Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia appears to be toying with the idea of running for president in 2024. While he told NBC last month that he wouldn’t make an official decision until the end of the year, Manchin spoke to a group of Iowa business and community leaders last week, pitching himself as “fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.”
The senator has made independence his calling card, causing perpetual headaches for President Joe Biden and the narrow Democratic Senate majority by holding up key legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act. Should he follow through with a third-party campaign (or launch a split-ticket bid with a Republican), Manchin could potentially end up costing Biden his reelection.
Manchin claims that his main concern is the health of the country, saying, “Honest to God, my main concern: How do we save this nation? How do we bring people together to protect the quality of life, the values that we’ve had that we were raised with?” But if that were really true, the senator would do well to consider how his actions might help former President Donald Trump win a second term – and the damage that might inflict on the country.
Despite all the controversy he creates, Manchin could appeal to moderate Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents who are concerned about a second Biden term and in search of a different candidate who would — at least theoretically — move American politics toward the center. The senator has worked hard to attack key elements of the administration’s policies, such as climate change regulations (which he eventually helped pass). It is not difficult to see how the senator might be able to siphon off a significant number of votes from the president in 2024, particularly in swing states where voters may be leery of the more progressive-leaning Biden in recent years versus the more moderate Sen. Biden of the 1990s. Given Biden’s weak poll numbers, Manchin entering the competition poses great risk.
To be sure, it is possible that Manchin could steal away votes from the GOP if he teamed up with a Republican. However, Republicans have remained enthusiastic about their top candidate, former President Trump. Republicans who aren’t willing to back Trump will have a number of choices in the primaries, from former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to likely candidates Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Third-party candidacies do not have much of a record of winning, but they can have an impact – including undercutting one of the major candidates. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt ran with the Progressive Party, splitting the Republican vote, which helped Democrat Woodrow Wilson win.
In 1968, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the poster boy for Southern opposition to civil rights and the voice of conservative populist rage, won over enough disaffected Democrats through the American Independent Party to bolster Republican nominee Richard Nixon to the White House.
In 1992, Ross Perot ran as the Reform Party’s candidate and won more than 18% of the vote. Many experts believe that he took a big bite out of President George H.W. Bush’s campaign by offering an alternative for conservatives who liked his populist bent, emphasis on deficit reduction and his attacks on Washington. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader famously won enough votes in Florida to narrow Vice President Al Gore’s total and open the door to a heated recount that culminated with the victory of George W. Bush. In 2016, Democrats blamed third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein for helping elect Trump.
Not all third-party candidacies are equal. Others are more symbolic. When South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party in 1948 and ran for president as a Dixiecrat in response to then-Sen. candidate Hubert Humphrey telling supporters of states’ rights that it was time to join the struggle for civil rights, Thurmond solidified a pathway for the transformation of the South from a region dominated by the Democrats to one where Republicans, capitalizing on the resistance to desegregation and the civil rights movement, established a stronghold that lasts today. Democrat Harry Truman still won reelection against Republican Thomas Dewey, but Thurmond’s victories in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana marked a key moment in the shift of party loyalty.
Of course, there are also plenty of third-party campaigns that don’t have much consequence. In 1996, Perot’s second run was far less significant. President Bill Clinton had enough of a lead over the Republican nominee, Sen. Bob Dole, that it made Perot’s third-party candidacy seem meaningless. There have also been the endless efforts by candidates such as Lyndon LaRouche that are more curiosities than anything serious.
A Manchin run would have the potential to fall into the first category, taking away enough votes from his current Democratic Party to make it easier for the GOP to succeed. Since we live in an era of narrow elections, where landslides like 1936, 1972 or 1984 are extremely rare, all that Manchin would need to do would be to take enough votes from a handful of voters within a handful of states to have a dramatic impact. He could easily become the Ralph Nader of 2024. Should Manchin decide to step into the 2024 race, he might very well end up handing the keys to Trump to finish what the former president couldn’t complete in his tumultuous first term.