Top Democrats, including those close to Joe Biden, are moving to dull the possibility that not one but two third-party challengers could siphon away critical votes in the upcoming election.
Inside the party, there is bubbling concern of a repeat from what happened seven years ago, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein drew more votes in three critical battleground states than the amount by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in those places.
Operatives are determined to not let it happen again.
Cornel West, a prominent academic and civil rights leader with ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has already launched a bid on the Green Party ticket. As Biden looks to fend off that threat on his left, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has flirted with a presidential run with the group No Labels that Democrats fear could deprive Biden of moderate votes.
Though the president’s reelection team has preached confidence, some Democratic officials and strategists worry that the urgency to vote for Biden has dissipated for some voters since Trump left the White House. They are anxious that young people, in particular, might be receptive to West’s message. Polls have also shown that a majority of younger Democratic primary voters don’t want Biden to be nominated again, in large part because of his age. Though his aides insist that he is in great shape physically and mentally, he is also 80, the oldest president ever.
“The third parties can take away enough votes to make Donald Trump win,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster for Biden in 2020. “Not only do you have No Labels, but you have Cornel West, which I think is very formidable also in the Black community and among young people. And I think that there were a lot of people, young people, disaffected people, who were willing to vote against Trump — anybody but Trump — to beat Trump. But that argument has worn a little thin with some of these disaffected voters in 2024.”
A number of surveys, both nationally and in swing states, have found a dead heat between Trump and Biden in recent weeks — a reminder that the race for the White House will likely again be decided by the slimmest of margins.
The latest indictment of Trump this week has also underscored the stakes of the upcoming election for many Democrats, who not only fear that he will try to stop the multiple probes he faces if he wins — but that the entire democratic experiment would be in jeopardy.
“I fundamentally believe that you don’t mess around with the kinds of highest stakes we’re [dealing] with,” said Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) in an interview when asked about West. “Can you just imagine what a second term of Trump would be? It’s all going to be about revenge.”
Biden world has been monitoring West and No Labels. But those closest to Biden believe that the memory of Stein — and the possibility of another Trump presidency — will prevent a third-party candidate from drawing much support in 2024.
For those who want the president to be reelected, West is perhaps the most concerning of the third-party candidates and potential contenders.
In June, he dismissed the idea that he could draw away Biden votes by saying that “when somebody chooses to vote for you, you’re not pulling votes away. You see, Biden doesn’t own any votes. He’s got to earn it.”
But some Democrats fear that exact outcome. Along with young voters’ discontent, they are concerned about inroads Republicans made with Black men in the 2020 election and note some Black voters have expressed unhappiness with the White House’s inability to secure new voting rights legislation or widespread student debt relief. It would not take much, some worry, for West to make an impact if he were to take away enough Democratic votes in key cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia or Milwaukee.
“This election could be a game of inches, so I have to believe the president’s people are not taking anything for granted,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager. “They know every vote has to be earned every time. But there’s a lot of concerning data out there and they will need a full court press by people with demonstrated success messaging those parts of Biden’s electoral coalition who have expressed a real lack of enthusiasm.”
In a sign of how seriously some Democrats are taking the issue, alumni from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC launched a new hybrid political action committee last month. It was a tacit acknowledgement that work needs to be done, especially in improving the party’s numbers with Black men.
There is a push among CBC members to start making inroads now to avoid a panic next fall, according to two people familiar with the plan. There is also a belief among CBC members that the drive to elect the first Black speaker — Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries — would be a motivator for Black voters, too.
“Let’s be serious, Black folks know there are two choices in this election,” said the Congressional Black Caucus PAC chair, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who praised Biden’s record while contrasting it with “MAGA Republicans who are debating the benefits of slavery, banning books, a woman’s access to an abortion, and threatening our most precious right to vote.”
“With all of this at stake, we won’t allow Black voters to be hoodwinked by a sideshow that can only dilute our power and rollback our progress,” Meeks said.
Many advisers to Biden downplay the threat West holds in pulling away Black voters, pointing to Biden’s record in appointing both the first Black female vice president and Supreme Court justice. They also note record low Black unemployment rates.
Moreover, they believe that liberals wouldn’t be tempted again to stray next year after watching the fallout from 2016: mainly, four years of Trump. The sense among Biden advisers is that voters know that the stakes are too high to cast a ballot for someone who has no chance of winning.
They also think the situations are fundamentally different between now and 2016. Back then, Stein — as well as Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson — gained traction after a contentious primary between Sanders and Clinton, at which point some of the Vermont senator’s supporters refused to back the Democratic nominee. There is not a similarly bitter dynamic this time, they argue. Liberal leaders such as Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are behind Biden.
“Moderates, progressives, climate groups, [reproductive] groups, labor, and young people have all coalesced around Joe Biden,” said Cristóbal Alex, Biden’s former White House deputy Cabinet secretary.
Biden’s advisers believe that West could eventually abandon his quixotic mission, though lobbying efforts by some of those closest to the academic to get him to quit the race have so far proven ineffective, according to two people granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the private conversations.
Asked for comment, West said: “I have no plans to abandon my campaign.”
Meanwhile, No Labels has proven effective at raising money.
But many close to Biden simply say they take the group and leaders like Manchin at their word that they don’t want to play spoiler for Trump and that if they don’t have a path to 270 Electoral College votes, they won’t go through with a run.
“As the economic news continues to get better,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a top Biden ally, “as the bitter fight among a dozen Republican primary candidates gets sharper, and as the Biden-Harris team continues to deliver on the things Americans care about — from rebuilding our manufacturing, reducing prescription drug prices, and millions of good jobs — I think the potential challengers will fade and the case for reelecting President Biden and VP Harris just gets stronger.”
Though the third-party candidates could prove problematic for Biden, there are few worries among Democrats about his declared primary challengers. Biden effectively controls the Democratic National Committee — no Democratic primary debates are planned and there’s little chance anyone else would be the party’s 2024 nominee.
The Biden campaign, in its public remarks, is already zeroing in on the general election and blasting the “extremist” Republican candidates.
“President Biden and Vice President Harris are already hard at work assembling the broad and diverse coalition it will take to defeat the dangerous and divisive MAGA agenda and finish the job for the American people,” said campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo.
On the Democratic side, self-help guru Marianne Williamson has barely mounted a campaign. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmentalist and vaccine skeptic who was recently criticized for making anti-Semitic remarks, has seen his approval ratings among Democrats plummet and questions swirl over whether he is being quietly supported by conservatives.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a moderate from Minnesota, is also meeting with donors to discuss a potential primary run against Biden. The congressman has yet to take concrete steps to mount a bid but, in a text, confirmed he is considering it.
Asked about Phillips, Fetterman summed up the relative lack of concern among many of Biden’s supporters as of now: “LOL — and you can print that.”
Myah Ward contributed to this report.