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Chuck Todd: Why the third party window may have closed for 2024

Analysis: The anger and bargaining stages of voter concern about the Biden-Trump rematch are giving way because of the overwhelming divide over abortion.
protest abortion pro anti
Anti-abortion demonstrators and abortion rights supporters protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2022, one day after Roe v. Wade was overturned.Hannah Beier for NBC News

Earlier this campaign cycle, I posited that after the first round of primaries produced likely nominees named Joe Biden and Donald Trump, there would be a phase in which the chunk of voters and activists calling for a third-party alternative would start to make noise. 

But as Yogi Berra was once accused of saying: It’s getting late early. And specifically, it’s getting late early in the world of third-party alternatives. 

Last month, I referred to what I saw as a looming third-party push as similar to the “stages of grief,” with anger, denial and bargaining hitting before finally getting to acceptance. 

At the time of that writing, plenty of polling indicated that the vacuum was real, with a chunk of voters — approximately 15%-20% in each party, plus the lion’s share of the true independents — adding up to a majority who wanted anyone but the two choices the Democrats and GOP were offering. 

I don’t think that same vacuum is there anymore. I could hang my hat on a key fact — at this point in 1992, Ross Perot had yet to start gathering signatures to get on all 50 state ballots — and proclaim there’s still time for an alternative to rise. But the reality is that there aren’t enough voters ready to abandon their party and ideology and risk dividing the vote and losing to the other side, especially because of the salience of one of the more divisive issues of our time: abortion.  

One of the factors that helped Perot in 1992 was the real concern inside the Democratic tent at the time that Bill Clinton couldn’t win the general election. That meant the search for an alternative to Clinton was something more voters were willing to entertain. 

While there is certainly exhaustion and antipathy to our current polarized political environment, the fact is that despite the disappointment some members of both parties have in their nominees, the reluctant supporters of both Biden and Trump still think their flawed candidate can win. Why? Because the other party’s candidate is seen as so eminently beatable.

While there is acknowledgment in both parties that Biden and Trump are uniquely suited to defeat the other, that still means they are both seen as viable winners. 

But more importantly, the debate over abortion access is something that’s always been debated within the frame of the two parties. If abortion is the issue for a large chunk of swing voters, then they aren’t going to be interested in a third party’s compromise position, no matter what that position is. If abortion is a voting issue for someone, they’ll have a definitive position on which party they want making reproductive health laws and appointing judges. 

This is a roundabout way of saying: The case for a third-party alternative for this election cycle is over — there’s just not a market for it given the current issue terrain.  

While there is a market demand in theory for more or better options in our politics, the abortion debate — and the zero-sum aspect of how the party that wins the White House affects the issue — makes it hard to see how a third party could dislodge abortion-motivated voters from either party.

And if a third-party candidate has to pick one side of that issue or the other, they will automatically be playing spoiler for one side of that issue or the other. 

Further, there’s just not enough interest in the public for some sort of nuanced position that splits the difference. The abortion access debate doesn’t really have room for moderation right now — either you believe in access or you don’t. The debate over what number of weeks makes for an appropriate restriction is slowly fading since the activists on both sides view this as a binary choice — the way the argument is playing out, you are either pro-restriction or pro-access. There’s not a mainstream middle ground right now. 

This isn’t to suggest that third-party candidates and campaigns won’t have an impact. They will, but I think it will be at the margins. And it will depend on which state ballots end up featuring these candidates. Getting on the ballot is hard for independents, which is why Robert F. Kennedy Jr., despite all the financial resources behind him (like the $7 million his super PAC spent on a Super Bowl ad) is flirting with the Libertarian Party and its ballot line in many states.

There’s only one small problem. Kennedy and the Libertarians agree on just one major issue: vaccine mandates. Both are against them. But on environmental regulation or guns, just to name two other issues, Kennedy and the Libertarians don’t see so eye to eye. 

As far as No Labels goes, it’s just hard to see how any candidate the group finds can truly create some middle-ground majority with the issue of abortion so front and center in this year’s politics. If abortion were considered politically resolved — like same-sex marriage, for the vast majority of the public — then maybe there would be some potential for traction, but not while abortion is a live issue. 

Ask yourself: Can you imagine a presidential ticket that had one candidate in favor of liberal access to abortion and a running mate in favor of more conservative restrictions finding a constituency? It’s just not one of those issues where you can foresee that kind of political compromise.  

Magical thinking

If the third party idea is gone, the only way left to avoid a Biden-Trump rematch is for some magical movement within the parties to seek alternatives. Democratic voters had a chance to send a message to the party in New Hampshire about their comfort with Biden as the nominee — and the message was, they're fine with him. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota got little traction, and if he couldn’t get traction in New Hampshire, then where will he? 

If the vast majority of Democratic primary voters aren’t interested in changing nominees, how could a small band of elites (think donors and worried elected officials) orchestrate an intervention to push Biden out? That scenario only becomes remotely possible if, say, Biden has a terrible State of the Union (currently scheduled for March 7) coupled with a troubling reaction to the congressional testimony scheduled about a week later from Robert Hur, the special counsel who investigated Biden’s handling of classified documents and wrote that Biden’s memory lapses would be among the reasons why a jury would be unlikely to convict him of any wrongdoing. 

But Biden has stepped up before, including at the last State of the Union. And a State of the Union presentation that is both energetic and tight in its framing of a second Biden term would go a long way to quieting, say, the party’s Obama-era backseat drivers. 

It's the other fantasy scenario out there, the one former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is counting on, that I find the hardest to foresee. She’s hoping that enough people in the GOP conclude Trump can’t win that they then decide to nominate her. But for that critical mass to develop inside the GOP tent, she’d need a guilty verdict in one of the Trump trials. And I’d argue there’s only one trial that could matter enough to move GOP voters away from him: the Jan. 6-related case being prosecuted by special counsel Jack Smith. 

Given how little impact the E. Jean Carroll verdicts have had on the GOP electorate, why should anyone expect Trump to lose much (if any) support following a guilty verdict in the New York City hush money case led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg? And voters haven’t been moved by the guilty verdict in the other big civil case Trump lost, the one involving his business in New York state.  

But the trial over Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election could really be devastating to him — especially with swing voters — if you have people like his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, directly contradicting Trump. Or the parade of prominent officials who could testify against him, including former Vice President Mike Pence or former Attorney General William Barr or former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. All will be devastating witnesses because none of them are Democrats — they are, in some cases, well-known conservatives. 

But Haley’s problem with counting on this trial to sober up some GOP primary voters about Trump’s electability is that it may not begin until after the primary season ends in June. It’s likely Trump will already have all the delegates he needs for the nomination by then. And while voters may have second thoughts about nominating Trump after a guilty verdict, the folks his campaign team selects as their delegates to the GOP convention are not likely to see Trump’s legal issues as an impediment — or to get involved in a pro-Haley delegate revolt. 

And if you are wondering whether elected Republicans would go along after a Jan. 6 guilty verdict, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention to GOP politics in a while. Trump only has a lock on about 60% of the GOP electorate, but he’s got a 90% lock on the infrastructure of the party, which makes the rest of the GOP nearly powerless to stop his march to the nomination — and likely powerless to stop him from either staying the nominee if convicted or picking his heir apparent on his own terms. 

So that’s my dose of cold water on the three fantasy scenarios I get asked about most: replacing Biden, replacing Trump and finding a third-party alternative. All three scenarios are likely to remain simply fantasies. 

The big question: Now what?

As some of you know, one of my favorite expressions in the dispassionate media space has been, “I cover politics as it is, not as I wish it were.”

In that spirit, it’s time to accept that the contours of this race are pretty set. So to borrow from the late Donald Rumsfeld, here are the “known knowns.” 

Both parties are nominating flawed candidates. 

About 90% of the electorate already knows which way they are voting, as each candidate seems to have a lock on about 45% of the vote 

Just five states appear to be coin tosses, with another three I’d put in the “competitive but lean one way” category. The five closest: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the north, plus Nevada and Arizona in the Sun Belt. The other three competitive states: Georgia, North Carolina (both slightly leaning GOP) and New Hampshire (which leans Democratic).

The key swing voting groups: college-educated white men, noncollege white women, noncollege men of color and the “double haters” (voters who have unfavorable personal views of both Biden and Trump). Tell me which candidate overperforms or underperforms in these categories, and I’ll have an idea of who wins. 

The three issues likely to move the small slice of swing voters: abortion, inflation and overseas conflict.

Now for the “known unknowns” — new developments that could have an impact on the election in the fall:  

Overseas conflicts: If Gaza is still a hot war in the fall, I think Trump could find an opening with some voters with his claim that Biden has been overwhelmed by the Middle East conflicts. But I’m skeptical Gaza will be as violent in the fall as it is right now. The political pressure on Israel to find a way into a durable cease-fire is real both externally and internally. But it’s the Middle East, and nothing is ever certain.

Immigration is a fourth issue that could move swing voters, but I haven’t seen evidence that an immigration-first voter is someone undecided in the presidential at the moment. If a calamitous border visual is the dominant storyline in the fall, perhaps it has an impact on some suburban swing voters. But I think it’s an issue that becomes important to swing voters only when there’s an event or moment that brings attention.   

Candidate health: This is obvious, but if either older nominee has a health scare, it will be important to some voters

Economic shock: An unexpected inflation or gas price spike would certainly be a problem for Biden. 

Abortion news: Think something like the recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling affecting in vitro fertilization, but this time in October. Of course, I’m of the view that abortion could end up being the issue that moves the most swing voters — and therefore becomes the reason the GOP comes up short, regardless of whether there’s a specific incident or court ruling dominating the narrative. 

This all leads to the question: What are the “unknown unknowns"? If I knew, then they wouldn’t be unknown. Still, here’s two to think about: aliens visiting the planet or some unfathomable natural disaster that makes normal political debate seem out of touch.

But our politics are bad enough. Let’s not linger on even more calamitous scenarios. Enjoy the campaign!