Matthews: How a third-party candidate could create political chaos 

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No third-party candidate has ever won a presidential election, though a few have almost certainly changed the outcomes. Third-party presidential candidates have occasionally won states, and those states’ Electoral College votes. If there were a credible third-party presidential candidate in the 2024 election, he or she might actually win a few swing states, possibly denying any candidate a majority of electoral votes. What follows would likely be political chaos. 

A year out from the 2024 election, we don’t know if there will be a strong third-party presidential candidate. But if former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are the Republican and Democratic nominees, as seems likely, there’s a good chance a group such as No Labels would field a credible candidate — especially given that most voters don’t want either Trump or Biden on the ballot. 

It’s unlikely that a third-party candidate would affect the election outcome in the solid red and blue states. But the swing states could be a different story. 

A “swing state” is one where Republicans and Democrats have roughly equal levels of voter participation, making statewide races competitive. Election analysts currently see between four and eight swing states.  

For example, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, a highly respected election expert, identifies four toss-up states for the 2024 election: Georgia (16 electoral votes), Arizona (11 votes) Wisconsin (10 votes) and Nevada (6 votes). That’s a total of 43 electoral votes. Other analysts may include North Carolina (16 votes), Pennsylvania (19 votes) and Michigan (15 votes). 

As things stand now, Sabato’s calculations say Democrats start with 260 blue-state electoral votes pretty much in the bag. He gives Republicans 235 red-state votes. If the Republican candidate were to win both Georgia and Arizona, which was those states’ practice until recently, those 27 additional electoral votes would give the Republican candidate 262 votes.  

If a strong third-party candidate were to win the two remaining states, Wisconsin and Nevada, he or she would have 16 electoral votes, leaving no candidate with the requisite number of electoral votes. Could this example, or a similar scenario using other swing states, happen? It’s at least possible.  

Third-party presidential candidates have won states. In 1948, Strom Thurmond, running on the States’ Rights Democratic ticket, won four southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, for a total of 39 electoral votes. But incumbent Democratic President Harry S. Truman still easily won with 303 electoral votes, compared to Republican Thomas E. Dewey’s 189 votes. 

In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy, with 303 electoral votes, beat Republican Richard M. Nixon with 219 votes. But influential Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd garnered 16 electoral votes from unpledged electors.  

The last presidential election in which a third-party candidate won states was in 1968. Nixon won 301 electoral votes to Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey’s 191 votes. However, George C. Wallace ran on the American Independent ticket, winning five southern states with a total of 46 electoral votes. 

None of these three examples created a political crisis because one candidate did so much better than the others, easily taking a majority of electoral votes. But in a closely and deeply divided country, a third-party victory in two or three swing states might deny any party the 270 electoral votes needed to win. 

What happens then? The election shifts to the House of Representatives. As the National Archives website explains, “The House of Representatives elects the President from the three (3) Presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each State delegation has one vote and it is up to the individual States to determine how to vote.” 

There are currently more red states than blue, so the Republican presidential candidate would likely win, but only after political chaos, multiple lawsuits and cries of a stolen election. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that. 

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on X@MerrillMatthews

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