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In the News

Third parties USA: Robert Kennedy Jr

Mike McCartney

27th March 2024

VP candidate pick gives us a chance to revisit the significance of third parties

So what has just happened? See the video below.

So what's the context?

There are significant barriers to third party (3P) advancement in the USA

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

So, to what extent do the Democrats and Republicans dominate? 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' 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.

Aside from the two main parties, what support exists among the public? The USA is not a card carrying, membership based arrangement (unlike systems in the UK and the rest of Europe) so it is not easy to make comparisons. A rough and ready metric is voter registration, and only three parties make it over to the 100,000 mark: the Libertarians, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party.

In electoral terms, the most obvious place to start is success at presidential elections. The classic example is Perot in 1992 as the most successful 3P presidential candidate in recent years, taking just under 20% of the vote. BUT he failed to pick up any electoral college votes.

10 most 'successful' 3P candidates* by % of national vote and ECVs

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

Gary Johnson Libertarian 3.3 0

Allan Benson Socialist 1916 3.2 0

* For ease of use, first name on ballot only

In terms of Congress, the picture on Capitol Hill is better or bleaker, depending on your perspective. In the US Senate there are three 'independents' in office. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is, of course, the longest serving, and most prominent of those. In addition, we have Angus King of Maine, and elected in 2018 by the state of Arizona, is Kyrsten Senema. So, on the surface, with 3% of the second chamber's membership listed as being from outside the bipartisan stranglehold, it appears that the barriers to 3P success are more surmountable when we move away for the race for the White House. But, the reality is, all three are de facto Democrats - having either been elected under party banner, or voting with them in the chamber. Before, we move on, it is suffice to say that there are no independents among the 435 House members.

At sub-national level, is the picture any different? Yes, but not much. There are over 7,000 assembly office holders/in state legislatures (which are generally bicameral and so mirror the House/Senate set up that exists in DC) across the USA, and currently only 18 are counted as non-Democrats or Republicans - if we exclude territories like Puerto Rico (according to ballotpedia). This works out at approximately 0.002%, by the way.

And when we drill down deeper, to the over half a million other elected offices, i.e. mostly at local level, in the United States, the picture doesn't alter a great deal. I have taken the Greens as an example, largely because their website is updated more regularly than for the other two parties with relatively large support cited above, and across the whole of the United States, just 117 individuals are listed as holding office. Job titles range from 'Member, Soil and Water Conservation Board' to 'Board of Directors, Fair Oaks Water District, Division 4'. And if you like numbers, this means that only 0.0002% of elected office holders are Greens - hardly, therefore, the springboard for success to a higher level.

So what? Measured purely in terms of getting candidates elected under a third party banner, there isn't a great deal we can point to as a victory. But as far as the influence of 3Ps goes, the picture is more complex. One of the biggest impacts 3P candidates can have at elections is to peel away votes from the two main parties. Here, the significance of RFK Jr's candidacy gets interesting, if a little fuzzy. Could the chances of Joe Biden or Donald Trump winning in 2024 be spoiled because of votes for Kennedy Junior? There is something of a precedent here, with some arguing that Al Gore lost the 2000 election to George Bush Jr because of the votes to the then Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader (though some electoral analysts dispute this).

There is more on this in the video below...

Questions on the video:

1. How did Ralph Nader's candidacy in the 2000 election potentially impact the outcome?

2. What role did Ross Perot play in the 1992 election, and how was his influence debated?

3. How have Cornell West and Robert Kennedy Jr appealed to voters with their positions?

4. What potential impact could third-party candidates like Cornell West and RFK Jr have on the election results?

5. Why might Robert Kennedy Jr be seen as a bigger risk to Biden than other third-party candidates?

6. What is the goal of the nonprofit group No Labels in considering a Unity ticket for the election?

7. How do No Labels aim to address the current polarised political climate in the US?

Suggested answers:

1. Ralph Nader's candidacy in the 2000 election raised discussions about the influence of third-party candidates, particularly in close races like the one in Florida.

2. Ross Perot won about 18-19% of the national popular vote in 1992, sparking debates about his impact on the election outcome.

3. Cornell West appeals to the left-wing side of the political spectrum by criticizing the Democratic party's values, while RFK Jr has focused on providing results for all Americans.

4. Third-party candidates like Cornell West and RFK Jr could potentially split votes that might have gone to major party candidates, influencing the election results.

5. Robert Kennedy Jr's last name and Democratic family background could pose a risk to Biden's support base.

6. No Labels aims to promote bipartisan collaboration and break through the current partisan politics by considering a Unity ticket representing both party ideals.

7. No Labels seeks to foster respect, collaboration, and common-sense policies in a highly polarized political environment.

If students want to go deeper into the polling on Kennedy Jr, this article is about as comprehensive as it gets.

There is no doubt that the presidential election this year is going to be another close one. And, inevitably, it will be controversial. Will some of the debate be about the impact made by Kennedy Jr?

Mike McCartney

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

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