On The Trail: How will a third party affect likely Biden-Trump rematch? 

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a voter rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a voter rally in Phoenix on Dec. 20. Matt York / AP file

By PAUL STEINHAUSER

For the Monitor

Published: 02-10-2024 4:11 PM

Modified: 02-11-2024 11:09 AM


While President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump faced political setbacks this past week, when it comes to their campaigns locking up the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, both hit the jackpot in Las Vegas.

Three days after winning over 95% of the vote in South Carolin’s Democratic presidential primary, Biden on Tuesday scored another massive landslide in Nevada’s contest. The president’s third straight commanding nomination win kicked off in New Hampshire as Biden captured nearly two-thirds of the vote without even being on the ballot.

Two days after the president’s victory in Nevada, Trump also scored an overwhelming win in the state GOP-run caucus, while helping to inflict a ballot box setback on his last remaining major rival for the Republican nomination – former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley - in the state-run primary two days earlier.

The 81-year-old Biden suffered a potential political blow two days after his ballot box victory when questions about his age and cognitive ability once again took center stage following the release of a scathing special counsel report investigating his possession of classified documents that characterized the president’s memory as “faulty” and “poor” and having “significant limitations.”

The 77-year-old Trump also was handed a political blow, courtesy of a federal appeals court ruling that he wasn’t immune from prosecution for alleged crimes he committed amid his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. Trump made history last year as the first sitting or former president to be indicted and he is currently juggling four cases.

But regardless of the political and legal land mines both Biden and Trump face, their electoral victories this past week moved them closer to a November general election rematch that most polling indicates Americans are dreading.

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“Like it or not, the general election campaign for president has begun,” New England College president and veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist Wayne Lesperance said.

Storming ahead

While New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary is fading into the rear view mirror, the state will likely see plenty of presidential campaigning this summer and autumn thanks to its status as one of around a dozen battleground states across the country and the only one in New England.

Looking back to the successful write-in effort that boosted Biden to a healthy margin of victory in last month’s primary, Lesperance said the president’s win without ever coming here was impressive.

“His success with a write-in campaign was remarkable and bodes well for him among supporters in the state,” Lesperance said. “What’s more, he managed this impressive win despite the lingering bad feelings about his decision to bump New Hampshire from its lead-off role.”

Trump topped Haley by 11 points in New Hampshire’s GOP primary, with much of her support coming from independent voters who cast ballots in the Republican contest.

“Both Trump and Biden will lean on a base of supporters that have proven they are committed, willing to turn out and are unafraid of pushing back against larger narratives in the media or across the country about the president’s age and approval ratings and the former president’s unending legal drama,” Lesperance predicted.

Biden carried New Hampshire’s highly coveted four electoral votes four years ago by a comfortable seven-point margin.

“I think Biden is favored in a head-to-head with Trump,” Saint Anselm College political professor Christopher Galdieri noted as he looked ahead to the likely November rematch. “He won the state pretty easily in 2020, and MAGA candidates did terribly in the 2022 midterms, plus general election polling has shown him with leads a lot like the one he had four years ago.”

Even as some Democrats are calling for a different candidate to take on Trump, the president’s re-election campaign is still storming ahead.

“New Hampshire Democrats are hardly thrilled with President Biden but still like him well enough,” said longtime University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.

He argued that many of the voters who supported Nikki Haley as an alternative to Trump could choose Biden in the general election.

Third-party?

Third-party candidates were not much of a factor in the 2020 presidential election compared to the influence they had on the outcome of the 2016 contest. Democrats for months have raised concerns that Democrat-turned-independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., progressive independent candidate Cornell West and Green Party candidate Jill Stein could bleed votes from the president in November. And the centrist group No Labels appears to be moving toward launching a third-party ticket this spring.

Scala made the case that Kennedy, who said last month he had qualified to get on the ballot in New Hampshire, “is more of a problem for Trump than Biden.”

He argued that a No Labels ticket possibly helmed by former Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “might attract old-style GOP support” and further erode Trump’s margins in New Hampshire.

“Biden should worry most about a challenge from the left,” Scala said.

Galdieri also highlighted that “third parties could complicate things” in the Granite State in November.

“Readers of a certain age will remember that George W. Bush carried New Hampshire in 2000 largely thanks to the Ralph Nader candidacy,” he said. “The more well-known third-party options there are on the ballot, the harder Democrats will have to work. They’ll be disadvantaged to a degree by the fact that so many Republicans are so loyal to Trump, no matter how many indictments, impeachments or civil court losses he has.”