Explainer-How a third-party candidate could put Trump in the White House

By Thomson Reuters Mar 20, 2024 | 10:02 AM

By Stephanie Kelly and Jarrett Renshaw

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Democrats and Republicans dominate the U.S. two-party political system, but independent candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other third-party challengers could have a major impact in this year’s presidential election.

Reuters spoke to a dozen strategists who are gaming out how a third candidate could land in the unusual U.S. electoral college system.

Early scenarios show a third-party candidate is likely to take more votes from President Joe Biden than former President Donald Trump. Even narrow margins could make a difference in a handful of battleground states that are decided by a thin sliver of votes and could go Democrat or Republican.

Those states are crucial in amassing the 270 electoral college votes needed for victory.


November’s most important battleground states are Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. In the 2020 election, Biden won all these states except North Carolina; they were all decided by less than 3% of the vote.

Kennedy is running on a platform of limiting U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts, cheaper housing and reining in corporate power, and has positioned himself as an outsider alternative to Biden and Trump. He has the support of 15% of registered voters, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows.

Even a fraction of that support could be meaningful in the battleground states, which allocate all their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most individual votes. Strategists are zeroing in on Pennsylvania, which has 19 electoral votes, and where Biden won with just 50% of overall votes in 2020 versus Trump’s 48.8%.

If Biden loses Pennsylvania, he’d need a repeat win of Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan to get to 270. If he loses Georgia, too, then Trump wins the White House.

It could be an echo of the 2000 election, when third-party candidate Ralph Nader ran as an alternative to Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush, some strategists say. Nader was polling at about 5%, recalls Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

“In the end, he only pulled about 3% of the vote in Florida. But that proved to be enough,” Masket said. Bush and Gore’s vote margin in Florida was so narrow that the dispute went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided the election for Bush.


Both Biden and Trump have low overall “approval” ratings – at or below 40% in many polls – but a third party is not expected to damage Trump as much because his voter base is loyal, strategists say.

That means he is unlikely to lose core voters if any third party is presented, although it is harder for him to gain supporters.

“He probably can’t get above, let’s say 47% of the vote,” estimates Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank working with Democrats to thwart third-party bids. “But he also isn’t going to drop very much.”

Lucas Holtz, a political analyst for Third Way, estimates the Trump’s hard floor – or minimum share of the vote thanks to his committed supporters – is 35.5%.

Biden, on the other hand, could gain voters but does not enjoy the same loyal base, strategists say, making him the most vulnerable to a third-party effort.

“Uncommitted” protest votes in Michigan’s primary last month garnered 14% of the state’s Democrat voters who are upset over Biden backing Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, for example.


Another question is whether a third-party candidate could siphon off enough of the 538 electoral votes at stake to stop Biden or Trump from reaching the 270-vote threshold.

It’s very unlikely but not impossible, strategists say. Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party Progressives got electoral 88 votes in 1912, while George Wallace’s pro-segregation party got 46 in 1968. George W. Bush won in 2000 by just five electoral college votes.

Strategists are gaming out two potential “contingent election” scenarios in which no one secures 270 electoral votes.

In those scenarios, a third-party candidate would beat Biden to win Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, or Michigan, with its 15 electoral votes, but Trump would still win Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada.

That would result in neither candidate reaching 270 votes, at which point the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives would elect a president by allocating one vote to each of the U.S.’s 50 states.

A simple majority, 26 state votes, would decide the president, a situation that would elect Trump. Currently Republicans control 26 state delegations, while Democrats control 22.

The Senate, controlled by Democrats, would elect a vice president from the two vice presidential candidates with the most electoral votes. In that unlikely scenario, the U.S. could wind up with a Republican president and Democratic vice president for the first time in history.


It is hard for political analysts to envisage a third-party candidate amassing 270 electoral votes on their own because outside of the swing states, either Republicans or Democrats control too much of the overall vote.

Ross Perot, a third-party candidate who got 19% of the national popular vote in 1992, still did not win any state or pick up a single electoral college vote.

“There’s no one really that popular,” Masket said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Nia Williams)