A Democrat or a Republican will win the next US presidential election. This is one of the few facts in life that can be known with absolute certainty. In this country, independents and outsiders are rarely used. In one year, it’s likely that either Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump will have been elected president.
The results of recent polls, however, cannot be ignored: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an independent, is doing better in the polls than any other independent or third-party candidate in recent memory. He, along with other non-major-party candidates, has a real possibility to alter the outcome of the 2024 election.
Check out this poll from Quinnipiac University: Among voters, Kennedy received 22% of the vote. That seemed extremely high, so I went underground to cast my vote.
Within a year before the election, the last independent presidential candidate to receive more than 20% support was Ross Perot in 1992. The final tally of the popular vote was 19% for him.
Independent or third-party candidates like Perot are the exception to the rule that they lose support as election day approaches. Throughout the 1980 campaign, John Anderson polled above 20%, although he ultimately won only 7% of the vote. In the pre-election polls for the 1968 election, former Alabama governor George Wallace received as much as 21% of the vote.
Remarkably, these three are the only non-major-party candidates in polling history to reach 20% or higher within a year after an election. Kennedy has joined this elite company.
Moreover, those three earlier candidates ended up achieving above 5% (if not 10%) in the final outcome.
While we can’t predict Kennedy’s final tally, his strength in the swing states certainly warrants attention. Kennedy received between 15% and 25% of the vote in the six closest states that Biden won in 2020 over Trump: Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Michigan. These results are from a survey conducted by the New York Times and Siena College.
Earlier this week, the Times/Siena surveys caused some Democrats to panic and some Republicans to celebrate. In five of these states, Trump received more votes from registered voters than Biden did, and in four of these states, Trump received more votes from likely voters.
Trump would win the election if the final results were consistent with the polls.
But when Kennedy was added as an alternative among likely voters, Trump was ahead of Biden in only two states (Georgia and Nevada). In both Arizona and Pennsylvania, where he had been leading by 5 points, the score is now tied. In Pennsylvania, Biden had a lead that was far within the margin of error, and in Michigan, the two candidates were deadlocked.
To put it another way, Kennedy turned a decisive Trump advantage in the polls into a chaotic muddle in which no candidate emerged as the clear favourite to win the Electoral College. In a tally of support across all six states, neither Joe Biden (34%) nor Donald Trump (36%) came close to 40%.
It’s hardly shocking that a third-party candidate won a significant number of votes. The Times/Siena poll (and others) found that both Biden and Trump had favorability scores in the upper 50s. They share the dubious honour of being the least popular party nominees with Hillary Clinton of the Democrats and Donald Trump of the Republicans in 2016.
Given this, it’s not surprising that some non-major party candidates have entered or are considering entering the 2024 election.
Cornel West, an independent, received 6% and 4%, respectively, in the most recent Quinnipiac and AWN/SSRS polls.
On Thursday, Jill Stein declared her intention to seek the 2024 Green Party candidature. She received less than 1% of the popular vote nationally in 2016, although she came close to surpassing Trump’s winning margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Also on Thursday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he would not compete for reelection next year. Earlier this year, he was considering a candidature as a third-party candidate. In a July PRRI poll, Manchin received 10% of the vote as a “No Labels” candidate.
None of the minor party candidates has a chance of being elected at this point. However, it is not what we mean when we discuss them.
They deserve attention because many Americans are disgruntled with the two big parties and are more likely to cast their ballots for an alternative. The ultimate victor might win with fewer votes than necessary.
Political scientists might be missing a clue about the direction of the 2024 election if they ignore the fact that a candidate like Kennedy is polling higher than 20%.