I have a theory: If I were to go down Main Street in Salt Lake City and randomly ask people if they have heard of the No Labels movement, I would be lucky to get 1 in 10 who say yes. 

The same would apply to any major city, with the possible exception of Washington.

I mention that exception because, now that the movement has started to talk about the real possibility of running a third-party candidate for president next year, the Washington establishment has begun to react as if an enemy is about to invade.

People close to President Joe Biden have warned that a No Labels ticket (or a Bernie Sanders or Cornel West bid) would siphon votes away from Biden and lead Donald Trump to victory.

In Arizona, the Democratic Party sued to keep No Labels off the ballot in ‘24, claiming deficiencies in the paperwork. 

Earlier this month, a judge rejected that claim.

If the movement was inconsequential, no one would care.

No Labels (founded on the idea that politicians should put labels aside and solve problems) unveiled a 30-point list of policy positions last month in New Hampshire — at an event that tantalized political observers because it featured Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as speakers. The notion of a possible Manchin-Huntsman ticket raised the ire of Democrats.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, left, laughs as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., right, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Russia, on Capitol Hill on Sept. 19, 2017. | Alex Brandon, Associated Press
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But what if the group chooses a well-known Republican to head the ticket? Republicans would come for them just as hard, or harder, than Democrats are today.

No Labels is selling itself not as a political party, but as an insurance policy for America in ’24. The group won’t launch a ticket unless it’s clear Trump and Biden will win their party nominations again.

The premise for this is simple — most voters, they believe, do not want a rematch, and it wouldn’t be good for the country.

No Labels refers to polling it says proves its point. The firm HarrisX surveyed 9,418 registered voters in eight battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It found that 72% do not want Biden to run again and 63% do not want Trump. More importantly, 63% said they were open to an independent third-party ticket. The poll claims a margin of error of 1%.

Do the math. In all but two states nationwide, the winner of the presidential race takes home all that state’s electoral votes, even if the margin of victory is only one vote. In a competitive three-way race, the winner could emerge with just a bit over 33% of the vote.

This, for No Labels, is the good news. 

The bad news starts with my original theory. 

No Labels has been around for 13 years. It was started about the time President Barack Obama and a Democratic majority passed Obamacare without a single Republican vote. Since then, the group helped organize the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, then got senators and House members to better cooperate on key issues such as the infrastructure bill. 

But if No Labels wants to win in 2024, the group desperately needs to find a high-profile, household-name candidate. That could be a challenge, considering any current member of Congress who steps up will — unless he or she wins — be ruined in terms of party involvement.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is history. No third-party candidate has succeeded in doing much more than acting as a spoiler. Even Teddy Roosevelt, who ran a third-party bid in 1912 as a former president, succeeded only in electing Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

No Labels CEO Nancy Jacobson talks with the Deseret News editorial board at the Deseret News offices in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. No Labels National Director Joe Cunningham is next to her. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

No Labels founder Nancy Jacobson, who met with the Deseret News/KSL editorial board on Thursday, insisted the group is not interested in being a spoiler. It believes it can win.

“We are at a unique moment in time,” she said. “If we’re ever going to create power in the center, this is the moment.” 

No Labels officials are clear that they are not organizing a new party. Should they elect a president, he or she would assume office as a Republican or Democrat, whichever they were before running. 

Such a victory, as unlikely as it seems, would indeed turn politics on its head in this country. It would be a triumph for the underrepresented moderates. But obstacles are plenty.

No Labels won’t decide until after Super Tuesday whether it even wants to enter the fray. Then, success depends on many things, especially who is chosen to run at the group’s April convention. Next comes fundraising, advertising and all the things successful campaigns require, but all in a limited amount of time, and against well-heeled Republican and Democratic machines. The organization would leave most of this up to the candidates themselves. For the group, much is at stake.

Once it steps into the ring, the problem-solvers become a problem, and that could affect the group’s ability to resume its role as a force for compromises. Everything depends on an unlikely victory.