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The Role of Third Parties in Presidential Elections

Campaigns and Elections

POL 450

Dr. Brian Anderson

28 November 2000


The Role of Third Parties in Presidential Elections

     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  has never
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 (Schwalbe).
     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).
     The strengths 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).
     The two-party 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 105).
     Though third 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).
     "For third-party 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).
     Supporters of 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).
     Although the 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 died out.
     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 (Dobbin).
     Buchanan, the 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).
      The future 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 is certain.


References

 Berns, W.  (1996, January/February).  Third party candidates face a high hurdle in the electoral college.
        American Enterprise.  Available: EbscoHost

Coolidge, S.  (1996, 22 October).  The other men who would be president.  Christian Science   Monitor.
        Available: EbscoHost

 Danitz, T.  (1998, 12 January).  A warming trend for third parties? [Online] Available:
        http://www.findarticles.com

 Dobbin, M.  (2000, 17 September).  Future of Reform Party in doubt. [Online] Available:
        http://www.nandotimes.com/election2000

Donovan, T. & S. Bowler.  (2000, January).  Support for third parties in California.  American   Politics
        Quarterly.  Available: EbscoHost

 Hesseltine, W.  (1948).  The rise and fall of third parties.  Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press

Lambro, D.  (1995, 29 November).  Beware the hidden agenda of third-party candidates.  Human  Events.
        Available: EbscoHost

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 Weekly
        Report.  Available: EbscoHost

Schwalbe, D.  Third party candidates of the twentieth century. [Online] Available:
        http://americanhistory.about.com

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