Third party (United States)

From Academic Kids


In the context of the United States' political system, a third party is any political party organized in at least some states, other than the two current leading parties, which since the time of the American Civil War have always been the Democratic and the Republican parties.


History and first-past-the-post context

The most significant reason for America's being a two-party system is its predominant (almost exclusive) use of a first-past-the-post voting system. In first-past-the-post, also known as winner-take-all (or plurality-take-all), the candidate with the largest number of votes wins, even if the margin of victory is extremely narrow or the proportion of votes received is not a majority. Unlike in proportional representation, runners-up do not gain any representation in a first-past-the-post system. Under a pure proportional representation system, if a party won 21 percent of the votes, it would receive 21 percent (at least roughly) of the seats in the legislature; in a first-past-the-post system, a party could receive 21 percent of the votes (or even, theoretically, 49 percent of the votes) and zero seats in the legislature.

Because it is possible in a first-past-the-post system for a candidate to win with only a plurality, voters have a powerful incentive to vote for one of the two candidates with a chance of gaining the greatest number of votes, even if neither of those two candidates is the voter's preferred candidate. Hence, any third party will have a difficult time gaining a foothold under a winner-take-all system. Friedrich Engels asserted in 1893 that the problem workers' parties had in America was "the Constitution . . .which causes any vote for any candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties to appear to be lost. And the American - - - wants to influence his state; does not throw his vote away." (Both quotations are from Continental Divide, S. M. Lipset, pg 201.)

Successful third party or independent candidates rarely go on to found a durable alternative political party but instead tend either to retire from office relatively quickly (Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, Gov. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, Gov. James Longley of Maine) or to affiliate formally with one of the two major political parties (Mayor John Lindsay of New York, Senator James Buckley of New York, Congressman Thomas Foglietta of Philadelphia) or informally (Congressman Bernard Sanders and Senator James Jeffords of Vermont).

The United States Supreme Court has recognized the importance of third parties in American history. As Justice Black wrote in Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23, 39 (1968):

In our political life, third parties are often important channels through which political dissent is aired: "All political ideas cannot and should not be channeled into the programs of our two major parties. History has amply proved the virtue of political activity by minority, dissident groups, which innumerable times have been in the vanguard of democratic thought and whose programs were ultimately accepted. . . . The absence of such voices would be a symptom of grave illness in our society." Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250-251 (quoting the opinion of Warren, C. J.).

This recognition has been echoed by a longtime Pennsylvania legislator who has been an opponent of legislative obstacles to third party ballot access, State Representative Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, who said "Third parties can be a vital escape valve for political energies when they put forward a bold and relevant challenge to existing party politics, but history shows that the major parties respond with candidates, programs and policies that successfully compete with the appeal of the third parties. Third parties are one of the oldest ideas in American politics that seem perennially new to their proponents."

Comparison with systems in other countries

There are other first-past-the-post countries which have more than two parties, the United Kingdom, Canada, and India being examples, but those nations are parliamentary systems with extremely tight party discipline. If the party in government in India, Canada, or the United Kingdom were to lose a vote it would be taken as a no confidence vote, the Cabinet would resign, and new elections would be called. Maintaining the government is so important that if an individual legislator voted against his party leadership he almost certainly would be expelled from his party and not renominated.

By contrast, American legislators have traditionally had wide discretion to vote as they or their constituents please. A Democrat representing a rural area can be pro-life and anti-gun control; a Republican representing a suburban district can be pro-choice and pro-environment. Thus, even though there are only two parties represented in most American legislatures, there are hundreds of shades of opinion.

In America, if an interest group is at odds with its traditional party, it has the option of running sympathetic candidates in primaries. Thus, in America, factionalism is generally accommodated through intraparty contests involving the electorate. (Ibid, 205)

By contrast, parliamentary nations do not generally have primaries; candidates are chosen by the central party. Since there is no voter choice of party nominees, dissatisfaction can only be accommodated by the creation of new parties.

Describing Canada, the American political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset said in 1990

Whenever a section, class, ethnic group, or province finds itself in basic conflict with its traditional party allegiance, it can either go over to the other major party - with which it may be in even greater disagreement on other issues - or back a third party . . . the Canadian system encourages the transformation of political protest movements, of social movements, of discontent with the dominant party in one's region other other aspects of life into third, fourth, or fifth parties. (Ibid, 204-5)

As examples, in Britain, when union members became dissatisfied with the Liberal Party in the early 20th century they had no other realistic choice but to found the Labour Party. In Canada, when rightists in mostly the Western provinces were dissatisfied with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, they had little choice but to found the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, which later evolved into the Conservative Party of Canada. Norman Thomas, describing the Socialist party in a way that would be accurate for all third parties, lamented in 1963, "had we in the United States had a centralized parliamentary government rather than a federal presidential government, we should have had, under some name or other, a moderately strong socialist party." (Continental Divide, 206)

It is also worth noting in the context of third parties in first-past-the-post parliamentary systems that voters in those countries still usually face binary choices in the voting booth. In Canada, Britain, and India it is local voting strengths that enable the third parties to successfully challenge in individual districts to the point where they can gain voters from one of the two main parties by being the main local alternative to the other. Many of India's small parties compete only in certain states and, similarly, it can be said that Canada no longer has any truly national parties. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats and Labour frequently make agreements not to run against each other in districts where the Conservatives might win with a plurality. (see Duverger's Law)

Other obstacles to success by Third Parties in the U.S.

Aside from the mechanics of first-past-the-post, the presidential system, and the use of primaries, third parties are further hurt by restrictive ballot access laws the force them to spend the bulk of their resources just to get on the ballot. Such obstacles include the requirement in several states that third party candidates obtain thousands of signatures of registered voters in order to get their candidates listed on the ballot. If they manage to get on the ballot, third party candidates are often not allowed to participate in debates, and they are not likely to have as much money as the major party contenders. Even if would-be third party candidates can survive the process of getting on the ballot as independents, in many states it is also quite difficult for any party other than the two major ones to be officially recognized by state election authorities as a legitimate political party, and they may face party registration thresholds or other requirements that make it difficult-to-impossible for a party to retain such recognition once it is granted.

However, even in states which have liberal ballot access laws, and even for small races like for state legislature, it is exceedingly rare for third parties to win elections. Of over 8,000 state legislators, at any given time fewer than ten are from third parties, and most of those representatives typically come from Burlington, Vermont. American Socialist Party leader Morris Hillquist said in 1910 that America's presidential system has a role in hurting third party chances even further down the ticket.

In the United States the ticket handed to the voter contains the names not only of candidates for state legislature or congress, but also for all local and state officers and even for President of the United States. And since the new party rarely seems to have the chance or prospect of electing its candidate for governor of a state or president of the country, the voter is inclined in advance to consider its entire ticket as hopeless. The fear of 'throwing away' the vote is thus a peculiar product of American politics, and it requires a voter of exceptional strength of conviction to overcome." (Ibid 202)

Because of the difficulties third parties face in gaining any representation, third parties tend to exist to promote a specific issue or personality, often an issue which either or both of the major parties may eventually end up co-opting. As a counterexample, H. Ross Perot eventually founded a third party, the Reform Party, but he apparently intended it to exist solely as a vehicle to support himself and his agenda and never intended it to field any Congressional or gubernatorial candidates. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt made a spirited run for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, but he never made any efforts to help Progressive congressional candidates in 1914, and in 1916 he supported the Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes.

The last third party to win electoral votes in a presidential election by carrying a plurality of the vote in some states was the American Independent Party in 1968, though a "renegade" elector gave a vote to the Libertarian Party in 1972. The last candidate not affiliated with either of the major parties (though not yet a member of a third party) to win a major portion of the popular vote was independent Ross Perot, who won 18.87% of the popular vote in the 1992 Presidential election.

There have been few third party governors in the past few decades. The last was Jesse Ventura, a member of the Reform Party and later the Minnesota Independence Party, who governed Minnesota from 1999-2003.

One way in which third parties can influence elections in certain jurisdictions in the United States (notably New York state) is through electoral fusion.

Third Parties as tools of major parties

A growing trend in US elections is for a major party and its supporters to help a third party with the idea of taking votes that would otherwise be likely to go to the other major party's candidates. This is the classic "divide and conquer" tactic. The idea is that if a third political party normally pulls far more voters from one major party than the other, the other major party can benefit by the third party doing well in the election. Currently in the US, the Green Party is viewed as pulling more from the Democratic Party than the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party is viewed as taking more votes from the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.

Advocates of third parties generally object to the notion that votes are "taken away" by third parties, because the phrase "taken away" misleadingly suggests that the two major parties have a propriety ownership interest in voters' votes. See the discussion below, concerning "wasted" votes.

In 1992, some political observers attributed the "success" of Ross Perot and his Reform Party for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's defeat of incumbent Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush. In 2000, the victory of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush over incumbent Democratic Vice President Al Gore for the US Presidency was widely attributed to the "success" of Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party's ticket.

In 2004, fearful of Nader's potential as a so-called "spoiler" who might garner votes that would perhaps otherwise go to the Democratic ticket, Democratic Party operatives made a concerted effort in many states to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot and were successful in several states. Even where they did not succeed in keeping Nader off the ballot, Democratic operatives working to keep Nader off the ballot often succeeded in draining resources from the Nader campaign, which had to struggle against the Democrats' legal challenges and other anti-Nader tactics. By the same token, it was reported that in certain states Republican backers helped get Ralph Nader on the ballot in 2004. Nader ran in 2004 as an independent candidate and sought to stress his independence from any political party, although he accepted the nomination of the Reform Party (and this nomination gave him ballot access in several states, including Florida); in some states where ballot access for an independent presidential candidate was more difficult than forming a new political party, Nader's 2004 campaign formed the "Populist Party" in order to get his name on the ballot.

Some political analysts believe that the tactic of a major party supporting a third party might be a cost-effective one in that the party seeking to benefit from this tactic would have a far more difficult and expensive task trying to pull voters favoring the other major party, to their own candidate, than attracting those voters to a third party candidate. For example, people who vote for Green Party candidates are viewed as generally being more left than the Democratic Party. If this is true, then those who might vote for a Green Party candidate would likely never vote for a Republican candidate no matter how much money the Republican candidate spent courting them. However, if supporters of a Republican candidate were to donate to the Green Party candidate, the Green Party candidate might attract voters who might otherwise vote for the Democratic candidate, thus weakening the Democratic candidate in the final election and thereby improving the chances of the Republican candidate to win the election. Conversely, supporters of a Democratic candidate might assist a Libertarian Party candidate to defeat a Republican Party candidate. It should noted that the theoretical scenario involving Republican Party campaign contributions to a Green Party candidate is largely counterfactual, as Green Party candidates tend to reject funding they view as contrary to their principles or values. Thus, most Green Party candidates and most Green Party organizations in the United States refuse to accept funding from corporations or political action committees, etc.

Another way major parties can use third parties to their advantage is by helping a third party candidate run against the opposing incumbent party's candidate when that incumbent doesn't have a candidate from the other major party running against them in election, for example, a Green Party or Libertarian Party candidate running against an otherwise unopposed Democratic Party incumbent or a Libertarian Party or Green Party candidate running against an otherwise unopposed Republican Party incumbent. The most common reason why a major party doesn't run a candidate against the other party's incumbent is because the major party believes there's no chance one of their candidates can defeat the incumbent, or because no one files in the other major party's primary since the consensus is that the party will spend no resources, or almost no resources, against an entrenched incumbent who is nearly certain to win. The out-of-power (for that office) major party then doesn't run a challenger to not waste resources and personnel on an election they cannot win as well as prevent their party from publicly losing to the other major party. The reason for helping such a third party candidate in such an election is to force the incumbent candidate to run at least some measure of a campaign thus tying up volunteers that might go to help another candidate run for office from that same incumbent party as well as getting the incumbent to raise campaign money thus taking donations for their campaign that might have gone to another candidate of that same incumbent party. In the military, this tactic is called "tying up reinforcements" or "diverting reinforcements".

Third Party voting is and isn't a wasted vote

The most common argument against voting for a third party candidate has been that one's vote is "wasted" in that one's vote for a losing candidate won't count for anything, whereas the same vote cast instead for a candidate who is the "lesser of two evils" and who has a chance of winning might help that lesser-evil candidate win the election. In 2000 and 2004, Democratic supporters commonly told potential voters for Ralph Nader that a vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for Republican George W. Bush. This statement is false in that a vote for a third party candidate will not increase the vote total of any other candidate.

But in another sense, the statement is both true and false. It is true IF a voter who didn't vote for a third party candidate would have then voted for a major party candidate. Note the capitalized "IF" in that sentence. There is a great deal of debate whether that "IF" is true. It might be just as likely, or even more likely, that the voter would not have voted at all if there had not been a third party candidate to vote for. Saying it is true, in this instance, such a vote could be viewed as wasted. However...

It is false in that the more votes a third party receives, the more attention incumbent parties pay to the campaign issues being advocated by that third party. This isn't an "IF" situation since history bears this out. In 1992, Ross Perot's main "gripe" (as he said) was the growing national debt and the budget deficit. After 1992, many political analysts say both incumbent parties paid special attention to this issue and the result was the temporary reduction in and then elimination of deficit spending and actual reductions in the national debt for a brief period. Such a vote for a third party is then viewed as an indictment of both incumbent parties that neither is going a good job on certain issue(s) to the point where voters reject both and vote for a third party candidate. Given this, a vote for a third party can be viewed as a delayed vote for change, not affecting the immediate outcome of the current election but affecting the incumbent parties after that election as they try to address the reason why voters voted for a third party in the last election, attempting to garner the supporters of third party voters who see this issues being addressed in an attempt to influence these voters to return to or join the major party that did address those issues in the next election. A prominent historical example is the presidential election of 1892, during which the Populist Party (otherwise known as the People's Party) achieved massive success by U.S. third party standards, picking up 22 electoral votes and 8.6 percent of the popular vote. After the 1892 election the Democratic Party adopted many of the Populist Party's positions, so many in fact, that the Populist Party nominated the same candidate as the Democrats in the 1896 presidential election (essentially marking the end of the Populists as a separate party). The Populist Party was able to do this using the process of electoral fusion. In 1992, Ross Perot campaigned telling his supporters to "send a message" to the incumbent parties about the national debt and budget deficit, which apparently was heeded, at least temporarily. If the case for the "delayed vote" can be made to the public by third parties, third parties might be able to change their "spoiler of elections" image to a "force for change" image.

Notable Presidential elections


The Free Soil Party, advocating stopping the spread of slavery into the lands acquired from Mexico during the Mexican War, nominates former President Martin Van Buren for President. Van Buren wins 10% of the vote, helping swing the election to Zachary Taylor.


The Republican Party, barely two years old, runs a strong campaign for the Presidency, its nominee John C. Frémont coming second and sweeping aside the remains of the old Whig Party which had fallen apart amidst divisions on slavery.


Abraham Lincoln is elected president, causing the formerly third party Republicans to permanently supplant the Whigs as one of the nation's two major parties. The Republican Party is considered to have been the most successful third-party movement in United States history.


James Baird Weaver runs as presidential candidate for the Populist Party. The Populist Party garners 22 electoral votes and 8.6 percent of the popular vote. The Democratic Party, despite losing the election, adopts many Populist Party positions after this election, making this contest a prominent example of a delayed vote for change.


Republican Theodore Roosevelt runs on a Progressive Party ticket in the 1912 election and garners more votes than Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, who becomes the first (and to date, only) incumbent President seeking reelection to finish third. (Former Presidents Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore both finished third in the 19th century, but neither was the incumbent President at the time.) The split in the Republican vote propels Democrat Woodrow Wilson to victory with 42% of the popular vote, but 435 electoral votes.


Erstwhile Republican Robert M. La Follette runs as a Progressive. He captures 17 percent of the popular vote and wins his home state of Wisconsin.


Strom Thurmond runs on the segregationist Dixiecrat Party ticket in the 1948 election, splitting the Democratic vote and winning 39 votes in the electoral college from Southern states. Former Vice President and Cabinet Member Henry Wallace also challenges for Democratic votes by running for the Progressive Party and receiving 2.4% of the popular vote, though no votes in the electoral college. Despite both challenges Democratic incumbent Truman still defeated Republican Dewey in what was widely regarded at the time as an upset.


George Wallace of the American Independent Party runs in the 1968 election. Wallace captures 13% of the popular vote, receiving 46 electoral votes in the South as well as many votes in the North. Republican Richard Nixon wins the election with 43% of the popular vote and 301 electoral votes.


Republican Roger MacBride casts his electoral vote for John Hospers and Toni Nathan of the newly formed Libertarian Party. This is the first electoral vote received by a woman. John G. Schmitz, the American Independent Party candidate claims 1.5 or 1.1 million votes.


Ross Perot (not affiliated with any party) wins almost 19% of the popular vote (though no electoral votes), possibly helping Democrat Bill Clinton to win the Presidential election with only a 43% plurality of votes.


In the 2000 Presidential election, George W. Bush wins the deciding state of Florida by fewer than 600 votes. Some Democrats accuse Green Party candidate Ralph Nader of having cost them the election, and in discussion of strategies for the U.S. presidential election, 2004 both parties weigh the costs to the Democrats of another Nader presidential run.

Current U.S. third parties

Various other minor parties are given in the list of political parties in the United States.

External links

  • Third Party Watch ( - Frequently updated source for third party news.

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