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American third parties 2020

Mike McCartney

14th October 2020

Who are they, and what's their role? And don't forget Kanye!

I came across an interesting feature on the BBC News website today on third party candidates in this year’s race for the American presidency.

The USA is the classic example of a two party system. In other words, only two main parties realistically have the opportunity of grasping the main levers of power. At a national/federal level, that means control of the legislative branch (the bicameral Congress consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate) and, of course, the main prize, the White House. In recent years American politics has been dominated by the regular interchange of incumbency of these parts of the federal government by the Republicans and the Democrats. In fact, two parties, or factions have more or less dominated US politics since the country’s foundations. Going back to the 1780s, the argument then over the future shape of the new nation’s government was between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. This is not a history lesson, so there is no time to go into great detail on what happened in-between, but suffice it so say, that the names of the two rival groupings changed, even though the basic principle remained in place. But what we should bear in mind Is that the last person to break the two party stranglehold and take the White House as a third party candidate was Lincoln in 1860. If we drill down, this picture is pretty much replicated at all layers of government in the USA. The Democrats and Republicans occupy most of the governor’s mansions, occupy almost all of the seats in the 50 state legislatures, city councils, mayors’s offices and so forth. You can more or less take it as given that your local dog catcher (or the other half a million or so elected office in the United States), if there via the ballot box, is there under a Democrat or Republican banner.

The reasons for the two party hegemony are well worn, and go something like this:

  • Historical: there has always been a fairly straightforward binary battle
  • Social: the resistance to socialism explains the absence of third party candidates from the left
  • Political: the lack of ideological space and the (relatively) broad based nature of the two main parties
  • Electoral: the system of fptp and the electoral college (which is like fptp on steroids) tends to mitigate against third parties
  • Money: the importance of (including the problem of federal matching funds)
  • Ballot access: extremely difficult, and I would argue the most important barrier
  • Media: who are only really interested in winners

But this is not to say that third party candidates have no significance in US politics. The classic example is Perot in 1992 is the most successful 3P presidential candidate in recent years, taking just under 20% of the vote. True, he failed to pick up any ECVs, but he did help shape the policy agenda in terms of welfare reform and government spending. And then it is oft’ argued that Nader in 2000 could well have cost Gore the elections by taking votes from the Democrat candidate in Florida.

Here is a table I constructed for a lesson on 3Ps looking at their impact in presidential elections.

10 most successful 3P candidates

Candidate Party Year %vote ECV

Teddy Roosevelt Bull Moose 1912 27.4 88

Ross Perot Reform 1992 18.9 0

Robert La Follette Progressive 1924 16.6 13

George Wallace AIP 1968 13.5 46

Ross Perot Reform 1996 8.4 0

John Anderson Ind/Unity 1980 6.6 0

Eugene Debbs Socialist 1912 6.0 0

Eugene Debbs Socialist 1920 3.4 0

Allan Benson Socialist 1916 3.2 0

Ralph Nader Green 2000 2.7 0

There is a sample essay covering the question of the impact of third parties in US politics from tutor2u here:

And here is a tutor2u link to a video overview of US third parties:

So here is a link to the BBC article:

Some quite interesting people. I was quite fascinated by the attitude and approach of Brock Pierce, who stated something that I was not fully aware of. The BBC: ‘…says his strategy is to end up in the White House not by winning the election outright, but by taking a single state in a close race, then forcing the House of Representatives to pick a winner.

"Every time that this has happened before, 100% of the time, they've always chosen the third-place or last-place candidate to be president as a compromise. Now it's only happened once - 1824. And so our goal is to win a single state. And if we knock it out of the park, to win three.’

And don't forget Kanye West's "bid" for the presidency (!!?):

Topic tasks

Define, with reference to examples, what is meant by a ‘third party’

Explain why it is that given the high levels of dissatisfaction with party politics among the US electorate that third party candidates have only limited success at the ballot box

Discuss whether you agree that third parties are insignificant in American politics

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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