Inside the White House’s No Labels strategy

1 November 2023
Hans Nichols, author of Axios Sneak Peek

Top White House officials are anxiously watching a potential third-party challenge from No Labels, while studiously avoiding any public attacks that could give the group oxygen for its bipartisan presidential ticket.

Why it matters: The historically unpopular prospect of a Trump vs. Biden rematch has breathed life into a cadre of potential spoilers and alternatives, among which No Labels is the most well-funded.

Driving the news: President Biden hosted a fundraiser in rural Minnesota on Wednesday — a pre-planned visit to the home state of Rep. Dean Phillips, a moderate Democrat who launched an unlikely primary challenge last week.

  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and Kennedy family scion, exited the Democratic primary last month to run as an independent.
  • Cornel West, a left-wing academic and activist, is also running an independent campaign that could draw a second look from progressive voters alienated by Biden’s support for Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

Behind the scenes: Team Biden’s goal is to avoid antagonizing No Labels’ founder and CEO Nancy Jacobson, a former Democratic political operative whom many senior Biden officials know well.

  • The hope is that Jacobson will eventually look at the polling and pull the plug on her third-party campaign.
  • Some top Biden advisers view Jacobson and her husband, former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, as political opportunists who are using the No Labels organization — a dark money group that can accept unlimited donations — to line their pockets.
  • The White House is not discouraging the efforts of outside groups — mainly the centrist Third Way and the progressive — who are organizing against No Labels.

What they’re saying: “The White House is doing the right thing to ignore them,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “But there are aggressive efforts to organize and take them down.”

  • “Our intent is simply to ensure that everyone understands that this would be a spoiler that would elect Donald Trump,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way. “We have made that clear from the beginning.”
  • “The President’s team has multiple paths to victory and is focused on turning out their voters, persuading their persuadables, and building the coalition that will send Biden back to the White House,” said a Biden campaign official.
  • Asked about the possibility that former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman might run on a No Labels ticket, Biden told ProPublica last month that “he has a democratic right to do it.” But he added: “Now, it’s going to help the other guy. And he knows [that]. “

The big picture: With recent swing state polls giving Trump a narrow lead — and many voters rejecting Bidenomics — Democrats are getting noticeably nervous about the very real possibility of a Trump restoration.

  • But that binary decision would be complicated by the presence of viable third-party options in states across the country.
  • RFK Jr. and West won a combined 25% support in a new Quinnipiac poll testing a four-way race, while 36% of voters supported Biden and 35% supported Trump.

What we’re watching: No Labels says it’s gained ballot access in 12 states — and continues to make progress on more. The group shows no signs of backing down.

  • Internal polling has No Labels officials convinced that Trump starts off the election with a base of 18% and Biden with 15%. That leaves a theoretical 57% of the electorate up for grabs, according to the group’s latest strategy memo.
  • “You don’t beat Donald Trump by denying anyone their constitutional right to get on a voting ballot,” Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, said in a web discussion hosted by Open to Debate Monday.
  • “The way you’re supposed to beat anyone in our democracy is you put forward the best candidates with the best ideas.”

The other side: Many Democrats look at similar polling and come to radically different conclusions. They’re convinced that the universe of persuadable voters is much, much smaller.

  • “It’s undisputed that No Labels has no math and no path to win in 2024 in our current election system,” said Rahna Epting, MoveOn’s executive director, at Monday’s Open to Debate event.
  • They only have a “pathway to eating into Joe Biden’s vote share and swinging the election to Trump,” she said.