Three’s a crowd: Third-party candidates threaten to upend battleground Arizona

A presidential election rematch in 2024 between Joe Biden and Donald Trump has helped pave the way for renewed interest in third-party candidates. The most dominant interloper is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is polling at a healthy 11.7% and is being taken seriously, particularly by the Democratic National Committee. This cycle has also seen No Labels threaten, and then fail, to field an alternative candidate, which nonetheless points to voters seeking an alternative to the status quo. This Washington Examiner series, Three’s a Crowd, will look at how and why third-party candidates could play a major spoiler come November. Part Four will take a closer look at how Arizona could play a key role in the third party chaos.

In the Grand Canyon State, insiders are beginning to sound the alarm about how serious the threat of third-party challengers could be on the rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in November.

As polling continues to illustrate how unhappy voters are with both of the mainstream general election choices, there’s growing concern that third-party and independent presidential candidates could play an outsize role in a battleground state like Arizona and could ultimately tip the contest one way or another. 

Campaigns by Democrat-turned-independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., progressive contender Cornel West, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein could attract centrist voters in a state that has transformed from solid red to one of the country’s most competitive battlegrounds over the course of the last six years. 

President Joe Biden won Arizona by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2020 and voter registration data continues to show how influential moderates will be this cycle. The state’s 1.4 million voters listed as “other” now make up 34% of Arizona’s electorate, far outnumbering Democrats and only slightly behind the number of registered Republicans. 

Currently, Kennedy is on the general election ballot in just one state: Utah. However, the outside group supporting Kennedy’s independent presidential bid announced in late February they had gathered 75,000 signatures to qualify him to appear on the ballot in Arizona, almost twice the minimum amount of 43,000 that an independent candidate needs to qualify for statewide elections.

“I’ve been at several events where there’s been Kennedy supporters or paid circulators, gathering signatures for Kennedy,” said Paul Bentz, senior vice president at the Arizona political consulting group Highground, Inc. “I suspect they are going to have a sizable amount of signatures and it’s probably likely if they are targeting Arizona, he would be able to get on the ballot.”

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a voter rally, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Kennedy would need to file those signatures with elections officials between July 28 and Aug. 17; then officials will review the signatures to ensure they are valid. The Green Party is also set to appear on the ballot in Arizona. 

Over the last couple of general election cycles, third-party candidates haven’t had a major impact on the outcome. In 2020, Green Party presidential write-in candidate Howie Hawkins received 0.05% of the vote in the state. Stein received 34,345 votes in 2016, or 1.3% of the vote, but that wasn’t enough to make an impact in Arizona, where Trump defeated Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by nearly 100,000 votes. 

As national Democrats attempt to challenge Kennedy’s ballot push with teams of lawyers evaluating ballot efforts across the country, Bentz acknowledges there’s a lot of uncertainty about what a third-party candidate may bring to the race in a battleground state. 

“What we have seen in Arizona is that Democrats have benefitted in the last few cycles from their crossover appeal to independent and unaffiliated voters and crossover Republicans who won’t vote for a MAGA candidate,” Bentz said. “The state is up for grabs, and any additional people in the race, anyone siphoning off attention or votes, could harm either candidate.”

In polls released this week by the Wall Street Journal, Kennedy received the support of 13% of voters in Arizona, a statistic both Democrats and Republicans are watching closely. 

“There isn’t another state in this country where RFK could play spoiler as much as here in Arizona,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist based in Phoenix. “There is no doubt RFK will not win one state, particularly Arizona, but he certainly could siphon enough votes away from likely Biden but also Trump to sway the state, it’s a real possibility here in Arizona.”

A woman is working to get signatures to put Robert F. Kennedy JR on the Arizona Ballot during Arizona’s 11th Annual Celebrate & Protect the 2nd Amendment/Right to Keep & Bear Arms event at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2024. (Photo By: Alexandra Buxbaum/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Abortion-rights advocates were already working on a petition to place an amendment on the ballot in the state for the 2024 election that would make access to the procedure a “fundamental right,” even before the state’s Supreme Court upheld a Civil War-era law on Tuesday that nearly bans all abortions in the state. In the wake of those recent events, Marson believes it could sway some moderates who may have been considering a third-party option toward Biden.

“I think that is the saving grace — or the one bright spot in Arizona for Joe Biden, because there will almost assuredly be an abortion initiative on the ballot and that may bring out enough young first-time voters who may stick around to not only vote for the abortion initiative but maybe Joe Biden and Ruben Gallego,” Marson said. 

Mike Noble, the founder of Arizona-based polling firm Noble Predictive Insights, believes Kennedy poses the biggest challenge to Biden in Arizona. 

“Right now, based on the polling, he seems to be pulling a little bit more from Biden than Trump,” Noble explained in a phone interview with the Washington Examiner. “Remember 11,000 votes was the difference last time, so what was that, less than 1 percentage point? If RFK makes the ballot, he’s going to get at least 3% or so.” 

“It’s a huge wildcard but ultimately could tip the balance to one side or another, so yeah, his impact is small but mighty,” Noble explained.

While No Labels abruptly announced late last week it would not follow through with a third-party ticket after all, the group made waves in Arizona when it sued 

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes for his decision to allow non-presidential candidates running under the No Labels ticket to be placed on the ballot, which Arizona U.S. District Judge John Tuchi ultimately ruled against in January.

As of the state’s most recent primary election, 27,631 Arizona voters had active registrations with No Labels according to online voter registration statistics, almost as many as the Arizona Libertarian Party and almost 10 times as many as the state’s Green Party.

“There’s less competition in the third-party space now, but again, you look at why No Labels folded up their tent,” Noble said. “The candidates they went to didn’t want to ultimately put their thumb on the scale one way or the other.” 

Still, some experts believe even with the third-party threat that often is detrimental to an incumbent president — the math indicates an uphill battle for former President Trump to win a state like Arizona. 

“I don’t know how he wins Arizona,” said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “In Arizona, the rule is, you have to maintain 85 to 90% of your base of your Republican or Democratic base. And then you have to win a plurality of unaffiliated voters because those unaffiliated voters are the swing voters in the electorate.”

Can he get to 90, can he get to 85? And was he to stick around 80, do some of those people just siphon off to Kennedy,” Coughlin questioned.  “I’m locked solid shirt certain; there’s no way [Trump] wins a plurality of unaffiliated voters. It’s just not possible.” 

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Coughlin believes if Kennedy appears on the November ballot in Arizona, he likely will siphon support from both Trump and Biden.

“He could take some votes from Trump, you know, because he’s the conspiracy theorist, anti-establishment guy. There’s likely going to be some of those votes that fall his way.”

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