Third parties could cause voting upheaval in what's shaping up to be a tight presidential race in Pennsylvania

Benjamin Kail, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — From a meet-and-greet at a Wegmans in Bethlehem to a solar eclipse party in Erie, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s supporters and campaign are trying to drum up signatures and donors at events throughout Pennsylvania in a push to get on the ballot of the most populous battleground state this fall.

Then there's Jill Stein, who ran on the Green Party ticket in 2012 and 2016, and is trying again this year. Professor and activist Cornel West wants to run, too. And No Labels has announced it will nominate a presidential candidate, though several high-profile politicians including U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and former Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Christie of New Jersey have turned them down.

While third-party candidates rarely attract many votes, Pennsylvania political experts say that in a race as tight as the one between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, even a sliver of support could make a difference.

So they're paying close attention to third-party candidates this year, most notably Kennedy, son of the late U.S. senator and nephew of a former president.

Several strategists of both major parties said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who rejects the science saying vaccines are safe, could shake up the race. But it's too soon to say whether his or any campaign will affect the presidential contest the way Ross Perot did in 1992 or Ralph Nader in 2000 — or be little more than a momentary blip.

"The gigantic fish in that pond is RFK Jr.," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican strategist. "I do believe he will get a significant vote. I don't think he'll carry any states, but I do think he'll be a deciding factor. Whether he takes more votes from Trump or Biden is undecided.


J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist and ad maker based in Philadelphia, said while Kennedy hails from an iconic Democratic family, one of his "leading issues" — vaccine skepticism — "would tend to draw from people more likely to vote for Trump."

"It's hard to predict how the ball lands," he said. "And it's worth noting that generally these (third-party candidates) have less impact than people think."

Still, Balaban said that in 2000, it was "manifestly the case that if Ralph Nader hadn't been on the ballot, Al Gore would have been president. The whole direction of the country would have been fundamentally different. Those four years (under President George W. Bush) tamped down enthusiasm on the left for supporting a third-party candidate."

The number of third-party voters declined in 2020 — when Biden flipped several states including Pennsylvania — compared to 2016, when Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Stein combined for more than 3% of the vote in the Keystone State.


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