History of third-party candidates
There has been a lot of speculation about third-party candidates in the current presidential campaign. It is hardly a new idea.
Many presidential races in American history have featured more than one major candidate, and in some cases, it has affected the final outcome.
In the 2012 general election, there were no less than 30 presidential candidates who drew votes, most of whom were not on the ballot in all 50 states. That included the option “none of these candidates” in Nevada, chosen by 5,770 voters.
Only the Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, approached one percent of the total vote. Libertarians, Green Party nominees and others normally appear on American presidential ballots, though rarely draw a sizable percentage.
Third-party candidates can throw a presidential election into chaos. In 2000, consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s Green Party run collected only 2.7 percent of the vote, but many analysts believe he siphoned support from Democrat Al Gore, who won the national popular vote but lost in the Electoral College 271-266.
“Research has shown that had Gore received the Nader votes, he would have won the election,” said Dr. Laura Wiedlocher, a faculty member in political science at Blackburn College. “Of course, there is some debate on that. But Nader drew voters to an ideological extreme, and changed the outcome.”
Nader’s showing in two states in particular affected the Electoral College. After weeks of acrimonious recounts and buzzwords like “hanging chads,” Gore was declared the loser by 537 votes in Florida, a state with 25 big electoral votes. Nader garnered over 97,000 votes in the Sunshine State.
In New Hampshire, Gore fell by 7,200, with over 22,000 votes going to Nader. The four electoral votes of that state would have also tipped the election to Gore.
Eight years earlier, Texas tycoon Ross Perot shook up the campaign with an independent bid and led the polls in June. He dropped out of the race, re-entered and stole the spotlight in the debates. Perot ultimately picked up 19 percent of the vote, finishing second in the three-man race in both Utah and Maine. Many analysts believe that Perot drew ample votes from incumbent Republican George Bush.
“Perot was really an unusual candidate, but he changed the narrative of that election, and blocked some votes from Bush,” said Wiedlocher. “In 1992, there was so much dissatisfaction with both the Republican brand and the Democrat brand, and Perot gained traction.
“That’s what usually happens when third-party candidates play a big role,” added Wiedlocher. “There’s a lot of discontent with the two-party system and their nominees, and voters are drawn to another candidate. It’s usually a cue for the traditional parties to realize what voters want, and they often move their platforms toward the third-party candidate.”
The 1992 winner, Bill Clinton, won with only 43 percent of the vote, a normalcy in third-party races, as the victorious candidate often suffers the mild indignity of election without a majority of the popular vote.
That list includes Abraham Lincoln, who prevailed with 40 percent in the fractured 1860 campaign. The Democrats, torn over the question of slavery in western territories, nominated Stephen A. Douglas, while a Southern faction of the party presented their own nominee, sitting Vice President John Breckenridge.
A fourth major entry was John Bell of Tennessee on the Constitutional Union ticket, a collection of former Whigs and ex-Know Nothings, a nativist group opposed to immigration and Catholicism.
Douglas finished second in the popular vote, but only carried one state, Missouri. Breckenridge, a distant cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, won eleven states and 72 electoral votes, while Bell took three states and 39 votes.
The combined popular total of the other three candidates would have easily defeated Lincoln, who did not appear on the ballot in many Southern states. Lincoln, though, would have still won the Electoral College.
In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt divided the Republicans and ran on the Bull Moose ticket. The chasm in the GOP opened the door for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won only 42 percent of the popular vote, but tallied 435 electoral votes.
As in 1860, the combined popular vote total of Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft would have defeated Wilson. As it was, Taft finished an embarrassing third with only eight electoral votes, the fewest of any incumbent in a re-election bid.
“The examples of 1860 and 1912 are more about party realignments,” said Wiedlocher. “Those extra candidates came from within the traditional political parties, forcing them to align with all of their elements.”
Other former chief executives who tried a third-party bid include Martin Van Buren on the Free Soil ticket in 1848, earning 10 percent of the vote and, reportedly, enough Democratic votes in New York to sway the election to Whig Zachary Taylor. Eight years later, Millard Fillmore’s run as a Know-Nothing collected 22 percent of the popular vote.
Only a handful of third-party votes can swing an election. In 1896, Illinois Democratic Sen. John M. Palmer broke with the establishment over the gold standard and waged a third-party run on the Gold Democrat ticket, finishing with only 133,148 votes. That was less than one percent of the total, but some scholars believe the placement of those votes was enough to knock out the regular Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan.
Racial issues have sometimes played a role in third-party bids, as in 1948, when South Carolinian Strom Thurmond ran on a plank of segregation. He won four Southern states and 39 electoral votes.
Similarly, former Alabama governor George Wallace ran in 1968 on the American Independent ticket, campaigning on “law and order” and against busing for school racial balance. Wallace captured five Southern states and over 13 percent of the national popular vote.
In 1924, Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette, a national figure for his visionary ideas, brought home 17 percent of the vote on the Progressive ticket. In 1980, Illinois Congressman John Anderson, who had dropped out of Republican primaries, ran as an Independent and earned 5.7 million votes.
“One measure of the success of a third-party candidate is the ability to draw five percent of the total vote,” said Wiedlocher. “That’s happened several times in presidential elections. There is no question that third-party candidates can have an impact.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois.