The Role of Third Parties in Presidential
Campaigns and Elections
Dr. Brian Anderson
28 November 2000
The Role of Third Parties in Presidential
Third parties often
seem attractive to voters, even those who may never vote for them.
They force issues that are normally ignored to be discussed, and they help
to keep the candidates from the major parties on their toes. Third
parties are like a breath of fresh air in many ways. However, other
voters do not trust third parties. Some states make it almost impossible
to get on the ballots. Third parties also already have a strike against
them in their lack of funding. The issues that gain temporary popularity
for third parties is usually absorbed by the major parties, therefore suffocating
the "little guy." The way current government is set up stacks the
odds against third parties. Third party success is, however, improving.
Voters find the similarities between the major parties overwhelming and
want something different. Even though there may be a few similarities
between major parties and third parties, the difference is enough that
things are quite apparently changing.
The idea of a
third party is attractive to Americans because they do not have the problems
that the Republican and Democrat parties do. Southerners may remember
the way things were during and after the Civil war when the Republican
Lincoln administration had many harsh rules for the South. Others
may remember that during the Great Depression, a Republican president was
in power and did nothing to fix things. Many people also blame the
Republicans indirectly for Richard Nixon's Watergate crimes. The
political machines were often run by Democrats, and older voters may know
that as well. Every time the United States went to war during the
20th century, a Democrat was in office. A third party candidate
held the office of President, so it would
not have any negative history. That factor is appealing to many voters
(Weiss 96-97). A 1995 survey found that 43 percent of voters would
be willing to consider a third party candidate (New Poll).
There is a need
for accountability among candidates from the two major parties. Though
Democrats and Republicans check each other to an extent, a third party
is able to address more issues. This need is making a major third
party more of a necessity (Schwalbe). Third party candidates also
bring up issues that other candidates would rather not address. Firebrand
Belva Ann Lockwood won the right for women to argue cases in front of the
Supreme Court in 1879. When she ran for President in 1884, she forced
a public debate on women's suffrage (Danitz). Third parties may also
serve as a short-term protest against the major parties (Donovan and Bowler).
Since the Republican
party gained power with the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Whig party
died out, no third party has gained an office more powerful than governor.
Even if a third party candidate gains a significant number of popular votes,
if the votes are spread out, it accomplishes nothing. With the electoral
college, the votes have to be concentrated within enough states to gain
the necessary 270 electoral votes. Voters who support a third party
candidate may choose not to vote for him because they feel they would be
wasting their vote on someone who won't win anyway (Berns).
Some feel that
"there is something dishonest about political leaders who say the political
system is broken and they must run on
a third-party ticket to fix it." Third parties may cause the electoral
system to go haywire and throw the election into Congress. Rather
than creating third parties, why not work within the major parties to correct
things (Lambro)? If the parties are considered weak (Danitz), they
should be strengthened. The success of third parties is lessened
when citizens feel that things are going well, and reform is not necessary
It is often next
to impossible for third party candidates to get on the ballot in some states.
Though some states require only a few signatures, others require those
signatures to all be notarized or elaborate conventions that adhere to
a strict set of rules. Even when third parties get on the ballot,
they are often listed as independent rather than with their party affiliation
(Hesseltine 103). Third parties also do not have a secure source
of funding that the major parties have begun to rely on. Major corporations
usually already support a political party and are reluctant to change their
support (Hesseltine 99).
of third parties are often absorbed by the other major parties. An
issue that is responsible for many third parties' initial success often
is taken over by the major parties so the third party then dies out.
Though one of the major roles of third parties is bringing up issues that
the two major parties neglect, it lessens the likelihood of a third party
win when that happens (Weiss 102-104).
system of the United States is another factor making success for third
parties more difficult. Although two-party system simply means that
there are two very large
parties (other parties are allowed) (Schwalbe),
it is hard for other parties to succeed with this system. Local,
state, and federal government are all designed around the two-party system.
Appointments are made on the basis of party. Committees assignments
in Congress are also based on party alignment. Third party members
must decide which of the two major parties their views line up with (Weiss
parties are far from being a majority, their support is growing in some
states. There are a few independent and third party members in the
House of Representatives, and Jesse Ventura of the Reform party is currently
governor in Minnesota. In California between 1964 and 1996, third
party voter registration increased tenfold, from 0.5% to 5.1%. Twelve
percent of the electorate is not registered with a party. A total
of 17% of California's voters are not registered with either Republicans
or Democrats (Donovan and Bowler).
With these sorts
of statistics, it is not uncommon in California for a candidate to be elected
with less than 50% of the vote. These decreased victory margins seem
to be precursors to party realignment. It may be because of the coming
realignment that the margin of victory is decreased and third party support
increases, or it may be the increasing support of third parties and decreased
margin of victory that causes the partisan realignment. The "cookie
cutter candidates" also increase third party support (Donovan and Bowler).
Many voters feel
that the candidates nominated for the Republicans and Democrats are too
similar to each other. With the major parties being so similar, voters
want an alternative.
They find this alternative in the third
parties. If a voter doesn't like either party, they may be more likely
to vote for a third party. "Because the minor party has no chance
of winning, and the voter is relatively indifferent between the major parties,
a vote for any minor party is a ‘safe' protest" (Donovan and Bowler).
" . . . A major
component of support for these state minor parties comes from voters who
think the major parties have converged on important issues and from voters
who are dissatisfied with major party nominees." Protest voters and
angry voters are the other major reasons for third party supporters.
Minor reasons for supporting third parties include feeling that politicians
have bad intentions, not caring who wins, or not being attached to their
party (Donovan and Bowler).
candidates to succeed, there needs to be a yearning in the general public
for change." Since Ross Perot captured almost 1 in 5 votes in 1992,
third parties have gained a new sense of vitality. They are getting
more media attention and, therefore, more exposure. Their funding
has improved. The better known of the third parties now have very
defined platforms (Coolidge).
The first third-party
was formed in 1826. Since then, along with the two major parties,
other third parties have faded in and out of the American political system.
Extreme left-winged groups do things such as toy with the idea of communism,
and extreme right-winged groups such as the American Nazi Party nominate
candidates for various political offices. Other third parties are
just an eclectic mix of ideas from both wings. Sometimes a strong
leader from one of the two major parties may become disgruntled with their
party's actions and form a party of their own (Nash).
Although it will
likely be quite some time before a third-party candidate holds an office
such as President, third-parties do draw a lot of support from voters who
are normally inactive. A large number of people campaigning for Jesse
Ventura when he was elected governor were college students and other young
adults who probably wouldn't have even gone to the polls under normal circumstances.
Although Ralph Nader didn't do well in the 2000 election, he credits much
of his support on the campaign trail to activists who are still too young
to vote. Ross Perot's high number of popular votes in the 1992 and
1996 elections are largely from people who ignore politics. Third
parties serve as a breath of fresh air to Americans who are bored with
what's currently going on.
In the 2000 Presidential
election, the Green Party admits to not having a chance of winning.
Their aim was to get 5% of the popular vote in order to get official recognition
and funding as a party. Many voters feel that third parties only
function as spoilers and that they do not fit well in the US political
system. However, "other Western democracies function quite well on
a multi-party system." Supporters of third parties feel that a viable
third-party would at least keep the two major parties honest. The
Green Party supports community control of the police. It also does
not allow itself to be bought — no corporate funding (Wiener).
the Green Party state that Ralph Nader has done much for average Americans.
He fights against big corporations. He confronts political and corporate
bosses. Ralph Nader wants to make rents more fair for the quality
of the apartments. He doesn't want public vegetation sprayed with
toxic substances such as typical pesticides. Nader said that "The
only difference between Gore and Bush is the velocity with which they drop
to their knees when a big corporation walks in the door" (Wiener).
Green Party did not succeed in gaining the votes it needed to receive federal
funds in the next Presidential election, it still has a ray of light in
it's future. There is a consistency about the Green Party that no
longer exists within the other major third party, the Reform Party.
The Reform Party exploded briefly for the past elections but has since
Ross Perot, who
founded the Reform Party, has basically left it out to die. During
the convention, the party split and was written off by it's highest elected
figure, Jesse Ventura. The Natural Law party is now growing out of this
2000 Presidential candidate for the Reform Party, is much more conservative
than the party. Many voters consider his intrusion into the Reform
Party "being beaten up by a bully." Though Buchanan had an opportunity
to build the party, he felt the need to conquer and therefore ruined it
for everybody. It is quite clear that the Reform Party will not be
receiving funding in the next Presidential election. Some people
feel that Buchanan physically intimidates people (Dobbin).
of third parties is unclear. A sort of gridlock has been obtained
for now. The political system will almost have to change in the next
elections for anything to be accomplished. Third parties may have
a future in these changes. In a less tight election, a third party
may have received more support. With politics today, though, nothing
Berns, W. (1996, January/February).
Third party candidates face a high hurdle in the electoral college.
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Coolidge, S. (1996, 22 October).
The other men who would be president. Christian Science
Danitz, T. (1998, 12 January).
A warming trend for third parties? [Online] Available:
Dobbin, M. (2000, 17 September).
Future of Reform Party in doubt. [Online] Available:
Donovan, T. & S. Bowler. (2000,
January). Support for third parties in California. American
Quarterly. Available: EbscoHost
Hesseltine, W. (1948).
The rise and fall of third parties. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs
Lambro, D. (1995, 29 November).
Beware the hidden agenda of third-party candidates. Human Events.
Nash, H. (1959). Third parties
in American politics. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press.
New poll finds more demand for third choice
in ‘96. (1995, 25 November). Congressional Quarterly
Report. Available: EbscoHost
Schwalbe, D. Third party candidates
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Weiss, A. (1980). Party politics,
party problems. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Press.
Wiener, E. The revolution is green.
[online] Available: http://eastvillage.about.com