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.

"Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020, and the big difference, at least here, is all that third-party vote went away and went to Biden," said Christopher Nicholas, a Harrisburg-based GOP consultant.

If he clears the substantial hurdle of getting on ballots in states with varying requirements, including 5,000 needed in Pennsylvania by Aug. 1, Kennedy "could be a real factor," said Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania Republican strategist.

"He will likely take more votes away from Biden than Trump, but libertarian voters who could go for Trump could go for Kennedy," Galko said. Either way, "the Democrats are doing everything they can to stop his campaign."

Both Biden's supporters and Trump blasted Kennedy this past week after he named Nicole Shanahan, a wealthy California lawyer and philanthropist, his running mate.

"All he can do is take away votes from President Biden and make it easier for Donald Trump to win," Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said during a Democratic National Committee press call. "We simply can't afford to let that happen."

Trump described Kennedy as "the most radical left candidate in the race, by far." But he said he "(loved) that he is running" and that his taking away votes from Biden, "would be a great service to America."

The Make America Great Again super PAC, which supports Trump, had no positive words about Kennedy's candidacy in an email, calling him a "far-left radical that supports reparations, backs the Green New Deal, and wants to ban fracking."

Stefanie Spear, the campaign's press secretary, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the Democratic National Committee and GOP try to pigeonhole candidates in a way that "perpetuates the divisiveness that has paralyzed our political system."

"The question of which candidate Kennedy will draw from most comes in part from a genuine inability of the establishment parties to understand a candidate who does not fit into conventional political categories," she said. "In fact, we are neither right nor left, neither liberal nor conservative. The key policy positions that Kennedy and Shanahan share defy those categories. Is ending the forever wars liberal, or conservative? How about freeing agencies from corporate capture? Ending the chronic disease epidemic? Protecting free speech?"


Kennedy's campaign says he already is on the ballot in Utah and has collected enough signatures for New Hampshire and Nevada, while actively collecting signatures in 36 open states.

What worries supporters of Biden and Trump is that lack of enthusiasm for either man may lead enough voters to look for a third-party candidate.

More than half of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of Biden's job performance, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll. In a recent New York Times/Siena College survey, almost half described Trump as dangerous. And almost 20% of voters nationwide are so-called "double haters," unhappy with both presidential candidates, according to several polls.

An average of recent Pennsylvania polls tracked by Real Clear Politics shows Trump leading Biden by just 0.2%. A late-January poll by Franklin & Marshall College showed the candidates in a virtual dead heat in the state, with Biden getting a boost from respondents who said they saw the economy improving.

In a five-way race, Trump saw his edge over Biden increase by as much as 3 percentage points in every swing state except Michigan, where the president fared better, according to Real Clear Politics averages. In Pennsylvania, Trump received a nearly 2 percentage-point bump when including the other candidates.

But Balaban cautioned that polls that include third-party candidates "this far out" before Election Day are "likelier than not to be inflated."

"It is pretty standard for third-party candidates to poll higher than they ultimately receive in terms of votes," he said. "Because it's a free signal of unhappiness without actually having to pull a lever."

Christopher Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said it's common for voters to change their minds and begrudgingly choose "one of the so-called lesser of two evils among the major-party candidates" after they learn more about the third-party contenders.

Kennedy is aligned with progressives on a number of issues, including curtailing fossil fuels, raising the federal minimum wage to $15, targeting union-busting corporations, cutting student debt and reducing military spending. But he has criticized U.S. military support for Ukraine after it was attacked by Russia, he has backtracked from previous statements supporting federal restrictions on abortion, and his anti-vaccine advocacy has drawn rebukes from other prominent members of the Kennedy family, including his siblings.

"His policy positions certainly transcend the traditional Republican-Democrat offerings," Borick said. "There are some really different combinations there that don't align neatly with either party."

His potential to make a mark on the 2024 race largely is based on name recognition, with "much lore and fascination and interest in all things Kennedy," Borick said.

"What's going to be interesting, if he does get on most ballots ... when people start to listen, see, and dig deeper, will they still have the same interest as they do just hearing there's a Kennedy on the ballot?" he said.

Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University and a former constitutional law professor, said voters considering third-party candidates — or even sitting the election out because of dissatisfaction with the front-runners — should fully educate themselves on the potential outcomes.

When former President Theodore Roosevelt reentered the political fray and formed the Progressive Party to run against his successor, President William Howard Taft, in 1912, it "split the vote and elected Woodrow Wilson — who was totally opposed to all his policies," Gormley said.

More than a century later, voters backing Stein — who "had a passion for the environment and sustainability issues, specifically in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin" — may have tilted the 2016 race toward Trump, "who undid virtually every environmental policy they believe in," Gormley said.

"You have to realize you are making a decision, and if you thumb your nose to make some gestures, you're likely thumbing your nose at yourself," he said.


(Mike Wereschagin contributed.)

(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus