Could Joe Manchin Be Setting up Democrats for the 'Ross Perot Effect'?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Democrats are making sure to put a big smiley face on when they appear on television to talk about the 2024 presidential election. But in the smokey back rooms of the Democrat National Committee, many in the politics business are speculating that there is a very different vibe, one of panic and uncertainty. Among the issues at hand for Democrats, President Joe Biden has announced that, at 80 years old, he is running for reelection. The problem with that for Democrats: 71 percent of Americans think Joe Biden is too old — and that includes 49 percent of Democrats. Should for whatever reason Biden be forced to drop out of the race, the heir apparent, of course, is Vice President Kamala Harris, whose poll numbers hover around or below those of her boss. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has dodged questions about whether he is thinking about a run, most recently in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. And they appear to not take the candidacy of Robert Kennedy Jr. seriously, even though he is consistently polling between 15 to 20 percent. What else could go wrong for Democrats?

The answer to that could be: plenty. No Labels is a centrist organization that is already attempting to set a bipartisan third-party ticket for next year’s election. And there is speculation that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin may decide to join that ticket. Manchin has been increasingly at odds with his party as it moves further to the left. He has been instrumental in torpedoing several Biden nominees and negotiated, much to the chagrin of his fellow Democrats, with Biden to whittle down the Inflation Reduction Act. But because West Virginia has become more red in recent years, it does not make Joe Manchin a shoo-in for reelection. Gov. Jim Justice currently has a significant lead in opinion polling over Manchin, 66 to 38 percent. Manchin has not announced whether he will make another Senate run, saying during a Fox News Sunday appearance, “Not ruling anything in, not ruling anything out.”

So what does a possible Joe Manchin third-party candidacy do to Democrats’ chances in 2024? The short answer might be: nothing good. In all fairness, third-party candidates are not exactly ideal for Republicans either. The debate over whether Ross Perot cost President George H.W. Bush the 1992 election will go on. But the difference is pretty obvious. Perot was, ironically like Trump, an outsider to politics, and had no connection to either Democrats or Republicans. Manchin’s history with the Democrat Party would almost surely pick off some moderate Democrat votes, assuming there still is such a thing, away from Biden. Manchin could also get a lot of backlash from Democrats who would see his third-party run as sabotaging Biden’s and Democrats’ chances in 2024. Then there is the pick-off of Republicans who don’t like Trump should he become the GOP nominee.

Democrats may also see a Manchin candidacy as jeopardizing a key Senate seat. With the U.S. Senate divided at 48 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and three independents who caucus with Democrats, every vote counts. Now throw in the possibility that Robert Kennedy Jr. continues to gain support in the polls. Democrats continue to dismiss him at their own peril. While neither Manchin nor Kennedy would likely get the Democrat nomination, could the combination possibly send Democrats to a brokered convention next summer?

Manchin has said about a potential White House run, “Everybody’s getting so worked up and scared to death, and we’re a year and a half away.” The “everybody” in question are his fellow Democrat Senators, and they are plenty worked up. The general consensus among them is summed up by Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who said, “I have advised him against it. I think it would be a terrible idea. It would help Donald Trump.” Manchin does not appear to be in a rush. Democrats may be sweating for a while.


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