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Leaked Audio Shows No Labels Has Zero Idea If It’ll Find a Candidate

There was a lot of palaver about how courageous and patriotic they all are. But if you listened closely, there were also admissions that the way forward is very murky.

Joe Manchin and Jon Huntsman on a stage
John Tully for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman at the “Common Sense Town Hall,” an event sponsored by the bipartisan group No Labels, on July 17, 2023.

The centrist group No Labels held a vote of delegates Friday and announced plans to move forward in seeking candidates for a third-party presidential run. Multiple news organizations have treated this as a significant event, reporting that the group’s intent to run a third-party ticket is very much alive and forging ahead.

But audio of the call on which the vote was held suggests another interpretation may be more accurate: The group really has no idea whether it will be able to move forward at all. It still appears stuck in the same position as before: No serious candidates appear interested, and there’s no sign that this is changing, at least not yet.

Audio of the call was provided to The New Republic by Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the Democratic-centrist group Third Way, who obtained it from one of the 640 or so delegates who participated. Third Way, along with a coalition of other groups, has warned for months that a No Labels ticket would be most likely to siphon votes away from President Biden, meaning it would function as a spoiler that could help Donald Trump win.

The contents of the call offered nothing to dispel this fear. The call consisted of No Labels party members from numerous states, each reporting on what members in their states and regions were thinking and feeling. While many of these local leaders said there’s a lot of enthusiasm for a No Labels run, some of them reported that members are wary of functioning as a spoiler.

For instance, a No Labels leader in Idaho said that while members are all for a run, they believe the ticket should “only” be offered to a candidate who has a “reasonable path to succeed and not be a spoiler.” A leader in Iowa said the candidate must be “strong” and have “the ability to win.”

Many others echoed these sentiments. At one point a party member from New Hampshire said, “We are in it to win it. But we also don’t want to look like liars when we’re telling people that we’re not going to be a spoiler.”

No Labels’ public position, of course, is that it will only field a ticket that does have a path to victory. It hopes for a unity ticket—with a presidential candidate from one party and a vice presidential candidate from the other—and swears it has no intention of functioning as a spoiler that helps Trump. But thus far, a parade of candidates who might plausibly mount a real candidacy have declined, including former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Most recently, Nikki Haley ruled out accepting the group’s ballot line.

What was striking about this call was how deeply a lot of these party members have bought into No Labels’ hype. One leader after another repeated, almost robotically, the idea that a No Labels candidacy would be a true act of heroism that could only rescue the country from the alleged horrors of having to choose between Biden and Trump.

“We have to do this for our country,” one official enthused. “You could be making history,” another one said, adding that this effort takes “a lot of courage.”

Biden, of course, has at times governed in a bipartisan way—which No Labels says it prizes. And there’s a vast asymmetry at play here, in which Trump poses a severe threat to our democracy and our country, and one major party is his willing accomplice in this regard, even as Biden and Democrats pose no such threat.

But No Labels simply refuses to accept this basic state of affairs. And there was no sense on the call that party members have seriously grappled with what it means that one side poses that dire threat while the other does not, or whether that creates an obligation for No Labels to be particularly cautious in proceeding. Instead, there was a lot of self-congratulatory talk about the group’s own bravery.

At the end of the call, No Labels’ national convention chair Mike Rawlings said it’s essential for the group to “see a pathway to the White House.” He acknowledged: “We don’t have a candidate. And it’s possible in the end we won’t find a suitable candidate.”

“All of the prominent candidates approached by No Labels have refused,” Bennett of Third Way told me. “That’s because it’s clear that their ticket is a road to nowhere. No serious person wants to end up in the single digits nationally while helping Trump win.”

It’s certainly possible that No Labels will find a real candidate. But nothing on this call provided grounds for thinking that it’s likely.