America is a firmly entrenched two-party system. Arguably, the closest it has become in the post Civil-War period to becoming a Three-Party system was with the rise of the Populist Party (officially the ‘People’s Party) between 1892 and 1896. The Party had 9 elected Governors, 6 Senators and multiple Congressmen. However, its party was subsumed by the Democrats and their success was short-lived.
However, Third-Party and Independent candidates can still have a major influence in the US political system
So, who are the most significant Third-Party and Independent candidates of the twentieth century?
Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
Theodore Roosevelt was US President from 1901 to 1909. At this time there was nothing to stop him running for a third-term, however, he was conscious of not turning the role of President into that of dictator. Rather than run in 1908, he decided to groom Howard Taft to run instead. Taft won the 1908 election in convincing fashion.
However, four years later, Roosevelt had grown frustrated with the policies of his successor. Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft in the Republican Primary in 1912, but Taft survived to gain the Republican nomination.
Roosevelt then made the dramatic decision to found a new party called the ‘Progressive Party’ and ran as a Third-Party candidate. He went on to win 27% of the vote, more than Taft with (23%). This severely damaged Taft’s campaign and allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the election with a huge victory in the Electoral College.
George Wallace (1968)
In 1968 George Wallace ran as a candidate for the American Independent Party. Wallace had been Governor of Alabama, a state in the Deep South, that had been pro-segregation. Wallace did not expect to win the election. However, under the Constitution if no candidate gets a majority then the election is thrown over to the House of Representative. As the video below by CGP Grey shows, this could have some interesting results.
If Wallace had been able to prevent a majority in the electoral college, he may have been able to negotiate with either Nixon or Humphrey to secure a position in the new government. As it turned out, Nixon won the election convincingly. However, Wallace became the last third party candidate to win votes in the electoral college, as he carried five of the Deep South states.
Ross Perot (1992)
Ross Perot is an American billionaire businessman who ran in the 1992 election as an independent candidate. Perot ran on a clear message that the deficit needed to be dramatically cut. His message resounded with voters – at one point he was leading both Bill Clinton and George H.W Bush in the polls. In the election, Perot won 19% of the vote, but did not do well enough in any particular state to win any electoral college votes. Perot ran again in 1996 as the candidate for the Reform Party, but won only 6% of the popular vote.
Perot is remembered for his insurgent campaign and is a good example of the impact that independent candidates can have, even if they do not win. He refocused the election very much on the economic situation. This did not play to Bush’s strengths, which, with the fall of USSR and the First Gulf War, was Foreign Policy. Clinton was better able to sell himself on the economy than Bush, leading to moments like the below, which is famously nicknamed “The Clinton Debate Moment”.
Ralph Nader (2000)
Ralph Nader is a author, academic and lawyer who ran as the nominee of the Green Party in the 2000 Presidential Election.
Nader was on the Ballot in 43 states and won 2.7% of the vote and 2.8 million votes.
The 2000 election was one of the most infamous in History , it was eventually settled by the US Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. The election came down to Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes. In Florida, George W. Bush was eventually determined to have won by 537 votes in Florida, 0.009% of the electorate . In Florida, Nader won 97,488 votes. Given Al Gore’s pro-environment position, it has long been suggested that Nader took votes that would naturally be Gore’s and therefore he gained a reputation as a ‘Third-Party Spoiler’. This is hard to truly verify, however, it is a potential example of the influence that Third Party candidates can have.
Are Third Party and Independent Candidates really significant?
It is extremely unlikely that a Third Party or Independent Candidate will win the Presidency in the United States. However, this does not mean that they cannot be extremely influential:
1. They can split the vote of a party
This happened in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote. There were suggestions that Bernie Sanders may run as an Independent in 2016, after losing the Democratic Primary. This would certainly have split the Democratic vote. There was also a danger of Evan McMullin splitting the Republican vote in his home state of Utah when he ran in 2016. In the end, McMullin finished behind both Trump and Clinton in Utah.
2. They can change the focus of the debate
This happened in 1992 when Ross Perot shifted the focus of the election firmly onto the economy. Had Foreign Policy been the focus on the election, incumbent President George H.W Bush would have had a major advantage.
3. They can raise issues
Sometimes, third party candidates can bring focus to an issue that would otherwise have not played a major role in the campaign.
4. They are the most likely reason for a non-majority in the Electoral College
Although there is a chance that two candidates could both win 269 votes, therefore resulting in the House of Representatives choosing the President, the most likely scenario for this happening involves a Third Party of Independent Candidate winning enough electoral college votes to stop an election. Indeed, one of the occasions that the House has chosen the President was in 1824 and because of a split of electoral college votes between three or more candidates.