Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Analysis | No Labels wanted a centrist ticket. Polarization, Trump stood in the way.

Analysis | No Labels wanted a centrist ticket. Polarization, Trump stood in the way.

For decades now, various politicians have sought to tap into and energize what they see as a moderate middle of the electorate into a viable political movement. For decades, those efforts have come to naught. The latest evidence came a few days ago after No Labels — formed as a bipartisan, centrist organization — gave up its search to field a presidential ticket for 2024.

The quest by No Labels was premised in part on the idea that many Americans are dissatisfied with having to choose between President Biden and former president Donald Trump, the two oldest candidates ever to run for president and, combined, the least popular. In that environment, some thought there was an opening for an independent alternative, and some polls lent credence to the idea.

The effort, however, was doomed almost from the start by perceptions that a No Labels ticket would become a spoiler, with no chance of winning the election and every chance of helping to reelect Trump. Leaders of the organization vowed that this was not their goal. To the contrary, they said they wanted to do nothing to help the former president. Still, perceptions stuck, and resistance mounted.

The group explored candidacies with politicians from both parties, among them Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), one of the country’s leading voices on behalf of bipartisanship who has often quarreled with members of his party; former two-term Maryland governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who has said he will not vote for Trump and is now running for the Senate; and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a one-time Trump supporter who failed in his effort to bring down Trump in the Republican primaries.

All three decided to pass up the opportunity to mount a third-party challenge, presumably concluding there was no viable path to victory. They were not the first in recent years to come to that conclusion. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has been a Democrat, a Republican and an independent over his political career, did extensive research on prospects for a third-party run. He determined he couldn’t win that way. In 2020, he ran in the Democratic primaries, losing that bid to Biden.

The concept of a moderate middle of the electorate has long existed. Some politicians have called it a “sensible center” or a “radical middle,” as if it were some kind of sleeping giant within the electorate just waiting to be awakened by the right idea or a charismatic leader.

Ross Perot seemed to fit that when he ran in 1992. His quirky personality, that of a non-politician and outsider, combined with a focus on budget deficits and anti-free trade agreements (remember his “giant sucking sound” description of trade with Mexico?) proved compelling to many voters. At one point he led the polls. In the end, he captured 19 percent of the national vote — and more than 25 percent in eight states. But he did not capture a single state.

Later, he sought to turn that campaign into a more sustaining movement. He ran again in 1996, but by then, his following had fractured, its ideological cohesion never having been that strong. He won just 8 percent of the vote nationally and did not win more than 15 percent in any state.

Since then, American politics has become more and more polarized and voting patterns have become more and more tribal. Whatever people call themselves ideologically, party allegiance has generally dictated voting behavior.

One example of that is the now almost rigid pattern of states backing presidential nominees and Senate candidates of the same party, after years of split-ticket voting in those races. Red states have become redder, blue states have become bluer, leading to recent elections in which just six or seven states are competitive presidentially.

American voters are not just polarized — they have grown further apart ideologically. In 1994, according to Gallup surveys, 25 percent of Democrats identified themselves as liberal, equal to the percentage who called themselves conservative. By 2021, the percentage of liberals had doubled to 50 percent of Democrats identified as liberal while the percentage of conservatives was cut in half to 12 percent.

The pattern is similar, if in the opposite direction, in the Republican Party. In 1994, 58 percent of Republicans described themselves as conservative. By 2021, that had risen to 74 percent. Moderates declined from 33 percent to 22 percent, while liberals remained in single digits throughout.

The year 1994 is remembered as the election in which Republicans captured the House for the first time in four decades, and also as a time of acceleration toward a more divided political environment. From Bill Clinton forward, presidents have become more and more polarizing in how they are seen by those in their own party and those in the other party.

Among independents, there has been little change in how they see themselves ideologically over that same period since 1994. As of 2021, 48 percent called themselves moderate, 30 percent said they were conservative and 20 percent said they were liberal.

Those numbers among independents have helped to feed the idea of a potential block of moderate voters looking for something different. And surveys suggest that significant numbers of Americans hunger for more cross-party cooperation (although Republicans are more resistant to that than Democrats).

But many who call themselves independent actually lean toward one party or the other and vote loyally as a result — 81 percent, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. As the study said, “Independents often are portrayed as political free agents with the potential to alleviate the nation’s rigid partisan divisions. Yet the reality is that most independents are not all that ‘independent’ politically.”

That same study also underscored the lack of coherence among true independents. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans were labeled as fully independent, according to Pew, and this group “has no partisan leaning.” Beyond that, they were seen as less engaged politically — less likely to be registered to vote and less likely to vote if registered.

That is hardly a broad or stable foundation upon which to build a centrist movement. For all the hunger for a better kind of politics, public attitudes suggest the contrary. A 2022 Pew study found increasingly negative views about those in an opposing party. More than 7 in 10 Republicans and more than 6 in 10 Democrats said those in the other party were immoral and dishonest. These findings were significantly higher than in a study six years earlier.

The choice between Biden and Trump could prompt some voters to vote for one of the independent candidates running for president. And they could do what some of those opposed to the No Labels effort fear, by swinging the election results. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns are concerned about the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and are doing what they can to insulate their candidate from the impact of his possible appeal.

No one knows today how much support the independent candidates, who also include Green Party candidate Jill Stein and scholar Cornel West, will siphon from Biden and Trump. Meanwhile, the leaders of No Labels have expressed their commitment to building a centrist movement.

But this is likely not the time, as the attitudes from that 2022 Pew study help to explain the reality of the current political environment: that of a divided, unhappy and fearful electorate heading toward a November election in which the stakes could hardly be higher.

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