Last week, former GOP Rep. Liz Cheney indicated that, if she thought her entry into the presidential race would peel votes away from Donald Trump — who, as things currently stand, looks set to romp through the GOP nominating process in the first months of 2024 — she would contemplate entering the fray. Her warnings about the threat that Trump poses to democracy go back three years, to the events following Trump’s election defeat in 2020; she was drummed out of her GOP leadership role and then her congressional seat for taking on Trump after the insurrectionary acts of January 6.
In an interview with USA Today set up to promote her new book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, the former congress member from Wyoming said that the situation was “so grave” that it merited the coming together of Democrats and Republicans, possibly under a new third party banner, in order to build a coalition strong enough to stop Trump from returning to power. She also urged conservative voters concerned about the durability of U.S. democracy to consider voting for Democratic candidates for the House, warning that under Speaker Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), there was a strong possibility the GOP majority would simply refuse to certify the results of the election if, yet again, Trump lost and decided not to concede.
Cheney’s politics aren’t the stuff of progressive dreams; she was, and is, a foreign policy hawk, opposes abortion, is against gun control, supports tax breaks for the wealthy, and so on. Yet, over the past two years, since she agreed to sit on the committee investigating the events of January 6, she has articulated the moral and political perils of Trumpism and of much of the electorate’s ongoing (and cult-like) attachment to the person of Donald J. Trump. She is saying things that the leading GOP candidates, with the exception of Chris Christie, are too afraid to say.
“The president who’s willing to ignore the rulings of the courts, the president who’s willing to ignore the guardrails of our democracy is an existential threat,” Cheney told USA Today.
Since Cheney surely knows it’s a moonshot for her to actually win the presidency, one assumes that her team is carefully parsing polling data, trying to work out whether her entry into the race would make it more or less likely that Trump would get elected — or even that no one candidate would secure an Electoral College majority, thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where each state would get one vote. Since more state delegations have Republican majorities than Democratic majorities, such an outcome would almost surely hand the victory to Trump. (By contrast, the vice president, in such a scenario, would be chosen by a simple majority vote in the Senate, resulting in the bizarre possibility that Trump could win the presidency in the House, and Kamala Harris the vice presidency in the Senate.)
Partly, Cheney’s calculation about whether to declare herself a presidential hopeful depends on how impactful the other independent candidates are. In 2024, in addition to the Democratic and Republican nominees, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running, as is Cornel West and perennial Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In recent weeks, retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has also mulled running on the No Labels slate.
Eleven months out from the election, it’s hard to know what sort of impact each of these candidates will have; but there’s at least a possibility it will be huge. Kennedy’s favorability ratings are high, and in some recent polling, more than 20 percent of voters polled say that at the moment they would vote for him. Those supporters come from all over the political spectrum, and the data is mixed as to whether he would take more support away from the Republican or from the Democratic nominee. Cornel West, whose support base comes from the left of the political spectrum, is also attracting significant levels of support, with a Quinnipiac poll from late October putting him at 6 percent — though a more recent Emerson College Polling survey had him at 1 percent; there’s little doubt that if he racks up large numbers of votes on Election Day, it will hurt Biden more than his Republican opponent. Similarly, Stein, running on the Green ticket, is likely to also siphon significant numbers of votes away from the Democrats.
In normal times, one would expect the support of these independent and third-party candidates to fizzle as the election neared; but in a year in which large numbers of voters are angry about both Biden and Trump, and with the political system in disarray, there’s no guarantee that that will be the case. More than half of voters, including 7 out of 10 independents, tell pollsters they want other presidential choices next year. Astoundingly, despite the lack of a truly viable primary challenger to the president, about two-thirds of Democrats aren’t happy with the idea that Biden will be their party’s nominee.
When large numbers of voters peel away from the two dominant political parties, the results can be unpredictable. In 1992, the businessman Ross Perot won nearly 20 percent of the vote and, even though he didn’t take any Electoral College votes, arguably helped Bill Clinton win the White House by tamping down GOP support in key states. In 1968, the segregationist candidacy of George Wallace peeled off large numbers of Southern Democrats, won 13.5 percent of the national vote, and played a role in catapulting Richard Nixon to the presidency. In 1948, Henry Wallace’s insurgent left-wing candidacy looked as if it would tamp down President Harry Truman’s vote; instead, it forced Truman to campaign from the left on civil rights, in particular, and the incumbent president ended up securing a majority of the Black voters and an upset election-night victory over Thomas Dewey. Back in 1912, when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt sought to make a comeback on the Progressive Party’s platform, more than a quarter of the electorate backed him; another 6 percent supported socialist Eugene Debs. Woodrow Wilson ended up winning the presidency with slightly over 40 percent of the vote, and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, finished an ignominious third. Because of the way the vote skewed, however, it was an Electoral College landslide, with Wilson securing 435 Electoral College votes.
This time around, given the number of independent or third-party candidates, and given the unpopularity of both Trump and Biden, it’s conceivable that a similar sort of free-for-all as occurred in 1912 could develop. If the above poll numbers are right, somewhere in the vicinity of one-third of the electorate might be up for grabs. In theory, this could lead to a candidate securing a state’s Electoral College votes, or multiple states’ votes, with under 40 percent support.
In such an uncertain political environment, it’s not clear how, beyond adding more uncertainty, a Liz Cheney candidacy would play out. There hasn’t been new polling since last week’s comments by the Wyoming politician (and it’s possible, given the rise of RFK Jr., that there are fewer independent votes still up for grabs), but polling from late last year had her at nearly 20 percent. Not all of those voters would be Republican; many would likely be independents — people who, because of their suspicions of Trump, otherwise might have reluctantly supported Biden.
If Trump wins the GOP primaries, it will at least in part be because the opposition was divided between too many candidates, leaving Trump and his loyal base the dominant figures in a splintered contest. If the general election similarly has too many candidates, even if most of those candidates are outspokenly anti-Trump, there’s at least the chance such an environment makes it easier for The Donald to win another Electoral College victory.