While US history has seen the rise and fall of a few major political parties, the current big two — Democrats and Republicans — have enjoyed a long stretch of dominance. But there are signs that things may be different in 2024.

Institutions in general are struggling. As the book “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam pointed out at the turn of the millennium, fewer and fewer Americans were joining clubs, churches, or other community groups, including political parties. This has only accelerated in the two decades since he wrote the book. In 2022, unaffiliated voters in North Carolina, for the first time, came to outnumber voters registered with the two main parties.

This disaffiliation from the major parties has also made voters more willing to consider voting for candidates in third parties. In October 2023, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “The Republican and Democratic parties do such a poor job that a third major party is needed,” Gallup found a record 63% of American adults agreed. In 2003, shortly after Putnam wrote his book, only 40% agreed. A strong majority of 56% at that time thought the two major parties were doing an adequate job.

Breaking the numbers down further, it gets even more interesting. Unsurprisingly, the group most likely to want a viable third-party option was independents, typically called unaffiliateds in North Carolina, with 75% of them agreeing.

More surprisingly, Republican voter support for third-party options has shot up in recent years, almost tripling from around 20% when the poll started in 2003 to 58% now. Democrats have remained fairly stable, typically in the 40s or low 50s, according to Gallup.

Since the American electoral system is a “first-past-the-post” system, whoever has the most votes wins (even if it’s not a majority). That has incentivized right-leaning interests to gather around Republicans and left-leaning interests around the Democrats, because if there were more than one major option left of center, that would advantage the Republicans, and vice versa. This leads party bosses to accuse any alternative party that emerges on their side of the ideological spectrum of being a “spoiler” — a convenient but generally accurate description.

But what if the major candidates are so despised that spoiling their chances becomes a badge of pride? A Dec. 14 Associated Press poll found that 58% of Americans would be dissatisfied with Donald Trump as the GOP nominee and a similar 56% would be dissatisfied with Joe Biden on the Democratic side. So instead of being afraid of the “spoiler” label, third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr explicitly says he’s in the race to “spoil” it.

Who he appears to be spoiling it for though depends on the day and the pollster. On Dec. 13, a Reuters/IPSOS poll showed Trump leading Biden head-to-head 38% to 36%. And when Kennedy was added, his 16% swayed the race further towards Trump, who (at 36%) only lost 2% to Kennedy, while Biden (at 31%) lost 5%.

Via MSNBC’s Morning Joe

But a month earlier, a Quinnipiac poll found the opposite, that Kennedy helped Biden by pulling more from Trump voters. In that poll, Biden was on top with 39%, Trump close behind with 36%, then Kennedy (not as far behind as one would think) with 22%. Those are the highest poll numbers for a third-party presidential candidate in 32 years, since independent Ross Perot ran in 1992 and received 19% of the popular vote.

In even worse news for the two major parties, the Quinnipiac poll showed Kennedy leading outright among voters 18-34, winning 38% support to Biden’s 32% and Trump’s 27%. A New York Times/Sienna poll released days later also found Kennedy winning young voters outright but had his votes helping Trump rather than Biden.

Nov. 5, 2023, NYT/Sienna poll

Democrats also have far-left professor Cornell West (running as an independent) and Dr. Jill Stein (running as a Green Party candidate) to worry about. Republicans will likely have the usual Libertarian and Constitutional party candidates. But none of those, including Kennedy, appear to worry the major parties as much as a potential ticket put together by the group No Labels.

If Kennedy seems to be pulling about equally from populists from the left and right, No Labels is pulling from the moderates of both the Democratic and Republican parties — think the “Mavericky” John McCain-types who present themselves as being willing to work across the aisle to get things done.

And No Labels has drawn the biggest aisle-crossers of recent years from both parties, including Democrats like Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and former Gov. Pat McCrory from here in North Carolina.

In a recent press call to NC media, McCrory and other No Labels leaders said they were making progress in getting on the ballot in various states to prepare for a potential ticket. They said they would only run if Biden and Trump were the two candidates and if they saw a path to victory — both of which they said looked likely.

There is also the Forward Party, started by former Democratic presidential primary contender and businessman Andrew Yang. The party has a similar vision as No Labels, and Yang confirmed to Politico in September that he has had a number of conversations with No Labels. He side-stepped giving a direct response to whether the two groups would work together or if the discussions involved him being part of any eventual ticket, simply saying they “have a lot of friends and people in common.”

So the field will likely have two unpopular major party candidates (Trump and Biden), a candidate for dissatisfied populists of the left and right (Kennedy), a candidate for dissatisfied aisle-crossers of the left and right (No Labels), and the usual third parties of the left and right (Greens, Libertarians, Constitutionalists). How that all shakes out in the end is anyone’s guess, but it’s bound to be one for the history books.