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No Labels in 2024 wants to boldly try what Americans Elect tried in 2012

People with the group No Labels hold signs during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2011.
Jacquelyn Martin
/
AP
People with the group No Labels hold signs during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2011.

In this extraordinary political season, every story seems larger than life and each event potentially apocalyptic.

That may be one cause of the feverish attention paid this week to a town hall meeting on a Monday at a small college in New Hampshire, about 16 months before the next presidential election.

No declared candidate was on hand for this event, which was not sponsored by either of the two major parties.

And that was largely the point.

The event was held by the political group No Labels, which advertises itself as a voice for moderation and an end to polarized partisanship in U.S. politics. It has been around since 2010, holding luncheon events and seminars and helping organize the "Problem Solvers Caucus" in Congress. Many have seen it as a "good government" group and nothing more.

But No Labels is getting attention now for getting involved in the presidential season of 2024. The group wants to offer an "insurance plan" by creating a "Unity Ticket" if the two major parties nominate candidates "the vast majority of Americans don't want to vote for."

It is lost on no one that, at present, both parties are moving toward nominating the same men they did in 2020 – President Biden and former President Trump – despite the fact that most Americans don't want that to happen. An NBC News poll released in April found 60% of U.S. adults did not want Trump to run, and 70% did not want Biden to run. Citing age most often, those opposing a Biden bid included nearly half the Democrats in the poll and a majority of the independents.

So the circumstances would seem ripe for someone such as No Labels to step into the breach. The group is working on an agenda and "creation of a massive 'voter file' of citizens who will support leaders courageous enough to speak truth to partisanship."

It all sounds quite high-minded, and there is no denying the voters would like to have more choices.

But there is consternation in some quarters about the impact the group could have in a close election. In 2016, more than 5% of American voters cast their votes for candidates other than Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That was three times larger than the third-party share of the vote in 2012 or 2020, and that surge was more than enough to make the difference in several of the states where Trump barely won.

While Biden won in 2020 by 7 million votes nationally, a shift of four-tenths of one percent would have flipped Wisconsin, the same size shift would have flipped Arizona and just three-tenths of one percent would have flipped Georgia. A relative handful of votes could have reversed the Electoral College outcome.

Democrats have been disturbed enough about this to speak out against No Labels. Citing polls in 538.com and elsewhere, analysts have predicted a No Labels ticket would siphon more support from Biden than Trump.

A group including former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt has formed calling itself Citizens to Save Our Republic and explicitly challenging No Labels over its potential boon to Trump.

We have been here in the not too distant past

If it also sounds somewhat familiar, it should. It is highly reminiscent of a plan offered up a dozen years ago by a group of high-powered individuals called Americans Elect. Founded in 2010 — about the same time as the original No Labels — Americans Elect had an eye toward the presidential cycle of 2012 and the stated goal of getting on the ballot in all 50 states.

Americans Elect featured some prominent individuals from both parties and from the worlds of finance and think tanks, including the late Peter Ackerman, who was a founder and early funder and whose son was installed as the group's chief operating officer. Ackerman had already had a remarkable career, finishing a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1976, three years after he had begun working for the Wall Street investment house of Drexel Burnham Lambert. Working alongside the soon-to-be-notorious Michael Milken, Ackerman sold junk bonds and was reported to have taken home $165 million in 1988 alone.

Ackerman had been associated with Republican politics during the presidencies of George H.W. and George W. Bush but wanted to move beyond that, especially given the rising populist energy then known as the "Tea Party" movement. While the phrase Tea Party has since faded from use, much of its original energy can still be seen in the enthusiastic crowds attending rallies for Trump.

But the idea behind Americans Elect was not just to offer an alternative to the Tea Party or to Obama, or to Mitt Romney or to whichever other Republican survived the 2012 slog of caucuses and primaries. The idea was to create an alternative system of determining who the candidates would be, independent of the two major parties and based in the limitless possibilities of the internet.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was co-headliner alongside former Utah GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman at a town hall in Manchester, N.H., Monday sponsored by the bipartisan group No Labels.
The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im
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The Washington Post via Getty Im
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was co-headliner alongside former Utah GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman at a town hall in Manchester, N.H., Monday sponsored by the bipartisan group No Labels.

Instead of traipsing through Iowa and New Hampshire, Americans Elect offered to host a national online primary to winnow a vast field of "drafted" candidates to a single two-person ticket. Then it was to hold a convention to nominate the winning online ticket in June 2012.

The sheer boldness of the idea had appeal in an era when increasing internet access had transformed much of the economy and culture. Impressed with the concept, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered a respectful description of what Americans Elect was trying to do in July 2011: "What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life — remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in."

That was the dream. But even as Friedman was describing the upside potential for Americans Elect, other observers warned of a spoiler effect. They noted the Americans Elect candidate could produce unintended consequences, as when progressive hero Ralph Nader shared some of the vote that might have gone to Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000 – possibly costing him Florida and the election.

As it turned out, neither the dream nor the worst fears came true. Problems emerged in the online process, which allowed any registered U.S. voter to join Americans Elect and participate. The members could draft and vote for anyone they chose who met the constitutional requirements for the office of president or vice president. Anyone getting "support clicks" from 5,000 members in each of 10 states would advance to the first phase of actual voting.

Or that was the idea. As it turned out, participation was far below expectations and the click votes too widely dispersed. The first primary was canceled because no candidate had enough support clicks to qualify for the May event. The same fate befell the next two scheduled rounds of click voting. In July, the Americans Elect board ended its presidential process and removed the party's name from most of the 29 states where it had qualified.

Shared histories of financial question marks

There was also controversy about the finances for Americans Elect. The group grew out of another called Unity08, which had funded some selected candidates in earlier cycles. Americans Elect organized as a "social welfare" organization under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allowed it to avoid disclosure of its donor list. There was criticism for that, and also for the million-dollar contributions it was known to have received from the world of high finance.

A similar critique has attached to the funding of No Labels, which uses the same tax regime. Recent news stories about the group have sometimes suggested it had something to hide, such as substantial contributions from Biden opponents who see No Labels as helpful — intentionally or not.

The other question that hovers overhead is the logistical challenge of finding candidates and building support for them. At the New Hampshire event this week, the two most visible politicians were U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican who ran for president briefly in 2012, withdrawing after finishing third in the first primary.

Neither is really a household name. Manchin faces a difficult reelection case next year, opposed by the popular Republican governor in a state Trump has twice won by nearly 40 percentage points. But he has little chance of denying Biden the Democrats' presidential nomination in 2024, so he has been mentioned often as a possible No Labels champion.

Huntsman, who has been ambassador to China and Russia under Obama and Trump, was sometimes called the Republican candidate Obama feared most in his 2012 reelection year — because he had appeal to independents and less-partisan Democrats.

In a sense, that could be said to sum up what a group such as No Labels would want in a candidate. If he seems in many ways ideal, his lack of success as a candidate (outside Utah) may also illustrate the difficulty of translating the ideal into real electoral success. That goes for voting systems and for candidates as well.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.