Political Parties in the United States

Third Parties in the United States

Third Parties in U.S. History

Though the U.S. political system has been dominated by two major parties, third parties have played significant roles at various points in U.S. history. Third-party ideas can be adopted by the major party and turned into policy, and third-party candidates have impacted several presidential elections.

The term third party is used to describe a political party that competes with the two major parties in a two-party system. In the United States, because of the dominance of the Democrats and Republicans, the term is often used to signify a minor party. Even though third parties lack the power and prominence of the two major parties, they have played a significant role in the country's political history and in several national elections.

In the 1840s and 1850s, before the Civil War, two minor parties—the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party—were active opponents of slavery. In 1854 elements of both groups joined with former members of the Whig Party to form the Republican Party. In its initial political campaigns, the Republicans strongly favored preventing slavery from spreading to new territories, and Republicans were the driving force behind the amendments to the U.S. Constitution that ended slavery, gave citizenship to all African Americans, and gave African American males the right to vote.

One of the most influential third-party movements was the Populist Party of the late 19th century. The Populists, largely supported by western and southern farmers, pushed for reforms aimed at promoting more democratic government and curbing the power of corporations. The Populists pushed for creation of a graduated income tax, government control of the railroads, increased reliance on silver rather than gold to back U.S. currency, and the direct election of senators. Populist candidate James B. Weaver captured more than one million popular votes and 22 electoral votes in the 1892 presidential election, and Populists won several state and congressional offices that year. While the party faded, some of its goals were adopted by others during the Progressive era, a period between the 1890s and 1920s characterized by widespread social activism and zeal for political reform. Some of those goals were realized through the passage and ratification of Progressive-era amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Progressive Era Constitutional Amendments

Amendment Year Ratified Provision
16th 1913 Granted Congress the power to levy a graduated income tax
17th 1913 Provided for the direct election of U.S. senators, rather than their election by state legislators
18th 1920 Prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages (repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment)
19th 1920 Established women's suffrage across the United States

Sometimes third-party candidates play the role of "spoilers," altering the result of an election that, in a third party's absence, might have taken another course. Such was the case with Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican president who ran as the Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party candidate for president in the election of 1912. Roosevelt's popularity allowed him to win more than a quarter of the popular vote that year. Roosevelt's support came largely at the expense of incumbent president William Howard Taft and had the effect of enabling Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, to win the presidency with only 42 percent of the popular vote. The presidential elections of 1968 and 1992 were also influenced by strong third-party candidates. In 2000 Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, won only 2,858,843 popular votes, but analysts think most of his votes came at the expense of Democrat Al Gore. The 97,488 votes that Nader won in Florida may have tipped the election to Republican George W. Bush. Bush captured the state by a thin margin of 537 votes, and due to that victory gained 271 electoral votes—just one more than needed to win the presidency.

Notable Third-Party Candidates for President, 1912–2008

Candidate Party Year Popular Vote % of Popular Vote Electoral Votes
Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 1912 4,119,207 27.4% 88
Eugene Debs Socialist 1920 913,693 3.4% 0
Robert LaFollette Progressive 1924 4,822,856 16% 13
Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat 1948 1,169,021 2.4% 39
George Wallace American Independent 1968 9,906,473 13.5% 46
John Anderson Independent 1980 5,719,437 6.6% 0
Ross Perot Independent 1992 19,741,6567 19% 0

Types of Third Parties

Third-party campaigns can be regional or national in focus and can be based primarily on ideology or on the appeal of a particular candidate.

Third-party campaigns have come in various forms. Some have represented regional or sectional interests. The Republican Party began in the 1850s as a regional party of the northern and western states. It only became more of a national party after the Civil War. The Populists of the late 19th century were largely a regional party, with support in the South and the Great Plains states. Another regional-based third party was the Dixiecrats, a pro-segregation party that broke away from the Democratic Party in 1948 when its convention adopted a platform supporting civil rights. The Dixiecrats nominated South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. While Thurmond won only 2.4 percent of the popular vote nationwide, his votes were concentrated in the South, enabling him to win five Southern states—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee—and capture 39 electoral votes. Similarly, former Alabama governor George Wallace mounted a renewed anti-civil rights third party in 1968 that won 46 electoral votes, all in the South.

To have a chance to succeed in a presidential election, third parties need to be more national in focus. These national efforts can take two forms. Some third parties are ideological, supporting a particular set of issues, as was the case with the Populists. In the early 20th century the Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs for many years, advocated radical transformation of the U.S. economy to curb corporate influence and give more power to workers. In the 21st century the Green Party promotes environmentalism and social justice, and the Libertarian Party favors limited government and individual rights.

Some third-party efforts are focused less on ideology and more on the appeal of a charismatic leader. Roosevelt's run to regain the presidency in 1912 reflected both his reform-minded agenda and his personal appeal. Similarly, H. Ross Perot, a successful business leader, had a strong third-party candidacy in 1992 and 1996 based largely on his appeal as a common-sense leader who could end the bickering of politicians from the two parties and solve pressing national problems. Perot's success—winning nearly one out of every five votes in 1992—underscores the difficulties that national third-party candidates face. Whereas Thurmond won 39 electoral votes with only 2.4 percent of the national vote because he had a strong regional appeal, Perot won zero electoral votes despite taking 19 percent of the popular vote.

Barriers to Third Parties

Third-party campaigns have difficulty challenging the two parties' grip on power due to institutional and political barriers, including difficulties being listed on the ballot, gaining media attention, and raising money. In addition, the system of simple majority elections in single-member districts favors the two major parties.

The small vote totals of most third-party candidates do not necessarily accurately reflect support for those candidates. Certain institutional and political barriers make it very difficult to mount a third-party candidacy. This is particularly true in presidential elections, in which candidates must campaign across the country and where huge amounts of money are needed to compete effectively. These barriers include:

  • Ballot access laws: State laws regulate the conditions under which a candidate or political party is entitled to appear on voters' ballots. Those laws are made by legislators belonging to the two major parties, who may cooperate to make it difficult for third-party candidates to even be listed on the ballot.
  • Media attention: Media outlets may give scant attention to third-party candidates, which hampers their ability to get their message out to voters.
  • Debate participation: When media outlets stage debates between candidates for a political office, they always invite the two major-party candidates to take part. They may not invite third-party candidates, if those candidates are perceived to have very little support—or if the major party candidates refuse to participate if they are allowed. Without access to the free media coverage that debate participation entails, the third-party candidates are hampered in their ability to present their message to voters and potentially win more support.
  • Money: Political campaigns are expensive. Major party candidates benefit from receiving funds from the party treasury or from donors who traditionally support candidates of a given party. Third-party candidates do not have an equivalent party structure or donor base, making it difficult for them to raise the vast sums needed to fund a strong campaign. Wealthy third-party candidates, such as Perot and Michael Bloomberg, who was twice elected mayor of New York City, usually fare better than candidates without vast personal wealth.
  • Cooption of third-party ideas: Sometimes one or the other of the major parties adopts the ideas of a third party when those ideas have strong popular appeal. No longer the sole advocate of the proposed new policy, and hampered by its minority status, the third party can lose support.
  • Single-issue focus: Third-party campaigns that focus on just one issue have difficulty mustering the broad voter support needed to win a campaign.

In his 1951 book Political Parties, French sociologist and politician Maurice Duverger formulated what is commonly referred to as "Duverger's Law"—that single member districts decided by plurality voting rules will result in two parties dominating elections. As he put it, a "simple majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system." By this argument, two factors push politics to a two-party system. First, smaller third parties are likely to join together in an effort to boost their chances of victory since they need to win the support of as many voters as possible. Second, smaller parties gradually disappear due to lack of support since voters—who see little likelihood in their victory—refuse to vote for them on the grounds that doing so is wasting their vote. Duverger argued that electoral districts with multiple seats that are awarded based on proportional representation rather than plurality tend to support multiparty politics. Political scientists have analyzed elections in many countries and have conflicting views on the validity of Duverger's model. Nevertheless, it does seem to reflect the reality of U.S. House elections and in state legislatures.