The third-party alternative

Ralph Nader is the latest in a long line of presidential candidates who have tried to buck the two-party system. What role have these mavericks played in our history?

What drives third parties?

Whether liberal or conservative, populist or separatist, all third parties share one belief: The country’s political system is broken, and only an outsider can fix it. In 1968, when George Wallace ran for president on the American Independent ticket, he thundered that there wasn’t “one dime’s worth of difference” between Republicans and Democrats. Running as a Green 32 years later, Ralph Nader told voters, “Don’t go for the lesser of two evils. At the end of the day, you end up with evil.” Historian David M. Kennedy compares third parties to the biblical prophet Jeremiah, whose divine mission was to purge the world of “sin and corruption.”

How long have they been around?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The earliest third party was the Anti-Masons, who wanted to curb the secret society’s supposedly nefarious influence on American life. In 1832 their candidate, William Wirt, won 8 percent of the popular vote against Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Among the more successful early third-party contenders were the Southern Democrats’ John Breckinridge and the Constitutional Union’s John Bell, who in 1860 won 18.1 percent and 12.6 percent of the popular vote, respectively.

Have they ever won the presidency?

No—because history is stacked against them. For more than two centuries, American politics has been dominated by two big competing ideas, represented by two parties. At the nation’s founding, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists backed a strong central government; Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored power for the states. Both parties faded in the nonpartisan “Era of Good Feeling,” which followed the War of 1812, but were reborn in 1832 with the advent of Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a Jeffersonian of an expansionist, egalitarian cast, began the modern Democratic Party. He was opposed by reconstituted Federalists, who called their party the Whigs. By 1854, the Whigs had evolved into a pro-Union, anti-slavery party known as the Republicans.

How many third parties are there?

Today, there are five officially recognized third parties on a national level: Reform, Libertarian, Green, Constitution (formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party), and Natural Law. All of these parties have qualified for a ballot line in presidential elections by getting 100,000 or more votes for at least one of their candidates in the past 20 years. Over the previous 200 years, though, there have been literally dozens of third parties.

What impact have they had?

Third parties often focus on a single main issue and force it into the mainstream of American political life. It was third parties that first pressed for emancipation, female suffrage, prohibition, and an end to child labor. Socialist Eugene V. Debs lost both his 1912 and 1920 presidential runs, but much of his platform, like Social Security, ultimately formed the basis of the modern welfare state. Before 1992, neither Democrats nor Republicans paid much attention to the runaway federal deficit. Then came the Reform Party and H. Ross Perot. Running a largely self-funded, highly quixotic campaign, the eccentric billionaire sounded the dangers of an unbalanced budget. His message was so popular that he got 19.7 million votes—19 percent of the total. Both major parties took notice and quickly began preaching fiscal responsibility. But that wasn’t Perot’s only impact.

What else did he do?

Like many third-party candidates before him, he probably changed the outcome of the election. Perot drew millions of votes away from the incumbent Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and allowed Bill Clinton to be elected with just 43 percent of the vote. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republicans to run as the nominee of the Progressive Party. Roosevelt pulled in a whopping 27.5 percent of the popular vote, splitting the GOP and costing incumbent William Howard Taft the presidency. Taft got just 23.2 percent, and the Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson, won with 41.9 percent. In the historic election of 2000, Ralph Nader played a similar spoiler role, and Democrats now blame him for handing the White House to George W. Bush.

Is that really true?

The numbers would certainly support that view. Nader probably cost Gore the electoral votes of 11 states where the margin between the Democratic and Republican candidates was razor thin. In Florida alone, Nader won 97,488 popular votes. Bush ultimately was deemed the winner of that state by 537 votes. A national exit poll by the Voter News Service found that if Nader hadn’t run, 47 percent of his voters would have gone for Gore, and 21 percent for Bush.

What usually happens to third parties?

If they don’t disappear outright, they’re generally co-opted by their competitors. More than a million people voted for the Populist candidate, James B. Weaver, in 1892. A decade later, the Populists barely existed: Republicans and Democrats alike had stolen many of their planks, including railroad regulation, direct election of senators, and the 40-hour workweek. In 1924, Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette ran as the Progressive candidate on an anti-corporate, pro-labor platform. Come the Depression, New Deal Democrats absorbed his remaining followers. In 1968, Richard Nixon recognized George Wallace’s appeal to working-class whites who feared urban unrest and rising crime. Exploiting those anxieties in 1972, Nixon convinced many of Wallace’s acolytes to vote Republican. He won re-election in a landslide. As Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Richard Hofstadter put it, “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s last charge

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.