Third Parties in American Politics

The electoral system in the United States works against a proliferation of political parties. This fact has not prevented minor parties or independents from running for office at the local, state, and national levels, however. In the 1992 national election, for example, 23 candidates ran for president. Third parties are created for a variety of reasons, and they have had an impact on American politics.

Splits within the Republican and Democratic parties

Third parties often represent factions that break away from the major parties over policy issues. These breakaway third parties have been the most successful in terms of gaining popular and Electoral College votes. In 1912, former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt ran for the White House for the Bull-Moose party against Republican incumbent William Howard Taft. Opposed to Harry Truman's civil rights program, Strom Thurmond bolted the Democratic party in 1948 and became the candidate of the States' Rights party. Similar concerns led George Wallace of Alabama to run for president in 1968 under the banner of the American Independent party.

Farmer-labor parties

The Populist party (also known as the People's party) was formed by unhappy farmers, Western mining interests, and Southerners. It won a number of seats in Congress and won electoral votes in 1892. The Populists supported the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896, effectively committing political suicide. The coalition between farm and labor groups was revived by the Progressive party in 1924.

Ideological and one-issue parties

Ideological and one-issue parties may cover both ends of the political spectrum. In the presidential elections between 1904 and 1920, the Socialist party's candidates received between 400,000 and 900,000 votes. More recently, the most influential "party of ideas" is the Libertarian party, which links social liberals and economic conservatives into an alliance against government activism in all spheres of life. Although seldom successful at winning office, the party has been growing steadily; candidate Harry Browne appeared on the ballot in every state in the 2000 presidential election. In addition, political parties are formed around single issues — the American party (also known as the Know-Nothing party) campaigned for an end to immigration to the United States in the 1850s, and the Prohibition party, which ran candidates well into the 1950s, opposed the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

H. Ross Perot's 1992 campaign revealed the potential power of an independent candidate with a strong base of financial support. His success in winning about 20 percent of the popular vote in 1992 neither produced comparable support in the Electoral College nor changed the results of that year's election. However, Perot's campaign had a significant impact on American politics because it forced President Clinton to devote greater attention to the nation's budget deficit, one issue that Perot had used to great advantage. As with most third parties, Perot's movement fell apart after the major parties started co-opting its issues. Perot's "United We Stand" organization paved the way for the Reform party, but it was taken over in the 2000 election by right-wing supporters of Patrick Buchanan, a candidate whose only clear common ground with Perot was opposition to free trade.

Ralph Nader's Green party candidacy attracted many fewer votes in the 2000 election than Perot did in 1992, but ultimately may have had more impact. It is hard to say exactly how many Nader supporters would not have voted if he had not been in the race. But Nader's liberal profile certainly drew more votes from Vice President Al Gore than from Texas Governor George W. Bush, and it is quite likely that this opposition from the left cost Gore enough votes to swing the election. Nader is probably the first third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 to have won enough votes to affect the outcome of a presidential election.

Why third parties fail

People typically vote for a third-party candidate because they are trying to send a message to the major parties. That protest vote is often heard. Both the Democrats and Republicans have accepted reforms and programs that originally seemed radical when presented by third parties. The eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, and the railroad rate regulation are good examples. Historically, third parties eventually fail to maintain themselves at the local and state levels, usually because one of the major parties skims off their talent by embracing some of the issues that party supporters hold dear. The Populists, Progressives, and Socialists succeeded for a time in winning local and state elections, and even some congressional seats, but their numbers were too small to have a dominating influence. Third parties lack the financial resources to mount effective campaigns. Today, the cost of running for office is staggering. The two major parties consolidate their dominance of the political system by staging high-profile primaries and national conventions subsidized by taxpayer money. They exclude third-party candidates from most debates, especially those for national office. Although he held around 5 percent support in the polls, for example, Ralph Nader could not participate in the 2000 presidential debates. Indeed, he was not even allowed to sit in the audience, despite possessing a ticket!