If one were to tailor make an election perfectly crafted to buoy the prospects of alternative parties, the 2016 election would be pretty close to that model. Both of the major parties ran candidates that were unpopular among large portions of the electorate. There was allegedly a vast "anti-establishment" sentiment among voters.1 The Libertarian Party had two prominent former state governors heading up their ticket. The Green Party got a lot of press as a result of some rather ill-founded speculation about whether Senator Bernie Sanders would jump to their ticket after losing the Democratic Party nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The only thing that would have made this election riper for a third party surge would have been if the economy was in a recession, and despite the constant bleating from the right that the economy was somehow in sad shape, it was actually doing pretty well in 2016.
When the time came to vote, the Libertarian Party ticket garnered just over 3% of the popular vote, and the Green Party ticket had about 1% of the popular vote. This is better than they performed in 2012 when the Libertarians got about 1% of the vote and the Greens got about a third of a percent, but this isn't anywhere close to being a factor in the election.2 Neither of these campaigns managed to get to the magical 5% total that would have resulted in matching federal funds for the 2020 election.3 One also has to consider that these results were generated under almost ideal conditions for third party success. This is realistically the best that third party candidates can hope to do in a U.S. election. This is, in a figurative but very real sense, the ceiling for third parties in our current system.
The reason third parties won't work in the U.S. is due to the structure of U.S. elections. The U.S. uses what is called a "first past the post" system for most elections.4 This means that to gain any representation in an election, you need to obtain more of the votes cast than anyone else. Because members of the House of Representatives and Senators are elected from specific regions (Congressional Districts for Congressmen, and States for Senators), you have a collection of small elections, each of which must be won by garnering more of the the vote in those regions. U.S. Presidential elections are actually a series of mini-elections conducted in each State, and one must win more of the vote than any other candidate in each one to win them. You technically don't need to win a majority of the votes to win such elections, but you probably need to get close. This reality pushes political parties to try to muster a coalition that can aspire to encompass at least fifty percent of the total vote.
There are other voting methods used in other countries: Some places use ranked choice voting, where voters can list a number of candidates in their order of preference and then those choices are worked through as lower vote generating candidates are eliminated from contention. Under this system, for example, someone who favored the Green Party candidate could vote for them first, but rank, for example, the Democratic Party candidate second, so if the Green candidate didn't get sufficient votes to win, their vote would work to prevent a Republican victory. This would mean that people wouldn't be concerned with "throwing their vote away" and could vote for third parties as their first preference. This doesn't eliminate the fact that one would need to garner the most votes in order to win and election, but it does mean that third parties might be able to gain more support than they do now, as people might feel freer to support them knowing that their second preference would serve as a backup.
Another voting method is proportional representation, which can be used as a means of selecting a legislature. A modified version of this system is used in Germany (the German system is actually far more complex than that, but to detail it fully would take a lot of time). In this method, the voter selects a party, not a candidate, and when the votes are tallied, the available seats are distributed to the parties in proportion to their share of the vote. So if the Democrats got 45% of the vote, and the Republicans got 45% of the vote, they would each get 45% of the available seats. If the Libertarians got 5% of the vote, they would get 5% of the seats, and so on. This would mean that the small number of people who were interested in a third party would have representation in the legislature. It would be a small number of legislators, but they would likely be important in deciding who had the majority. This system wouldn't really work for electing a President, and wouldn't make sense for the Senate as it is currently constituted, but it could make third parties viable in the House of Representatives - although we would have to completely redefine exactly who Representatives actually represent. One might also note that even in such systems, the result is generally two-coalitions at odds with one another, with minor shifting between them in the middle.
Even though alternative voting systems are possible, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will continue to use first past the post voting to decide its elections. This system almost inevitably drives the politics into a two-faction system. To have a chance at winning elections, you have to be able to reliably obtain 50% of the vote. Any party that does not will find itself forced to either expand its ranks to include sufficient voters to have a reasonable shot at getting to that mark, or they will wither away to fringe status in short order. This is exactly what has happened the handful of times that U.S. politics has seen third party candidates show signs of life.
The Election of 1860
In the early 1850s, the Whig Party, which had been the primary opposition party to the Democratic Party, collapsed. Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore were Whigs, as was John Tyler, although Tyler was expelled from the party over political disagreements during his presidency. The last Whig presidential canddiate was Winfield Scott, who ran in 1852.
By the time the 1860 election rolled around the Republican Party was well-established, and can't really be considered a "third party" in any meaningful sense. The Republican Party held a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives, and held the second-most seats in the Senate. The party also held thirteen of the thirty-one Governorships in the country. It was at this point that the party nominated Abraham Lincoln to run as its candidate for President.
The fourth candidate was John Bell, who was nominated by the Constitution-Union Party, an organization formed out of the shreds of the Whig Party that had not migrated to the Republican Party, and held as its guiding principle "The Union as it is, and the Constitution as it is". The party tried to simply ignore the slavery issue and instead focused on anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. As the oldest candidate in the field, Bell wasn't really interested in campaigning much, and seems to have been hoping for no one to receive enough electoral votes to claim a majority and have the election go to a vote in the House of Representatives, where he thought his propects as a "compromise candidate" would make voting for him an attractive option.
The key issue here is that there were very few places where there was a real three-way contest, and those were mostly either smaller states like California, or border states like Missouri and Kentucky. In most states, two of the candidates were completely non-competitive, and the race was really between the remaining two. This wasn't a four candidate horse race, it was three two candidate contests. I suppose a third party could try to follow this model, but it would have to focus on an issue that was of intense interest to a particular region of the country. The reason the Republicans dominated the northern states, and the southern Democrats dominated the southern states was that the country was riven by the issue of slavery, with the border states stuck literally in the middle.
On a further note, by the time elections were held again with a reconstituted Union in 1868, the Democratic Party was a single unit again, and the Constitution-Union Party had vanished, its members having been mostly absorbed into the Republican Party. As I said before, multi-party situations in the U.S. political system are essentially inherently unstable, and will generally quickly collapse back to two parties in relatively short order.
The Election of 1892
By 1896, the Populist Party had effectively merged with the Democratic Party, as William Jennings Bryan ran as the candidate nominated by both parties. Bryan's campaign featured the famous "Cross of Gold" speech, but despite his eloquence, he lost to McKinley. Although the Populist Party was technically still and independent entity in 1900, they once again joined with the Democrats to nominate Bryan for President. By 1904, the Populist Party had been fully absorbed into the Democratic Party, and Bryan ran for the presidency a third time, but this time as just the Democratic Party's nominee. This is, in general, one of the almost inevitable fates of a third party in the U.S. political system. They can either grow big enough to supplant an existing party and become one of the two parties, whither away to irrelevance, or get coopted and absorbed by one of the existing two major parties. The Populist Party was absorbed by the Democrats, which transformed the Democrats into a party oriented towards farmers and factory workers.
The Election of 1912
On the Democratic side, a contentious and deeply divided convention required forty-one ballots to select Woodrow Wilson as their nominee, but they didn't fracture into competing factions like the Republicans had. This proved to be a smart move, as the general election turned into a landslide victory for Wilson in which he garnered 435 electoral votes, while Roosevelt mustered only 96, and Taft won a mere 8.
The election of 1912 is an almost textbook example of why third parties don't succeed in the United States. At first glance, Wilson's victory seems overwhelming, but when one looks deeper into the numbers, one discovers that it was far less convincing than it seems. In fact, one can make the case that Wilson only won because his opponents split the vote. Had the Republicans not divided and run two competing candidates, and instead united behind one banner, the results would likely have been very different. If one combines the votes that went to Taft with the votes that went to Roosevelt, one finds that twenty-five of the states that Wilson won would have been won by a unified Republican candidate instead5. Those twenty-five states accounted for 260 of the electoral votes that Wilson won. Switching those votes to a unified Republican candidate and adding the electoral votes Taft and Roosevelt won yields a Republican total of 356 electoral votes to Wilson's new total of 175. Instead of a landslide Democratic victory, the election would have resulted in a landslide Republican victory.
|Robert La Follette|
As a final point, one might note that by the 1916 election, the Progressive Party had shrunk to irrelevance, with most of its members, including Roosevelt, being absorbed back into the Republican Party. In 1924, a revived Progressive Party that incorporated some of the Socialist Party that had been limping along in obscurity nominated Robert La Follette for the Presidency, and he secured 16.6% of the popular vote, but only managed to carry one state: Wisconsin. Calvin Coolidge, running on the ticket of a Republican Party that had evolved from the trust-busting days of Roosevelt into a much more pro-business organization, won a landslide victory. By 1928, the Progressive Party was gone.
There wasn't another serious third party candidate until 1968. Even the much ballyhooed run by Strom Thurmond as a Dixiecrat in 1948 only resulted in the candidate winning 2.5% of the popular vote.
The Election of 1968
The Republicans, on the other hand, held a straightforward convention and nominated Richard Nixon, who ran on a "law and order" platform. This was a stark contrast to the chaos of the Democratic convention, and the choice to make the "law and order" policy intended to comfort the heartland into the flagship of the campaign was not an accident. This was the election in which Nixon first employed the "Southern strategy" of appealing to Southern voters upset over the passage of civil rights legislation in the previous few years, although the strategy didn't pay off very well, with the segregationist George Wallace winning most of the Southern states.
The election resulted in a convincing win for Nixon in the electoral college, although the popular vote was a nail-biter, with only a 0.7% difference between Nixon and Humphrey. Wallace came in a distant third in the popular vote, with 13.5% of the total compared to 42.7% for Humphrey and 43.4% for Nixon. Like most third party candidates who have had any success, Wallace was an intensely regional candidate. Although he was on the ballot in all fifty states, he only had meaningful support in the pro-segregation states from the former Confederacy, winning Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. This seems to be one of the ways that a third party candidate can make inroads - if there is an issue that is of paramount concern in a particular region, they can win votes by running on that one issue. This more or less worked for the southern Democrats and the Constitutional-Unionists in 1860, and the Populists in 1892, and now Wallace in 1968. This doesn't seem to be a winning strategy though, and all of the parties that have adopted this strategy have either withered away or been coopted by one of the two major parties in relatively short order. The American Independent Party, for example, collapsed into irrelevance by the 1972 election where it gained 1.4% of the popular vote. It has never recovered.
The Elections of 1992 and 1996
|H. Ross Perot|
Perot's campaign alternated between moments of brilliance, and an almost benign incompetence. In the debates with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Perot did quite well. Many states require a candidate for President to name a Vice-Presidential choice to get on the ballot, and Perot chose his friend Admiral James Stockdale as an interim choice. Unfortunately, Perot never revisited that decision, and Stockdale did quite poorly when he appeared for a Vice-Presidential debate, at one point absent-mindedly turning off his hearing aid. Perot abruptly pulled out of the race in July, and then just as abruptly returned at the beginning of October. When he tried to explain why he mysteriously withdrew, Perot related a story about how "Republican operatives" were planning on disrupting his daughter's wedding. When combined with revelations about his fear that the Black Panther Party was going to assassinate him, Perot began to be seen as a somewhat unbalanced conspiracy theorist.
When the final results of the election rolled around, Perot gained 18.9% of the popular vote, but his support was thinly spread enough that he won no electoral votes. Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush with 43% of the popular vote, which translated to a convincing 370 vote to 168 vote electoral college victory. One interesting footnote here is that despite winning more than 5% of the popular vote, since he wasn't running as the representative of a party, his success didn't make any new group eligible for matching federal funds in the subsequent election.
Perot ran again in 1996, and this time he had organized an actual political party named the Reform Party. Although Perot had little difficulty obtaining the Reform Party nomination, there was some controversy associated with it as supporters of former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado accused Perot of rigging the selection in his favor and walked out of the convention to form their own party named the American Reform Party. This is one of the perennial problems with creating a stable third party: It seems that people who are willing to split from the major parties over relatively minor differences tend to also be willing to split from embryonic third parties over relatively minor differences. Perot did less well in 1996 than he had in 1992, winning only 8.4% of the vote.
That 8.4% number is important, because it means that the Reform Party met the 5% threshold to qualify for matching federal funds in the 2000 election. Pat Buchanan ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, and unfortunately for third party proponents, finished with 0.4% of the popular vote, behind even Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's total of 2.7%. By the 2004 election, the Reform Party was effectively defunct. The important point here is that getting access to federal matching funds is not the panacea that third party advocates seem to think it is. Getting matching federal funds will not alter the realities of U.S. elections and allow a third party to avoid the effectively inevitable fates that third parties face: They are either coopted by existing parties, or they whither to irrelevance. There has not been a meaningful third party candidate since the 1996 election, and there is no real prospect that there will be one in the near future.
Some third party advocates may take heart from this recounting of the effect of third parties on U.S. elections over the last one hundred and fifty years. They should not. From 1860 to now, there have been 40 presidential elections. Out of those forty, a third party candidate has had a meaningful impact in at most seven of those elections, and the number is only that high if you count campaigns like those of H. Ross Perot in 1996 and James Weaver in 1892 as being meaningful. Until U.S. elections are fundamentally changed, no third party will be able to establish itself for any substantial length of time, or have more than a moderately fleeting effect on elections.
1 This has been widely reported. To be fair, I seriously question how much actual "anti-establishment" sentiment there actually was. Yes, Trump won the presidential election, but those same voters kept the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and Senate, voting to retain the overwhelming majority of legislators. The elections seems to me to have been not so much an "anti-establishment" election as it was a "conservative backlash" election.
Random Thoughts Home