By Jarrett Renshaw
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Facing a likely choice between Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential race, many Americans are desperate for younger, less divisive options.
A large and potentially consequential market for third-party candidates - one not seen since the 1990s - is a stark reminder that in Trump and Biden, the two major parties are likely to nominate unusually unpopular candidates.
Their potential rematch of the 2020 election comes as the nation grapples with economic anxiety, a sharp political divide, a controversial U.S.- backed Israeli assault on Gaza and widespread calls for a new generation of U.S. leadership.
Some 63% of U.S. adults currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” of representing the American people that “a third major party is needed," according to a recent poll by Gallup. That is up 7 percentage points from a year ago and the highest since Gallup first asked the question in 2003.
Biden and Trump both face primary challengers but are expected to emerge as their party's candidates in 2024, despite deep concerns over Biden's age and Trump's string of federal and state criminal indictments.
No third-party candidate has won a modern U.S. presidential election, although they have at times played outsized roles as spoilers by taking votes from major party candidates.
In 1992, billionaire businessman Ross Perot captured 19% of the vote, arguably swinging the White House to Democrat Bill Clinton over incumbent George H.W. Bush.
Political activist Ralph Nader won less than 3% support in 2000 but took enough votes away from Democratic candidate Al Gore in Florida to give George W. Bush victory in the state, and with it the White House.
Now a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and scion of the Democratic dynasty who launched an independent presidential bid in October, could capture 20% in a three-way contest with Biden and Trump.
Kennedy is backed by the "American Values 2024" SuperPac, which has raised more than $17 million for his bid from several deep-pocketed donors, including a former Trump backer.
American Values 2024 on Tuesday hosted an event aimed at Black and Latino voters in downtown Manhattan that drew about 40 people, including several who could not identify Kennedy's core policies, but said they valued his disruptive potential.
"We've been looking for a rebel since Barack Obama. We thought he was a rebel, then we thought Bernie Sanders was a rebel. Then we thought Trump was a rebel. Now, we know, of course, RFK is a rebel," said Larry Sharpe, a former Libertarian candidate for New York governor, who attended the event.
Both parties have expressed concerns about a Kennedy bid. Democrats fear his famous last name and pro-environment, anti-corporate policies will resonate with some of their voters. Republicans fear his anti-vaccine talk and popularity on conservative platforms could draw some of their support.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll and others have showed Kennedy drawing fairly equally from Republicans and Democrats in a three-way race. However, Democrats are not taking anything for granted.
"Our overall take is anything that divides the anti-Trump coalition is bad. And so any option that you offer voters who simply can't vote for Trump, other than Joe Biden, is problematic," said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the center-left Democratic group Third Way.
Tony Lyons, cofounder of American Values 2024 told Reuters Kennedy shouldn't be considered a danger to just Biden or just Trump. "He's a danger to a corrupt two party system that isn't doing things to help the people in this room," Lyons said at the Manhattan event.
Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said: "Polls show President Trump absolutely crushing Joe Biden even with other candidates present, both nationally and in battleground states."
The Biden campaign declined to comment, leaving third-party criticisms to outside groups like Third Way worried an outsider bid could hand the election to Trump.
'PEOPLE WANT BETTER CHOICES'
While cash is flowing to third party options, Biden and Trump are raising even more. The president and his allies pulled in $71 million in the last quarter and Trump raised $45.5 million.
No Labels, a third-party political group, has already raised $60 million for 2024 and has qualified for the ballot in 11 states, including the battleground states of Arizona, Nevada and North Carolina - without a candidate in place.
"We've been trying to get the pulse of the electorate for the last two years and it keeps telling the same story, which is people want better choices," said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist with No Labels, a bipartisan group mounting its first presidential bid after a few years of lending support to moderates in Congress.
The group has been courting former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who recently announced he will not seek re-election to the Senate.
Asked if he is considering a White House bid, Manchin on Wednesday told NBC News: "I will do anything I can to help my country."
Clancy said No Labels plans a nominating convention in April and will select a presidential ticket if a Biden-Trump rematch appears inevitable and if it believes its candidates can win.
Other third-party candidates are seen as less of a threat. Cornel West, a philosopher and Black social leader, is also running as an independent and hopes his brand of in-your-face progressive politics will influence the 2024 debate.
Jill Stein recently announced that she will once again run for the White House as a Green candidate. Both West and Stein are expected to receive a negligible share of the vote and struggle to get on state ballots.
In a recent interview with ProPublica, Biden was asked about his former Democratic colleague Joe Lieberman's work with No Labels to identify and support a moderate, third-party candidate. Biden noted that Lieberman has the democratic right to do it, but added: "Now, it's going to help the other guy, and he knows (that)."
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Deepa Babington)