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Opinion | Running for President Is Not a Hobby

Think I have something good to report, people. No, it’s not about how to get your kids Taylor Swift tickets in Tokyo.

My news is that Dean Phillips is not going to run as a third-party candidate for president.

“No! No!” he assured me when I asked him the big question this week.

OK, you’re thinking that you’ve had more thrilling news from the grocer on banana prices. But follow along for a minute.

Phillips is a representative from Minnesota who campaigned very energetically in the New Hampshire presidential primary. People there were a tad piqued by the Democrats’ decision to move the first official party vote to South Carolina. Despite all that rancor, Phillips, who, unlike President Biden, was on the ballot, got about 24,000 votes to Biden’s nearly 80,000 write-ins.

But he’s marching on. “Look at the data,” he said. (I discovered during our phone interview that Phillips says “Look at the data” a lot.) “I’m from the business world. It’s time to come out with a new product.”

If you want to run for president and it doesn’t look as if your party is going to nominate you, you have two real choices. You can do what Phillips is doing: keep competing in the primaries and hope voters will embrace your message. Or you can get yourself on the ballot in November as a third-party candidate.

We’ve already got several people taking that last option. So far, fortunately, they don’t exactly look like major contenders. It’s everyone from the vaccine vigilante Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to Chase Oliver, a candidate for the Libertarian line who won about 2 percent of the votes in the 2022 Senate race in Georgia.

But the third-party threat is always worrisome when it comes to messing things up, especially when elections are close. We’re still haunted by the saga of 2000, when Al Gore was pitted against George W. Bush. Ralph Nader made one of those principled third-party runs. Remember? Everything came down to Florida, which Bush won by 537 votes while Nader got nearly 100,000 — most of which would undoubtedly have gone to Gore otherwise.

Nader is now nearly 90 and he’s largely dismissed the idea of third-party challenges in 2024, and supports Biden over Donald Trump. Excellent choice. But I still haven’t forgiven him.

A while ago, Phillips sounded as if he might be taking the old Nader route. He opted instead to run in the primaries, arguing he’d be a better Democratic nominee than Biden. He’d certainly be different. While our current president is a lifelong pol, Phillips spent most of his career as a businessman, and was once a co-owner of the nation’s best-selling packaged gelato.

“Someone has to do this,” he told me when we talked about his primary campaign.

And he’s having a good time. Really good. “Oh my God, it’s the most exciting, reinvigorating, energetic and joyful experience of my life,” he said. “People have been remarkably, almost shockingly friendly.”

Send out some good thoughts to Representative Phillips, please. If only there were more people following his lead — talented Democratic officeholders like Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, or high-achieving members of Congress.

Wow — imagine the great race the Democrats could have if Biden, 81, decided he was stepping down. It’d be further evidence he was a terrific president.

So eager to remember him as a terrific president.

But if the choice winds up being Biden versus Trump, a third-party candidate could get just enough votes to screw up the outcome. “I don’t think anybody has ever won as a third-party presidential candidate,” said Bernard Tamas, an elections expert who teaches at Valdosta State University in Georgia. “Unless you count Lincoln.”

Third parties, he added, often just use running for president “as a way of forcing issues onto the table,” like the Green Party has been doing for years. The Green Party pursues important environmental causes, and that was its mission in 2016, when its presidential candidate, Jill Stein, won enough votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to cost Hillary Clinton the White House.

Leave this to the primaries. You don’t want to go down in history as the progressive candidate whose third-party run drained just enough votes from Biden to put Trump back in the White House. (Looking at you, Cornel West.)

Unfortunately, getting on a primary ballot isn’t always easy. Phillips is currently in court fighting a decision by the Wisconsin Democratic Party leaders that he wasn’t a serious enough contender to deserve a slot.

He can still get on by collecting signatures, but estimates that would cost him about $300,000. Hardly impossible for the guy who made a fortune in gelato alone, but still.

And then there are the dreaded No Labels people, who already have a slot on the ballot in several states, and might give Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia its line. Now, the idea of Joe Manchin as president is pretty terrifying, but in the real world, the most No Labels could do is take votes away from Biden.

“No Labels is a dead end,” Tamas told me. “In terms of actually changing policies, I think they’ve accomplished nothing.”

Here’s the bottom bottom line: If you hope to be president, run for a major party nomination. Otherwise, there’s always 2028.

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