Third Parties in Presidential Elections

In our winner-take-all election system dominated by Republicans and Democrats, a third party candidate has little chance for victory when seeking the White House. Historically, it is rare for third party candidates to poll above 1% in the popular vote and even rarer to receive electoral votes. Typically they are viewed as refuges for the more “radical” leaning voters and, at best, vehicles for bringing major party attention to a particular issue or platform. Perhaps more derogatorily, they are sometimes viewed as “spoilers,” the most recent example being some Democrats’ claim that Ralph Nader’s run with the Green Party and his vote margin in Florida (debatably) tilted the infamous 2000 election in George W. Bush’s favor. Overall, however, third party candidacies for the presidency and their impact/success within federal lever elections are typically viewed as negligible by a large majority of studies.

Several incidents in post-World War II elections, however, seem to indicate that given specific circumstances, a third party with a focused strategy can achieve influence and success in a presidential election beyond miniscule poll numbers. I will analyze the candidacies of Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, John B. Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in both 1992 and 1996 as post-World War II historical examples of exceptional third party success (albeit short of victory) measured by attention, popular vote ,and/or electoral vote. Could the factors that allowed for an exceptionally large vote return for these candidates align again, potentially with even greater success? By examining the factors, situations, and strategies that led to their respective accomplishments, I hope to determine if these are simply outlying exceptions brought about by unique issues of their times or if there is possibly a correlation that can be drawn from their election climates and strategies to those of today.

Additionally, since the likelihood of outright electoral victory for a third party in the presidential election is considered remote, what role do they serve in actuality? Can they truly be called a “spoiler” if they did not, in fact, impact the margin of votes for a particular party? Are major third parties (ex. Libertarian Party, Green Party) really drawing “radical” voters? Finally, are their party/candidates’ goals limited to bringing attention to a solitary issue, being satisfied if it is incorporated into a major party platform?

The role and impact of third parties in presidential elections fascinates me as our American election system is simply not set up to allow third parties much achievement at the federal level. Yet, they continue to fund and front candidates every four years to throw their hat in the ring with Republicans and Democrats, many of their nominees originally members of one of the two major parties. As free elections are a cornerstone of American democracy, I am eager to analyze this angle of them as I feel it is both unique and important. Who does not love an underdog story?

Aaron W. Brown

North Georgia College & State University 

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3 Responses to Third Parties in Presidential Elections

  1. katelynnoellee says:

    Hello Aaron! A very interesting topic! I’m curious, have you thought about how you are going to operationalize “attention” in your research yet? Can’t wait to hear more about your project!

    • aaronwbrown says:

      To define and measure “attention” I plan on looking at the amount of media coverage the candidate received, polls indicating name recognition, their participation in debates, etc. Thanks for your interest in my topic!

  2. Hi Aaron—this sounds like a really interesting project! As a proud South Carolinian, I’ll be especially interested to hear what you learn about Strom Thurmond and his States’ Rights run. Good luck with your research!

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