What is the history of "third parties" in the United States?

In many countries around the world, there are several political parties, but in the United States there are only two that are consistently competitive in elections. Why is this the case? And what are the prospects of a third party emerging, such as the Reform or Green Party, that is competitive with the Democratic and Republican Parties? Have third parties ever been successful in American history?

The American system is commonly called a "two-party system" because there have historically been only two major political parties with candidates competing for offices (especially in federal elections). The first two political parties had their origins in the debate over the ratification of the Constitution--the Federalists and Antifederalists. Today, the Republican and Democratic Parties dominate electoral politics. Almost every federal or state-level elected official in the United States is either a Republican or Democrat. In fact, in the United States Congress, there is only one member in the House of Representatives that is not a Republican or a Democrat--Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is an Independent. Every other House member and Senator belongs to either the Democratic or Republican Party.

The American two-party system is the result of the way elections are structured in the United States. Representatives in the Congress and in state legislatures are elected to in single-member districts where the individual with the most votes wins. Because only one party's candidate can win in each district, there is a strong incentive for political competitors to organize themselves into two competing "teams" or parties. By doing so, party members and their candidates maximize their chances of winning elections. (In some countries where there are multi-member districts, parties that win smaller percentages of the vote can often win legislative representation. Consequently, in such systems, there is an incentive to form smaller "third" parties.) Other features of the American system of elections, such as campaign finance rules, the electoral college and rules giving party candidates ballot access further solidify the two-party system in the United States.

The same features of the American system that have encouraged a two-party system also serve to discourage the emergence of third parties. When third parties have emerged in American political history, their successes have been short-lived. In most cases, the issues or ideas championed by third parties have been "stolen" by the candidates of one of the two major parties. Sometimes the issue position taken by the third party is even incorporated into the platform of one of the existing parties. By doing so, the existing party generally wins the support of the voters that had been the support base of the third party. With no unique issues to stand on and depleted voter support, third parties generally fade away.

Notwithstanding their lack of staying power, a handful of third party presidential candidates have had a significant impact on electoral outcomes. The table below summarizes the fortunes of major third party presidential challenges in U.S. History. (Third parties have never made a significant bid for control of either the House of Representatives or the Senate. In fact, only a handful of individuals from outside one of the two major parties have served in the Congress.)

YEAR

PARTY

CANDIDATE

VOTE%

ELECTORAL VOTE

OUTCOME in Next Election

1832

Anti-Masonic

William Wirt

7.8%

7

Endorsed Whig Candidate

1848

Free Soil

Martin Van Buren

10.1

0

5% of the vote, absorbed by Republican Party

1856

Whig-American

Millard Fillmore

21.5

8

Dissolved

1860

Southern Democrat

John C. Breckinridge

18.1

72

Dissolved

1860

Constitutional Union

John Bell

12.6

39

Dissolved

1892

Populist

James B. Weaver

8.5

22

Absorbed by Democratic Party

1912

Progressive

Teddy Roosevelt

27.5

88

Returned to Republican Party

1912

Socialist

Eugene V. Debbs

6.0

0

Won 3% of the vote

1924

Progressive

Robert M. LaFollette

16.6

13

Returned to Republican Party

1948

States' Rights

Strom Thurmond

2.4

39

Dissolved

1948

Progressive

Henry Wallace

2.4

0

Won 1.4% of the vote

1968

American Independent

George Wallace

13.5

46

Won 1.4% of the vote

1980

Independent

John Anderson

6.6

0

Dissolved

1992

Reform

H. Ross Perot

18.9

0

Won 8.4% of the vote

1996

Reform

H. Ross Perot

8.4

0

Did not run

2000

Reform

Ralph Nader

2.7

0

Ran Next election

2004

Green

Ralph Nader

1.0

0

--

While Ross Perot's showing in 1992 amounted to the best finish by a non-major party candidate in a presidential election since Teddy Roosevelt won 27.5% of the vote in 1912, Perot's Reform Party has failed to emerge as a unified, viable contender. As noted in the table, Perot finished a with a disappointing 8.4% of the vote in 1996. Things have declined so badly for the Reform Party in 2000 that the candidate authorized to call himself the "real" Reform Party presidential candidate is the subject of bitter internal party strife. Pat Buchanan, the best known Reform Party candidate, is unlikely to win more than two or three percent of the vote in November. In fact, polls suggest that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is likely to win more votes than Buchanan.

What does the future hold for the Reform Party, the Green Party and other "third parties" in the American system? Quite probably, the same fate that has befallen third parties that have come before them. One or both of the two major parties is bound to "steal" their issues, incorporate them into their platforms and absorb their supporters into their ranks. In fact, the declining success of the Reform Party is due in large part to the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats have taken up the core issues championed by Ross Perot in 1992--balancing the budget and reforming the federal government. The Reform Party, consequently, no longer holds an obviously unique position on the issues that attracted so many voters in 1992.

If the Green Party manages to win a significant number of votes in November, history (including the recent history of the Reform Party) tells us the most likely outcome will be for one of the two major parties (almost certainly the Democratic Party) to adopt the Greens' policy positions to win the support of Green Party voters.

In American political history, third parties have served the important purpose of refocusing the two major political parties on issues they have ignored or dealt with ineffectively. Rarely, however, does a third party manage to emerge as one of the major parties by knocking an existing one off its roost. The prospects of that happening in 2000 are almost non-existent.

Additional Resources

Selected "Third Party" Web Sites

Other Sites of Interest