Has No Labels Become a Stalking Horse for Trump?

No Labels, a Washington-based organization run by political and corporate insiders, finds itself in an awkward situation.

After its founding in 2010, the group was praised by moderates in both parties as a force for cooperation and consensus. Now however, No Labels is the target of criticism because of its plan to place a presidential and vice-presidential nominee of its own choosing on the 2024 ballot — a step that could tip the outcome in favor of Donald Trump, if he once again wins the Republican nomination.

No Labels officials contend that their polling suggests that their ticket could win.

Numerous factors exacerbate the suspicion that whatever its intentions are (or were), the organization has functionally become an asset to the Trump campaign and a threat to the re-election of Joe Biden.

Leaks to the media that prominent Republican donors, including Harlan Crow, Justice Clarence Thomas’s benefactor, are contributing to No Labels — which is well on its way to raising $70 million — suggest that some major donors to No Labels see the organization as a means to promote Republican goals.

No Labels, in turn, has declined to disclose its donors and the secrecy has served to intensify the concern that some of its contributors are using the organization’s plan to run a third-party ticket to weaken the Biden campaign.

The founder and chief executive of No Labels, Nancy Jacobson, was previously a prominent Democratic fund-raiser. She is married to Mark Penn, a consultant and pollster for Bill and Hillary Clinton, from both of whom Penn eventually became alienated.

During the Trump presidency, Penn publicly voiced support for Trump’s policies on a number of key issues, in newspaper columns and during appearances on Fox News. Penn is chief executive and chairman of Stagwell Inc., which in turn owns a polling firm, HarrisX, that conducts surveys for No Labels. Penn says he has “no role, real or imagined, in this No Labels effort.”

The fear in many quarters — from Republican consultants who are members of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project to Democrats of all ideological stripes — is that if the No Labels’ third-party campaign is carried out, it will help elect Trump.

On April 2, Stuart Stevens, a strategist for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign and a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, wrote on X (formerly Twitter):

Members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, which No Labels helped found in 2017, now accuse No Labels of covertly backing Trump.

“No Labels,” Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, declared, “is wasting time, energy, and money on a bizarre effort that confuses and divides voters, and has one obvious outcome — re-electing Donald Trump as President.”

Last summer, Jacobson told NBC that the group would abandon its plans to run an independent presidential ticket if she and others in the organization become convinced that such a bid would help Trump.

“As a Democrat? Categorically, that will not happen,” Jacobson, said. “This effort will never — we’ll pull it down.” She added: “We will not spoil for either side. The only reason to do this is to win.”

In many quarters, the response to Jacobson’s claim has been incredulity.

“Where’s the money — and there are significant bucks involved here — coming from?” asked Joe Klein, a former Time magazine columnist, in a June 21 Substack essay, “Mislabeled: No Labels Has Become a False Flag Trumpist Operation.”

The answers, Klein notes, “are murky,” but

An NBC survey in September found that the presence of third-party candidates on the ballot would shift the outcome from a 46-46 tie to a three point 39-36 Trump advantage over Biden.

Equally important, NBC also found that the strongest appeal of third-party candidates is among constituencies Biden must carry, including voters pollsters call “persuadable”; low-income, working-class and middle-class voters of color; and voters who “somewhat” disapprove of Biden.

In the media, the potential No Labels candidates most commonly mentioned are Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who is 76 and recently announced his retirement from the Senate, and Larry Hogan, who is 67 and a former Republican governor of Maryland. The organization could also pick someone outside of politics, including a miliary or corporate leader.

Many Democratic leaders and organizations — including Nancy Pelosi, state Democratic chairs, Third Way, a Democratic think tank, and advisers to President Biden — contend that a No Labels candidate in the race would probably doom Biden’s chances of re-election.

Critics of No Labels also argue, crucially, that a third-party candidate who was victorious in just one or two states could prevent both Trump and Biden from reaching the 270 Electoral College votes required to win the presidency.

An outcome like this would throw the election into the House of Representatives for what is known as a “contingent election.” If no candidate achieves an Electoral College majority, the Constitution provides that “the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the president. But in choosing the president, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote.”

At present, Republicans hold a majority of state delegations. In a contingent election in the 2025 House, even if the Democrats win back the House in 2022, the state by state voting would still be very likely to favor the Republican nominee.

My Times colleague Peter Baker summed up Mark Penn’s pro-Trump activities in a 2018 article, “Mark Penn, Ex-Clinton Aide, Dismisses Mueller Inquiry, and the Clintons Along With It”:

Penn, Baker wrote, “suggested that ‘Clinton Foundation operatives’ got the F.B.I. to investigate Mr. Trump.”

From a different angle, No Labels’ plan to nominate a “unity” presidential ticket of its own choosing would undercut the open nomination process reformers adopted more than a half century ago.

After the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention, insurgents forced the adoption of rules requiring that almost all delegates to presidential conventions be chosen through primaries or caucuses, effectively eviscerating the ability of party power brokers to pick nominees behind closed doors.

Since then, the candidates of both major parties have been selected through an arduous process of state contests, in which the candidates seek majority or plurality support in an open competition with relatively full disclosure of contributions and expenditures.

No Labels is gearing up to pick a third-party presidential ticket without the constraints and safeguards of primary elections and caucus contests.

William Galston, a Brookings senior fellow and one of the 2010 co-founders of No Labels, resigned from the group earlier this year in protest over the group’s plan to run presidential candidates.

Over Galston’s objections, No Labels began “in 2022, to explore the possibility of an independent bipartisan ticket,” Galston wrote in an email to me. Galston objected, he said, “not only because I thought this plan had no chance of succeeding, but also because I believed that anything that could divide the anti-Trump coalition was too risky to undertake.”

Ultimately, Galston continued, he decided he “did not want to be associated with a venture that I believed (and continue to believe) will increase Donald Trump’s chances of re-entering the Oval Office.”

No Labels’ core message is ostensibly a call for bipartisan cooperation so that government can end gridlock and address the problems facing the nation.

In an interview with me conducted on Zoom, Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, contended that No Labels’ in-house polling shows that an independent ticket would have a good chance of winning a majority of Electoral College votes.

According to Clancy, when voters were asked to choose between Biden, Trump and “an independent, moderate alternative,” 60 percent chose the independent alternative. “We could afford to lose 20 percent and still win the Electoral College,” he said.

Clancy defended No Labels’ decision to keep donors’ names secret, arguing that Democratic groups “have explicitly said they want to lean on our supporters” to pressure them to jump ship. “These groups are coming after us.”

Jacobson, who was also present on the Zoom interview, said that no final decision on running a third-party candidate will be made until after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 5, 2024. Sixteen states will hold primaries or caucuses that day, along with American Samoa, and the nominees of both major parties will presumably become apparent.

Jacobson said that all bets are off in the event that either Trump or Biden is defeated in the primaries or withdraws. Clancy said No Labels has acquired ballot access in 12 states, with a goal of 34 to be achieved before any nominees are picked. Ballot access in the remaining states and other jurisdictions would be up to the actual candidates to obtain.

One of the many questions facing No Labels is how the organization can select nominees without looking as if the candidates have been chosen in a less-than-democratic process by a small group of No Labels leaders.

“We have not solidified that process,” Jacobson said in the Zoom interview.

I asked Galston how decisions were made at No Labels during the years he was associated with the group. He replied:

“In my experience,” he added, “she almost always got her way.”

I asked officials of No Labels a series of questions about decision-making, finances and organizational structure. Clancy replied by email. Here are some of the questions and answers:

Is No Labels a political party?

A political party, Clancy replied, “fields candidates up and down the ballot, engages in election activity year after year and spends resources during the general election to help their nominees win. No Labels, Inc., which is a 501(c) (4) social welfare organization, does not do any of this.”

No Labels, Inc., Clancy continued, “is only doing ballot access work for one office and for one election. And if No Labels, Inc. does end up offering its ballot line to an independent unity ticket, it will not help fund or run that campaign.”

Why don’t you disclose the names and amounts given by donors? You say you want to prevent harassment, but all political parties reveal their donors. Shouldn’t the financial supporters of a movement that could elect a president or significantly influence the outcome of the next election be a matter of public record?

No Labels, Inc. was launched as a 501c4 fourteen years ago and we have never disclosed the individual names of our supporters because they have a right to privacy. Again, No Labels, Inc. is not a political party and we do not participate in elections so therefore do not have a responsibility to report our funding.

How likely is it that a No Labels ticket would prevent any candidate from getting 270 Electoral College voters, thus making it a contingent election thrown into the House?

No Labels will only offer our ballot line to a unity ticket if we believe it has the chance to win outright in the Electoral College. We believe this is possible, as we have done extensive polling and modeling in all 50 states featuring surveys of tens of thousands of voters, with representative samples from every state. This shows a potential path to victory for a unity ticket in 25 states representing 286 electoral votes.

How will the No Labels’ presidential candidate be chosen?

We are still determining the process for how we would select a unity ticket.

How many members does No Labels have? How many members pay dues and what are the dues?

No Labels, Inc. has nearly 100,000 members who either pay dues or take various actions on behalf of the organization and we have 836,504 email subscribers.

Third Way, a Democratic centrist group, is one of the leading critics of No Labels’ plans to pick a third-party presidential ticket. Matt Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, disputed No Labels’ fundamental claim that its ticket could beat both Biden and Trump:

Third Way has published at least 15 reports, commentaries and memos faulting No Labels, including an analysis of No Labels’ own polling that, Third Way contends, actually shows “Biden wins the necessary battlegrounds in a two-way race, but No Labels spoils for Trump in a three-way contest.”

In recent weeks, Democrats have escalated their attacks on the No Labels plan.

On Nov. 2, Pelosi, a former speaker of the House, told reporters “No Labels is perilous to our democracy.”

I asked a number of election experts to assess the No Labels initiative, its financing and its procedures for selecting nominees.

Didi Kuo, manager of Stanford University’s Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective, replied to my queries by email.

“While there is precedent for third-party candidates in presidential elections,” she wrote, “there is little precedent for an organization backwards-engineering a presidential ticket and agenda.”

I asked her whether No Labels should be required to register as a political party.

A No Labels candidate, Kuo continued:

Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, argued that

The failure to disclose donors has been a sticking point. I asked Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform organization, for his assessment. “In my view,” he replied, “when No Labels started qualifying in various states to be on the ballot to run a presidential candidate they were functioning as a political organization under I.R.S. law and should have registered as such under section 527 of the I.R.S. Code and disclosed their donors.”

It is, Wertheimer continued, “an oxymoron to be a nonprofit group operating under section 501c4 and at the same time operate as a political party to run a candidate for president.”

None of the experts I contacted voiced support for the No Labels endeavor, and some, especially Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, (no relation to Nancy Jacobson), were harsh in their criticism:

He went on:

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