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Are Americans ready for an alternative choice in this year's presidential election?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Majorities of voters in both the major political parties tell pollsters they are not looking forward to a potential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in this year's presidential election. But does that mean voters are ready for someone from a third party? To get into that, I'm joined now by Joe Cunningham of South Carolina. He served one term in Congress as a Democrat. He is now the national director of No Labels. That is a centrist group that is working on gaining ballot access for a third-party challenger in the presidential race. Good morning.

JOE CUNNINGHAM: Hey. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: All right, so let's take a look at the New Hampshire results. Trump won as expected. But Nikki Haley took home - what? - something like, you know, 43, 44, 45% of the vote. And also, Joe Biden was not on the ballot, but he still won as the write-in. So what do those results tell you, if anything, about the appetite for someone else?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, it still exists. If anything, it's just growing. You talk to everyday Americans. I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. Two-thirds of Americans aren't happy with these presumptive nominees. Now, things could change, obviously. But as it stands now, Americans want another choice. And that's why No Labels has been engaged in gaining ballot access across the country, to be prepared to offer a ticket line to a bipartisan ticket if Americans want it.

MARTIN: But, you know, the polling does show that Trump still has strong support among most Republican voters nationwide. You know, you yourself are a Democrat. You're a former Democratic representative. What do you say to your colleagues who say that, look, a third-party candidate would just get Trump reelected?

CUNNINGHAM: I would categorically reject that. First of all, he doesn't have strong support among the majority of Republicans. Our numbers and a lot of numbers out there indicate that his strong people, you know, as far as, like, the folks who are with Trump, regardless, is more like 20%. It's not majority. And I think some people make the mistake of believing that just because somebody doesn't like Trump, they're automatically going to line up for Biden. And I don't think that's true either. I live in South Carolina. I live with a lot of great people who do not like Trump but may end up voting for him because they dislike Biden as well.

MARTIN: Well, but they have a choice in South Carolina. They've got the former governor, and she's not doing well there in her own home state. So you look at that, and you think, well, Trump's support seems pretty solid.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, let's not confuse just the Republican primary with the general electorate, either. And I think it's important to note that you can't really tell how this ticket will impact it until we know exactly who's on the ticket. I mean, in a lot of ways, it's like complaining about the food before it even comes out of the kitchen.

MARTIN: OK, so your group has been touring the country talking to voters, representatives of your group. What's your message, and what are you hearing?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, again, we're not running a campaign. We're simply trying to gain ballot access. So there's running a campaign on one side where you have identified candidate. And then on the other side, there's things like voter registration drives and gaining ballot access. These are tenets of our democracy. These are constitutionally protected rights. And we have certain groups and certain people who aren't happy with us trying to give Americans another choice, and they're trying to attack us. And I would push back. I would push back strenuously on those people.

MARTIN: I understand, but, you know, you've got two major donors for No Labels who have filed a lawsuit claiming that your party, the group, pulled a bait and switch by asking for donations to prep a third-party candidate that has yet to materialize. So what do you say? I mean, you can't beat somebody with nobody. So what do you say to that?

CUNNINGHAM: Have you read that lawsuit?

MARTIN: I confess I have not.

CUNNINGHAM: It's incredibly frivolous. It's unbelievable that somebody actually filed it. I'll tell you what's going to happen. You know, we're going to move to dismiss that. We're going to be successful like we've been successful in fighting off lawsuits. Like, in Arizona we're able to get attorneys fees and other states as well. I mean, look, there's - there is a coordinated attack among certain groups that do not want Americans to have another choice. Again, I'm a lifelong Democrat who fought for voting rights, and there are a lot of Democrats who say they're against gerrymandering, and then they'll engage in gerrymandering their own district. I believe there's something to be said about consistency. I think that's what people hate about politics.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, but it seems to me that the history shows that third-party candidates have drawn voters from the people who they actually are closest and most compatible to. I mean, the argument here - Ralph Nader drew votes from Al Gore, and Ross Perot drew votes from the Republicans, and then you wind up electing the very person you're most distant from. I mean, and as a Democrat, I guess I'm going to ask you, you can honestly say you don't have that concern.

CUNNINGHAM: So how can you say it's going to draw people away from a certain candidate when you don't even know who is going to be on the ticket, or if the ticket's going to be nominated? You can't say it's going to draw from one person to another without even having names. If we're being intellectually honest with each other, which I think your viewers would appreciate, you cannot determine that until you determine who's on the top of the ticket and where it draws from.

MARTIN: And how is that going to be determined?

CUNNINGHAM: We're in the process of determining it now. We're - we have been assessing this election to see who the presumptive nominees will be. And if Americans want another choice, you know, after Super Tuesday, we're going to make that decision.

MARTIN: All right. That is former Democratic Congressman Joe Cunningham of South Carolina. He's now the national director of the centrist group No Labels, which, as we said, is working to gain ballot access for a third-party candidate. Mr. Cunningham, I guess we're going to be talking again.

CUNNINGHAM: Looking forward to it. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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