WASHINGTON – There is a creeping fear in President Joe Biden’s circle that the biggest threat to his re-election may come less from the Republican candidate and more from potential spoiler candidates from smaller parties.
In a new NBC News national poll, Biden is tied at 46% in a head-to-head matchup with former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination. But when third-party options are taken into account, Trump leads Biden 39% to 36%.
Whether it’s academic Cornel West, an as-yet-unnamed standard-bearer of the group No Labels, or candidates from the more established Green and Libertarian parties, third-party contenders have become the biggest internal concern in the Biden world, more so than half a dozen people who are in regular contact with the White House.
“It’s pretty concerning,” said one person familiar with White House discussions on the issue.
Biden met with Hillary Clinton, who faced third-party candidates as the Democratic nominee in 2016, at a private White House retreat during her visit this month, two people briefed on their interaction said. Clinton urged Biden to take the third-party threat seriously and find a way to offset it, one of the sources said.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill did not respond to requests for comment about their interaction. Many of her allies have blamed 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein for siphoning votes from Democratic voters in crucial swing states this year.
Two realities underpin the fear of third-party candidates: Biden is neck and neck with Trump in a flood of recent national polls, and fellow candidates have received more votes in crucial states than the gap between winner and loser in three of the last five elections, including the last two.
The problem for Biden is also two-fold, said the people who are in regular contact with the White House, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president. On a political front, he faces a well-financed effort by the No Labels group to attract moderate voters. On the other hand, West could narrow his base — among both black voters and some liberal white voters — if only a little.
“In a close election, every vote counts,” a close Biden ally said of the third-party threat. “Is it in the back of a lot of people’s minds? In any case. Do we need to be careful when moving out? Yes, we’re doing that.”
In recent weeks, the White House has particularly highlighted the possibility that Biden is vulnerable among younger voters, many of whom lean Democratic but are dissatisfied with the administration and lack strong ties to the party. Generation Z voters have experienced a financial crisis, two wars, climate-exacerbated natural disasters, school shootings and a pandemic, all of which have exposed weaknesses in the political system’s ability to respond to crises.
On Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a new Office to Prevent Gun Violence in the White House, a move consistent with the nearly two-thirds of younger Americans who support stricter gun laws.
“We do this work in large part because of the activism, organizing, marching and voting of all leaders – be they students, parents, teachers, community leaders – who understand that a life free of gun violence should be a must right,” Harris said in a video on Xthe social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Harris, who is 22 years younger than the 80-year-old Biden, has taken on the informal role of the administration’s chief outreach officer to younger voters. Last week, as part of a larger campus tour, she visited Reading Area Community College, a Hispanic institution in Pennsylvania, a key swing state. She made headlines by saying she learned about “climate anxiety” from younger voters.
Younger voters have been a key constituency for Democrats in recent elections, but the NBC News poll shows they are less interested in the 2024 race than at similar points in previous campaign cycles.
Additionally, Harris’ popularity ratings are below Biden’s, raising questions about whether she can be an effective ambassador for his re-election campaign. Harris is viewed favorably by 31% of voters — compared to 51% who view her unfavorably — while Biden’s disapproval stands at 39% and 49%. According to the poll, Trump is viewed favorably by 35% and unfavorably by 54%.
Concern about third parties is more pressing for Democrats in this election than in the last.
In 2020, Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen was the only significant third-party candidate representing a party that has more in common with the GOP than with the Democrats. Overall, minority party vote share fell dramatically in major swing states, including Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Trump received a higher share of the vote in key Rust Belt states in 2020 than in 2016, but Biden surpassed Clinton’s share even more significantly as third parties’ share shrank.
But now Biden must contend with a no-label push to get on the ballot. The organization is led by Nancy Jacobson, a former finance director for the Democratic National Committee, and she has said she plans to invest at least $70 million in her eventual nominee.
In July, Jacobson said her group would not play a spoiler role in 2024.
“As a Democrat? That will categorically not happen,” Jacobson said. “This attempt will never – we will destroy it.”
Biden and his allies face a bit of a conundrum just in their messaging around the White House’s concerns, according to people familiar with the White House discussions. They want Democrats to know they are aware of the third-party threat, but want to avoid creating panic.
Biden himself is “concerned about it,” one of the sources said.