Why Does Anyone Support Joe Manchin or Other Potential Presidential Third-Party Candidates?

Like many other Democrats, in the last several years I have often found West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin's efforts to undermine progressive legislation--especially on elections and the environment--frustrating, but I understood that unlike his frequent quisling comrade-in-arms Kyrsten Sinema, Manchin was severely constrained by the politics of his home state. Votes that were easy for Senators from Massachusetts or California were fraught for a Senator from a state in which the Democratic Presidential candidate won less than 30% of the vote in 2016 and 2020. Notwithstanding Manchin's sometimes maddening and shifting positions, I was and remain grateful for his votes to confirm President Biden's nominees and simply for his presence in the Senate because it gave Democrats control of committees and the floor. Accordingly, I am disappointed that he has chosen not to run for re-election.

To be sure, the fact that Manchin isn't running for re-election in 2024 makes his record since January 2019 (when he was sworn in to his current term), less defensible. If he knew he wasn't planning to run for re-election, he ought to have been less constrained by West Virginia politics. Perhaps, however, Manchin only recently decided not to run again based on polling that indicates he would lose the election. And all along he might have felt some obligation to reflect the views of his constituents even if he wasn't going to face them in the polls again. Or perhaps Manchin's views--incoherent as they are--reflect his actual convictions or at least reflect his coal-soaked personal financial interests.

However, there is a more concerning possibility. Perhaps Manchin was careful to maintain a center-right record to position himself for the third-party Presidential run he is now very clearly contemplating. Explaining his decision not to run for re-election to his West Virginia Senate seat in Wall Street Journal op-ed, Manchin accuses both Democrats and Republicans of "self-defeating political tribalism" before announcing that he "will finish [his] term while traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is interest in building a movement to mobilize the middle, find common ground and bring Americans together." Presumably he will attempt to run as a candidate for "No Labels," which wasted no time in praising Manchin as a great leader.

It's easy to see why the likes of Manchin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Jill Stein want to run third-party candidacies for President. Like prior third-party candidates of the last several decades--such as Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Stein herself--the current gaggle of soon-to-be-footnotes are egomaniacs who crave attention and perhaps are delusional enough to believe they have a chance of winning the general election. But why would any rational person support one of these third-party candidates?

Because dark money fuels No Labels, it is impossible to tell who all of its financial backers are, but at least some of them appear to be using it as a vehicle to return Donald Trump to the White House. Is that an instrumentally rational strategy? So it appears.

Joe Biden is dangerously unpopular for a first-term President running for re-election. Some of the skepticism of Biden concerns his age, which obviously cannot be fixed. He won't be younger a year from now. However, voters' other concerns could fade if inflation continues to come down and the overall national mood improves. Most voters who have soured on Biden don't viscerally hate him. By contrast, voters who don't like Trump really don't like him (and for good reason). There are thus more voters who would never vote for Trump than who would never vote for Biden. Hence, other things being equal, a centrist third-party candidate draws more votes from Biden than from Trump, because there are more people in the maybe-Biden category than in the maybe-Trump category. It is therefore rational for Trump supporters to bankroll No Labels. It would also be rational for them to bankroll West or Stein but not RFK Jr., whose longstanding anti-vax stance and recent embrace of a broader right-wing agenda probably make him more of a spoiler for Trump.

While it is rational, albeit evil, to spend money on the campaign of a third-party candidate to draw voters away from the major-party candidate you oppose, it isn't rational to vote for such a third-party candidate. A vote for Joe Manchin from a voter who would otherwise vote for Biden helps Trump by a margin of one vote, but a vote for Trump from a voter who would otherwise vote for Biden helps Trump by two votes. So there is no obvious reason for anyone to vote for a third-party candidate who has no realistic chance of actually winning the election.

And, to be clear, no third-party candidate has a realistic chance of winning in 2024. The last third-party candidate to win any Electoral College votes was George Wallace in 1968, but that election occurred right as re-alignment was getting underway and before the white racists who had long been the backbone of the Democratic Party in the South had fully transitioned into their current role as the backbone of the Republican Party in the South and much of rural America regardless of region. Since 1968, the only reasonably "successful" third-party Presidential candidacy was that of Perot in 1992; yet while Perot won nearly 19% of the popular vote, he garnered zero Electoral College votes. Even in a lesser-of-two-evils election, all that a third-party candidate can do is play spoiler. Why, then, do third-party candidates get any votes from anyone other than themselves and their immediate family members?

One obvious answer is ignorance. There is a positive correlation among being a swing voter, a moderate, and a low-information voter. Hence, the sort of person who is likely to be attracted to someone like Joe Manchin who mouths bothsidesisms and extols his supposedly sensible centrist bromides is also more likely than the average voter to know little about how our political system operates. Very few voters are familiar with the term Duverger's Law, but I'd venture that people who are politically active are generally familiar with the fact that, except in periods of realignment, third-party candidacies for the American Presidency are doomed. Less-politically-active-than-average swing voters are less likely than average voters to realize that they are wasting their vote by casting it for a third-party candidate.

To be sure, not all voters for third-party candidates are unaware that the candidate they favor will surely lose. If neither of the major-party candidates reflects your views, you might regard the choice between them as inconsequential. Nader sought to nurture this idea in 2000 by deliberately mashing up the names Bush and Gore as Gush and Bore.

If your views are within two standard deviations of the center of public opinion in the United States, you will find the notion that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans absurd. However, if you are very far to an extreme, you could see those differences as small relative to your own position. (This is more likely to be true on the left than on the right, as the mainstream of the Republican Party now includes positions and elected officials that, by any sane measure, count as far right.) That would explain why an extremist might not care which major-party candidate wins and therefore vote for a third-party candidate as an expressive act of rebellion. For example, many socialists in the first decades of the 20th century rationally regarded the differences between Republicans and Democrats as inconsequential and thus opted for Eugene Debs in protest. This kind of dynamic may be especially salient for single-issue voters.  If all you care about is opposing vaccines, you might regard Biden and Trump (who, after all, funded research for the COVID vaccines) as indistinguishable and vastly inferior to RFK Jr. 

That sort of alienation from both major parties explains the appeal of an ideological fringe third-party candidate. It does not explain why a voter would opt for a third-party candidate who sells himself as a centrist--as Perot did and as Manchin would. I suppose someone who is exactly in the middle of the spectrum between the two parties could be indifferent between them and thus make an expressive choice for a centrist third-party candidate. But few voters are exactly in the middle and, in any event, in any election in which Trump is on the ballot, there is not only a choice to be made about specific policy differences but also about the continued existence of democracy itself.

Accordingly, the Manchin candidacy's chief appeal will be to political naifs. Concerningly, there are enough of them to affect the outcome.