s core argument has proven impossible to sustain, and everyone paying even cursory attention to its activities knows it.

For months, as No Labels has sought to secure a line on ballots in as many states as possible—the group claims 16 as of now—its officials have sworn vehemently that they have no intention of mounting a candidacy that only functions as a spoiler or helps Trump. Joe Lieberman, the group’s founding chairman, often says as much. The true intention, it says, is to answer the public’s alleged call for an alternative to the two parties with a “unity ticket” that will birth a new coalition of public-spirited voters who value bipartisan compromise over petty partisanship and dysfunction.

But no matter how hard No Labels strains to project such pious intentions, the all-but-certain impact of such a plan has proven impossible to disguise. It is borderline impossible for such a bid to win outright in enough states to assemble a majority of 270 Electoral College votesRoss Perot and Ralph Nader won none; the last third-party candidate to win any electoral votes was George Wallace, 56 years ago.

So the only real impact of a No Labels bid will likely be to pull in center-right voters who might be disillusioned by Trump and otherwise would have grudgingly gone to Biden, helping the former president. 

The logic of the situation is irresistible: Trump poses a profound threat to U.S. democracy and the country, and the Republican Party is largely his willing accomplice. Biden doesn’t pose any such threat and has at times governed in a bipartisan way, with the Democratic Party proving far more willing than the GOP to enter into the very cross-party problem-solving compromises No Labels craves. 

Meanwhile, like it or not, there just isn’t a vast centrist coalition out there that will elect a bipartisan unity ticket. So No Labels isn’t heroically steering the country between two equivalently flawed alternatives toward an idealized outcome on the other side. Instead, of all the existing possible outcomes for the nation, it’s making the only one that threatens serious disaster—by the group’s own lights—more likely. 

No Labels likes to say that its efforts won’t help Trump win more than Biden. That’s almost certainly not true. But regardless, given that one of these outcomes is incalculably unacceptable to the group itself while the other plainly is not, why take such a monumental risk?

All this is illustrated starkly by Manchin’s progression. Manchin is deeply and sincerely devoted to the notion that sustained bipartisan governance is both inherently stabilizing and eminently achievable. In fact, this is why he’s been a longtime ally of No Labels. That even he sees its effort as essentially hopeless—only benefiting Trump—further illustrates the dangerous folly animating the whole scheme.

The glaring obviousness of that folly has also made No Labels very vulnerable to counter-organizing against it. As Semafor reports, that countermovement has developed into a very broad coalition of groups spanning left to center.

Gephardt, for instance, is co-founder of Citizens to Save Our Republic, or CSOR, a group of centrist-minded lawmakers and former public officials and operatives, including Republicans (Stuart Stevens, Chuck Hagel, John Danforth) who have spent months working to drive home the point that No Labels’ bid will end in disaster. 

This week, CSOR sent a letter to No Labels calling on the group to sign what it calls a “No-Spoiler Pledge.”

“Signing this pledge commits you to not playing spoiler by withdrawing your candidate, if you have one, from the ballots in the swing states that will decide the election if by July 1 your candidate has no mathematical or practical chance of being elected president,” the letter states. 

That starkly calls No Labels’ bluff. 

Speaking on MSNBC last weekend, No Labels’ national co-chair Benjamin Chavis said the group won’t mount a candidacy that doesn’t have a real chance at winning 270 electoral votes. Chavis also dismissed concerns about an alternate spoiler scenario, in which the group’s candidate picks off a few states, denying anyone an outright Electoral College majority, forcing the election into the House, where state delegations in the next Congress would choose the president. Republicans now control more state delegations and likely will in 2025, so they’d elect Trump. 

“It is not our intention,” Chavis said, to “hand the election to Donald Trump.”  If so, surely No Labels would see no problem in pledging to pull out if and when it becomes clear that its candidate is functioning as a spoiler, right?

No Labels is fond of pointing to data showing broad public yearning for a generic third-party option. Yet Gephardt has privately warned some New Labels officials and donors that surveys of unnamed generic tickets and candidates are useless, the source says. This happens to be common knowledge among polling experts.

Gephardt has also told those officials and donors that if No Labels does pick a candidate, and polling at that point showed that specific person mostly took votes from Biden—helping Trump—there would be no telling if the group actually could get that candidate to stand down.

In response to Gephardt’s objections—all of which are inarguableNo Labels officials have given inconclusive and vague answers, suggesting they are still looking at polling data, the source says. That has only fueled worry that No Labels is either not seriously reckoning with the likelihood that its effort will boost Trump or is unconcerned about it. No Labels didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews.

“No Labels officials have seen reams of data showing in crystal-clear terms that their ticket would have zero chance of winning and would pose an enormous risk of serving as a spoiler in helping Trump,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic-centrist group Third Way and a leading critic of No Labels. “They seem immune to all arguments and logic to that effect.”

Adding to the growing sense of inexplicability around the group’s efforts, No Labels has even alienated its staunchest ally in bipartisanship, Manchin himself.

Late last year, Manchin announced his exploration of a potential third-party run and indicated his curiosity about what a unity ticket might accomplish. But No Labels officials failed to privately communicate sufficient interest in his effort and didn’t explain the lack of communication, another source familiar with the situation says, irritating Manchin’s camp, given his long history of advocating for bipartisanship. Manchin’s office declined to comment.

Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that other big names potentially open to a No Labels candidacy will ever go along. One imagines that Nikki Haley and Liz Cheney, both shrewd realists who genuinely recognize the Trump threat, are unlikely to delude themselves into believing they’d function as anything other than spoilers.

Indeed, on MSNBC, Chavis, the No Labels co-chair, was asked whether any high-profile candidates are still considering joining the group’s ticket. “We’re talking with several exceptional leaders,” he said. But when pressed, he declined to name them.

Chavis was also asked to name a single state the group’s candidate might win. He couldn’t. If the group can’t name one state it might plausibly win, how can it not function as a spoiler?

Close watchers of No Labels still worry it may yet find a candidate—someone like former Utah GOP Governor Jon Huntsman, or Pat McCrory, the former North Carolina Republican governor who co-chairs the group, or some business guy looking for an ego trip. But it’s hard to see how the group’s well-heeled donors would be content with anything short of a big, gratifying name at the top of the ticket.

“If they nominate anyone less than a top-tier candidate, it will ensure that the group’s effort is even more of a fool’s errand,” said Doug Jones, the former Democratic senator of Alabama, who’s also active against No Labels.

Here’s the bottom line: No candidate can continue humoring the group’s central claim—that the ticket can accomplish anything beyond making a second Trump term more likely—while also retaining anything remotely resembling an aura of seriousness.

No Labels officials and donors like to think of themselves as patriots and devoted servants of the public good who wouldn’t dream of foisting a disastrous second Trump term on the country they love. If so, they should accept that the whole foundation of their third-party-bid project is irredeemably flawed, and come to terms with the obvious: It’s time to pull the plug.