'Are Americans quietly planning an “Independents’ Day”?' (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg/ Getty)

March 11, 2024   6 mins

The surrender of Nikki Haley — long drawn-out but long expected — has set both of America’s major parties on the same course: a limp coronation, conducted through process of elimination. Donald Trump’s path is clear, competitors fallen away, while Joe Biden is also slipping through effectively unopposed, happily ignoring token challenges by Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson. But the frictionless progress of both candidates through their party’s internal processes is concealing a hidden truth about this year’s election. Americans don’t want Joe Biden or Donald Trump. They see the race as a horror-reality show featuring two geriatrics who seem doddery, unwell, and angry at being told so. It is increasingly possible that they support independent candidates who could deprive both Trump and Biden of the votes needed to win the presidency. America could end up with a hung presidential election.

How would this come about? The Constitution requires that a victorious president wins at least 270 Electoral College votes, which they must gather from some combination of the 50 states. It now looks possible that neither mainstream candidate will manage that. For a start, the “Never Trump” and “Never Biden” voters are on the rise. Americans are now keen to explore almost any alternative, and independents are offering one in the form of the “No Labels” movement as well as Robert Kennedy Jr’s campaign. Both have received relatively little coverage so far, partially because of the juggernaut status of the Democratic Party and the GOP, but also because third-party candidates rarely do well in American elections. But, given the staggering sense of frustration nationwide with Biden and Trump and the absence of a unifying figure, an independent candidate could have a historic opportunity.

If neither Biden nor Trump reaches the required 270 Electoral College votes, the Constitution dictates that the voting shifts into a “contingent election”. This means that the incoming House of Representatives will decide the winner based on whoever can form a coalition of red and blue states and win 26 of them first. The Senate would select the vice president. Given that most Republican or Democrat politicians are hardly able to look at each other, let alone agree any deals, it seems unlikely Biden or Trump could forge that coalition. But Kennedy or the as-yet-unnamed No Labels candidate, who actively cultivate the idea of returning to centrist bipartisan solutions, potentially could, should the presidency slip into the arcana of America’s 18th-century constitutional schematics.

This would represent a seismic rupture in American political culture, breaking the rigor mortis on Left and Right, possibly opening the door to European-style coalition politics and spelling the end of the current party system. Such changes may seem impossible. But there is considerable precedent in American history for such creative destruction. We forget that we are currently on our sixth iteration of the party system, which began in the Seventies with the demise of the New Deal era and the realignment of the Democratic and Republican vote. And before that, earlier in the 20th and 19th centuries, Progressives, Copperheads, Whigs and Federalists fought over American government, flourishing and vanishing with a dynamism unimaginable in the days of our sclerotic party system. Political parties can and do disappear in America.

That said, the transition to a seventh party system would be nothing short of a revolution, and a potentially violent one. There would be a large gap between the election results in November 2024 and any contingent election, which only takes place after the new House members have sworn their oaths of office in the following January. That two-month void could descend into chaos, with contested results, claims of unreliable ballot systems, and wild threats made by reckless politicians. All this could make the hanging chads fiasco of the 2000 election, or even the riot of January 6, 2021, look like child’s play in comparison.

And yet such a scenario looms upon us, and the maths is clear. An independent candidate doesn’t have to win 270 Electoral College votes to win. They need only deny 37 votes to Biden and potentially even fewer to Trump. That would open the door to a contingent election. This would require hitting both Trump and Biden in their most vulnerable states, where each only had extremely thin margins last time around. But these tend to be the places that would welcome a moderating centrist voice, someone able to speak to the concerns of Left and Right.

Imagine if Kennedy were to win 45 Electoral College votes, just as George Wallace managed in 1968. This is conceivable given that polls show that a bare 27% of Americans now identify as either Republican or Democrat, and some polls show that 49% of Americans already identify as independent. It matters then that Kennedy looks set to announce that he is aligning his “We the People Party” with the Libertarian Party. That will automatically put him on the ballot in every state. He already leads the under-35 demographic, and attracts voters equally from Left and Right. His fundraising looks as strong as Barack Obama’s during his first presidential run.

The alternative, No Labels, has a PAC to raise money, but no actual candidate at present, so it’s hard to judge what impact they will ultimately have. But they describe their mission as supporting centrism and bipartisanship through what they call the “commonsense majority”. And it is telling that Americans are drawn to such a vague promise even without a personality to pin it upon. Given sufficient momentum, and a measure of luck, either Kennedy or a No Labels candidate could perform well enough to deprive Trump and Biden of the prize, triggering a contingent election. Though unheard of in modern times, contingent elections have happened before: in 1801, 1825 and 1837. After all, it’s how Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams each became president and Richard Mentor Johnson became vice president. While it would be a shock to see this antiquated procedure revived, the independent movements of 2024 already far exceed the more recent third-party challengers seen in 1912, 1968 and 1992.

Could America elect a long-shot outsider? It’s not unlikely, because they usually do. The last three decades of American political history is a catalogue of unlikely upstarts turned victorious presidents. In 1990, Bill Clinton was a relatively anonymous state governor and President George H.W. Bush was thought to be unassailable. No Democrat dared run against him. But then Bush stumbled and Clinton was suddenly in. George W. Bush also defied the odds: compared to the “Shrub” (as he was known), his brother Jeb was seen as the shoe-in. Next up, a young senator from Chicago called Obama surprisingly beat Hillary Clinton and then the well-known establishment candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. Then came Trump. Even he was surprised by his win. In American politics, upset has become the rule.

No-one is talking about these possibilities yet. Instead, we are still analysing 2024 through the frameworks of 2020 and 2016. We love predicting the future by looking in the rear-view mirror. But there is a better way to understand what’s happening. Technology plays a huge role in defining the presidency. How we observe the race determines who will win. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were the last presidents to win on TV. Obama won on YouTube at a time when few understood what the website could do. Trump mobilised a Twitter campaign when the platform was still a novelty to most Americans. Today, the media battleground has shifted once again, with most younger voters no longer watching mainstream media and instead relying on alternative platforms such as Joe Rogan. His podcast interview with Kennedy was seen live by 30 million people, dwarfing mainstream audiences. By comparison, less than 10 million people watched the second Republican debate on TV. We are witnessing the first podcast presidency, with Instagram in a supporting role. These are the best ways to follow this race.

“We are witnessing the first podcast presidency”

Even if victory eludes them, there are other intriguing possibilities for these independent candidates. Trump and Kennedy are remarkably close on policy. Both are hostile to Washington; both want to stop the forever wars. Both support entrepreneurs and want to dismantle the corporate capture of the regulatory process. Both want to move power from Washington back to the states on all issues, including the biggest social issue of this election, which is abortion rights. They have some differences: Kennedy is a committed environmentalist while Trump leads the “drill, baby, drill” movement. But Kennedy already claims that Trump requested that he run alongside him. If Trump wins, it’s possible that he’d bring Kennedy into his administration, possibly to spearhead the attack on the regulatory process, a subject that is so detailed that Trump has little interest in it. Similarly, if Kennedy were to win a contingent election, he knows Trump supporters would challenge the legitimacy of his presidential mandate. A simple solution would be to invite Trump into the government, taking Trump up on his boast that he could “fix Ukraine in a day” and let him handle that ugly foreign policy issue.

As two ancient politicians arrogantly rumble their way to the presidential candidacy, American politics can seem more narrow and unimaginative than ever. But perhaps all the creative political energy is taking place on the fringes. Perhaps this year the date November 5 will gain a new moniker: are Americans quietly planning an “Independents’ Day”?

Dr. Pippa Malmgren was an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and has been a manufacturer of award-winning drones and autonomous robotics.