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Dec 1, 2023, 1:00pm EST
politics

Biden’s third-party challengers look to capitalize on Gaza

Cornel West at a protest in New York.
Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images
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The Scene

President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war has angered and alienated Democrats. In polling before last week’s temporary truce — which collapsed on Friday morning — up to 70% of them were unhappy with the administration’s course.

Some of those disgruntled 2020 Biden voters are threatening not to vote at all, a problem that Democrats think they can fix. But those voters are also being pitched by third party candidates — a non-factor in the 2020 election but an emerging one ahead of 2024.

At campaign stops and in interviews, both independent Cornel West and two-time Green Party nominee Jill Stein have called for a “permanent ceasefire,” wooing unhappy Democrats and independents who won’t hear that from their president.

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“I was already considering a run,” said Stein, who entered the race a month after the start of the war. “It felt much more urgent once I saw the overwhelming support from the two war parties for the Netanyahu regime’s campaign of mass slaughter, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, and blatant war crimes.”

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David’s view

Democrats aren’t terribly worried right now about Stein or West, for the simple reason that each candidate will need to put time and money into swing state ballot access. West’s candidacy starts with none; the Greens have automatic access in 19 states, including Michigan, but have failed to make the ballot in other swing states in close races.

The third-party candidate with the most resources right now doesn’t offer much to those who oppose Biden’s approach to Gaza. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose criticism of Ukraine war funding intrigued some Biden critics, is less critical of Israel than the president.

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“Israel is doing more right now to protect human life, and has done more over the past 16 years to avoid this outcome, than we would expect of any nation in the world,” Kennedy told NewsNation’s Chris Cuomo this week.

Still, Biden simply didn’t have a problem on his far-left flank in 2020 — and now, he does.

Stein’s 2016 run followed the usual pattern for modern third-party candidates. That summer, after Hillary Clinton had defeated Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, she polled as high as 5% in national surveys; Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee, hit double-digits. Their support contracted on Election Day, but in swing states, their combined vote was larger than the gap between Clinton and Donald Trump.

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Democrats fixed that problem in 2020, as millions of anti-Trump voters who’d rejected Clinton cast a strategic ballot for Biden. But the president is far less popular than he was then, and polls that include a range of third-party candidates — West, Stein, and Kennedy — have found Biden’s support slipping below 40% in key states.

“They’re taking votes out of the Biden column, and that’s going to help Republicans,” said Jason Roe, a Michigan GOP strategist. “The natural back-and-forth between the parties is going to force some of these Democrats to say things that will alienate pro-Palestinian voters. They will not be able to help themselves; they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

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The View From Michigan

Muslim and Arab-American political activists have been working through those concerns. Emgage, a group that turns out and educates Muslim voters, conducted polling after the start of the war that found a massive drop-off in support for Biden and a surge of interest in supporting an alternative to Trump or Biden. It’s too early, said Emgage CEO Wa’el Alzayat, to say what could happen with those voters.

“Our assessment is that third party candidates are not viable,” Alzayat told Semafor. “Given the elections and the reality of American politics, we assess that a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Trump.”

The issue may be most acute for Biden in Michigan, where there are an estimated 200,000 registered Muslim voters in the state, and more than 300,000 voters with roots in the Arab world. “The majority of Americans support a ceasefire,” Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib said outside the White House on Wednesday evening, joining a hunger strike and vigil that commemorated the Palestinians killed since the start of the war. “Seventy-one percent of Michigan Democrats, in my district, support a ceasefire.”

Democrats in the state tell Semafor that they’ve been working proactively, with “internal discussions and outreach,” to calm those groups. Meanwhile, some influencers on the anti-Biden left are already looking to head off accusations that third parties are threatening to play the role of spoilers.

“Third party voters are mostly people who were never going to vote for Biden,” said Briahna Joy Gray, the national press secretary for the 2020 Sanders campaign, and the co-host of The Hill’s talk show “Rising.” “But to the extent that Biden’s support among key Biden voting groups, like Arab-Americans in Michigan, is way down, that’s because of his own policies — not the appeal of third-party candidates.”

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Notable

  • In Politico, Brittany Gibson got the first look at West’s plans to campaign in Michigan: “We’re the only major candidate, I think, who’s bringing any kind of sanity and sensitivity to the suffering in Gaza,” he said.
  • In the New York Times, Kayla Guo surveyed Gray and other 2020 Sanders supporters who were frustrated with how he wasn’t joining them, and the rest of the Vermont delegation, in pressuring Biden on a ceasefire.
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