Powerful allies of President Biden are aggressively working to stop third-party and independent presidential candidacies, fearing that an outside bid could cost Democrats an election that many believe will again come down to a few percentage points in key battleground states.
As attempts to mount outside campaigns multiply, a broad coalition has accelerated a multipronged assault to starve such efforts of financial and political support and warn fellow Democrats that supporting outsider candidacies, including the centrist organization No Labels, could throw the election to former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Biden’s top aides have blessed the multimillion-dollar offensive, which cuts across the party, tapping the resources of the Democratic National Committee, labor unions, abortion rights groups, top donors and advocacy groups backing moderate and liberal Democrats. Even the president has helped spread the word: Mr. Biden, in an interview with ProPublica, said a No Labels candidacy would “help the other guy.”
The endeavor is far-reaching. In Washington, Democratic allies are working alongside top party strategists to spread negative information about possible outsider candidates. Across the country, lawyers have begun researching moves to limit ballot access — or at least make it more costly to qualify.
At expensive resorts and closed-door conferences, Democratic donors are urging their friends not to fund potential spoiler candidates. And in key swing states, lone-wolf operators, including a librarian from Arizona, are trying their own tactics to make life difficult for third-party contenders.
The anxiety over candidates and parties traditionally consigned to the fringes of American politics reflects voters’ deep dissatisfaction with both men who are likely to become the major parties’ nominees. No third-party candidate has risen out of the single digits in three decades, since Ross Perot captured nearly a fifth of the vote in 1992. Given the devotion of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters, Democrats fear that most of the attrition would come from Mr. Biden’s fragile coalition.
“They’ve got to understand the risk that they are exposing the country to by doing this,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a former House majority leader and a Democratic Party graybeard who has formed a super PAC to attack outsider campaigns. “This is too dangerous of an idea to put in play in this context, in this year. These are not normal times.”
Mr. Gephardt warned that third-party candidates threatened not only Mr. Biden’s chances of victory but also the stability of American democracy. Internal polling conducted by his group found that an independent centrist candidate could attract more than 20 percent of the vote in competitive states, helping Mr. Trump in all but one of them.
In recent days, two candidates have taken steps toward mounting independent bids. Cornel West, the left-wing Harvard professor, announced on Thursday that he would run as an independent candidate. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has hinted that he may announce on Monday that he is leaving the Democratic presidential primary race to run as an independent. Already, a super PAC backing his bid has raised $17 million, according to Tony Lyons, the group’s treasurer.
Still, most of the Biden allies’ attention is directed at No Labels, the best-funded outsider organization, which after years of sponsoring bipartisan congressional caucuses is working to gain ballot access for a presidential candidate for the first time.
The group’s chief executive, Nancy Jacobson, has told potential donors and allies that the No Labels candidate will be a moderate Republican, according to three people familiar with the conversations. That decision would rule out Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat whose flirtation with the idea has prompted a wave of angst within his party.
No Labels has already raised $60 million, Ms. Jacobson said in an interview, and has qualified for the ballot in 11 states, including the presidential battlegrounds of Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina. The group plans to spend about half of the money on securing ballot access across all 50 states.
Ms. Jacobson said her organization was devoted to presenting voters with an option beyond Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. No Labels is in the process of vetting potential candidates now and will announce its delegate selection process in the coming weeks, she said. The plan is to hold a nominating convention in April in Dallas and anoint a presidential ticket if it is clear the country is heading toward a 2020 rematch.
Ms. Jacobson and her chief strategist, Ryan Clancy, insist that their effort is in good faith and is not a secret plot to help Mr. Trump win.
“We’re never going to be a party to something that would spoil it for Trump,” Mr. Clancy said.
No Labels has focused its recent polling on eight states that are expected to be competitive in a Biden-Trump contest, though Mr. Clancy said he believed a No Labels ticket would be viable in 25 states. If a third-party or independent candidate were to gain serious traction, it could reshuffle the entire presidential map, potentially turning states like New York or Texas into true battlegrounds.
Mr. Kennedy has also been a source of concern for Democrats, who worry that his anti-corporate politics and famous last name could pull some of their voters away from Mr. Biden. But some of Mr. Biden’s top allies also believe that Mr. Kennedy, who has increasingly pushed right-wing ideas, would hurt Mr. Trump.
The broad Democratic unease is rooted in a core belief that Mr. Trump has both a high ceiling and a low floor of general-election support — meaning that his voters are less likely to be swayed by a third-party or independent candidate. Mr. Biden has wider appeal, but his supporters are not as loyal, and polling has suggested that they could be persuaded to back someone else if given more options.
Public and private surveyspoint to increased interest in alternatives this election. In polling released this week by Monmouth University, majorities of voters said that they were not enthusiastic about Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden being at the top of their party’s ticket and that they would not back either man if the race became a rematch.
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the center-left group Third Way who is serving as a clearinghouse for Democrats’ effort to block third-party and independent candidates, is working with the progressive organization MoveOn and a host of like-minded Biden allies to dissuade anyone from having any association with No Labels. Those efforts are bankrolled by more than $1 million from Reid Hoffman, the billionaire Democratic megadonor.
Mr. Bennett is using Third Way’s connections with centrist donors to try to block No Labels’ access to money, while Rahna Epting, the executive director of MoveOn, has been briefing other progressive groups and labor unions about the dangers of their members’ supporting third-party candidates instead of Mr. Biden.
“Anything that divides the anti-Trump coalition is bad,” Mr. Bennett said.
Marc Elias, one of the party’s most dogged and litigious election lawyers, has been retained by American Bridge, the Democratic Party’s primary opposition research organization, to vet ballot-qualification efforts by No Labels and other third-party efforts.
And the Democratic National Committee has instructed state and county party leaders to say nothing in public about No Labels, according to an email the Utah Democratic Party sent to county leaders in the state.
“We need to do everything we can to stop this effort NOW, and not wait until they name a ticket and this becomes a runaway train,” Thom DeSirant, the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, wrote in a missive that included links to Third Way’s talking points about how to speak about No Labels.
The efforts resemble hand-to-hand political combat in both public and private. The abortion rights group Reproductive Freedom for All wrote on social media that Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Republican former governor of Utah who has been linked to the No Labels bid, is an “abortion extremist,” based on anti-abortion views he articulated during his 2012 presidential campaign.
And Michael Steele, who served as a lieutenant governor of Maryland and as Republican National Committee chairman, has assumed the portfolio of persuading former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a moderate Republican who has publicly toyed with accepting the No Labels nomination, to end his association with the group.
“I’ve told the governor what I think he should do,” Mr. Steele said.
Perhaps nowhere has No Labels run into as many real-world roadblocks as in Arizona.
After the group successfully qualified for the presidential ballot, the Arizona Democratic Party sued to remove it. That legal effort failed, but the attention led two people to submit candidate statements to run for down-ballot offices on the No Labels ticket — something the group had tried to block so as to avoid being categorized as a political party, which could trigger requirements to disclose No Labels donors, who have so far been kept secret.
For different reasons, the Arizona candidates who are seeking the No Labels line could prove awkward for the movement.
One of them, Tyson Draper, a high school coach from Thatcher, Ariz., is seeking the group’s line to run for the Senate. In an interview last week, he called himself a centrist political newcomer who had never sought public office before. A day later, he filed papers to begin a movement to recall Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat.
The other would-be No Labeler is Richard Grayson, an assistant librarian at a community college south of Phoenix.
Mr. Grayson, 72, is seeking the No Labels nomination for the state’s Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities. He has appeared as a candidate for office dozens of times since 1982, and said he was a Biden supporter.
“I’m a perennial candidate whose goal is to torture No Labels,” he said. “I’m enjoying it immensely. I’m tormenting them.”
Rebecca Davis O’Brien contributed reporting.