Could third-party candidates upend the 2024 US election?

I’ll say it again and again: The 2024 presidential election will be a very close race.

Head-to-head national polling averages currently have President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump – the two major parties’ presumptive nominees – in a statistical dead heat. Some averages show Trump with a slight lead, but one that lies within most polls’ margins of error.

While the polls will no doubt seesaw back and forth over the next seven months, don’t get fooled by the noise. Because of the Electoral College and America’s growing political polarization, the outcome of US elections is determined not by the national popular vote but by the states – and, increasingly, by just tens of thousands of voters in a handful of swing states.

Trump carried most of these in 2016, and Biden flipped most in 2020. The former was decided by about 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The latter, by about 44,000 votes in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. Something similar will happen this upcoming November, with the winner virtually guaranteed to have a narrow path to the White House.

Polls consistently show that most Americans dislike both Biden and Trump and want neither to lead the nation again. The unprecedented unpopularity of both nominees makes 2024 the most favorable environment in a generation for third-party candidates, three of whom are currently in the running: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, and Jill Stein.

But could they have an impact on the election’s outcome? And if so, to whose benefit?

Polls show third parties hurt Biden more on net

First, let’s dispense with the obvious. Third-party candidates have no chance of winning any states in 2024. Not even Ross Perot’s 19% of the nationwide popular vote in 1992 was enough to win him more than a few counties.

But third parties don’t need to win any states or even significant numbers of votes to influence the 2024 result. Even single-digit vote shares could be enough to shift margins in the closely contested swing states that will decide the election, as they have in several recent contests. Indeed, third-party candidates picked up more votes than the eventual winner’s margin of victory in 75% of swing states in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Insofar as the 2024 race is close, it won’t take many third-party votes in the right places to spoil it.

The strongest third-party candidate in decades courtesy of his family’s name recognition, independent RFK Jr. is easily the best-performing of the three, currently registering 10.4% in the RealClearPolitics five-way national polling average. The far-left West and Stein are each polling at around 1.9% on average. In the six swing states that matter most (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), RFK Jr. is polling at 8.8% on average, while West is polling at 1.8% and Stein at 1.5%.

Whereas polls last year showed RFK Jr. siphoning more votes from Trump than Biden in a three-way race, more recent polling finds him drawing roughly equal support from both candidates, with some even showing him hurting Biden slightly more. But the margins are small, and the data is far from conclusive.


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