Breaking Through The Duopoly: A Brief History of Third Parties in America

Created: 07 July, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
10 min read

third par·ty


: a person or group besides the two primarily involved in a situation, especially a dispute.

Almost since the beginning of the American Republic, voters have had a third choice. A party that wasn’t ruled by the power classes, the Democrats and Republicans. A party that truly felt of the people, by the people, and for the people. In today’s rough-and-tumble political climate, it can be argued that never before has the country needed a third choice for president more desperately.

Many voters see a recent movement toward third parties as the start of a new era, the ultimate breakdown of the Democrat-Republican split that has dominated American politics since time immemorial.

Indeed, third parties are moving rapidly from the political periphery to the mainstream. Rampant dissatisfaction with the Republicans and Democrats -- running some of the most disliked candidates of all time -- in this year's presidential election is stoking support for a serious third party candidate run. What’s more, a September 2014 Gallup survey reports that 58 percent of Americans say a third party is needed to balance out the “poor job” done by Republicans and Democrats.

However, this is nothing new. Throughout the United States’ two-hundred-forty year history, third parties, independents, and other candidates outside of two major parties have left their mark on the ballot box. Let’s buckle up and take a look back at the highlights of nearly two hundred years of third parties in American politics.

The First Third Parties: America’s Early Factions

In 1796, George Washington famously warned a young United States about the dangers of political factions in his farewell address. According to Washington, fighting between parties was "a fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."

Washington’s warnings of the storms to come fell on deaf ears: in the same year, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bifurcated the country into cosmopolitan Federalists and agrarian Democratic-Republican.

The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were dominant until 1824, when the Federalists virtually disappeared during the "Era of Good Feelings." During this time, the Democratic-Republicans reformed into Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. This reformation led to the first "third parties" in American history, as factions broke off from the new Democrats dedicated to stopping the tyrannical Jackson.

Three major third parties emerged to challenge Jackson’s Democrat reign in 1828 and 1832. The National Republican Party ran John Quincy Adams in 1828 and Henry Clay in 1832. The states’ rights champions of the Nullifier Party were awarded the eleven electoral votes from South Carolina for John Floyd, and the protectionist Anti-Masonic Party won the seven college votes from Vermont for William Wirt. This marked the first election in which third parties and their candidates played a role, despite a Jackson win.

As the divided anti-Jacksonian factions reorganized and united into the Whigs, the Free Soil party appeared to stifle the spread of slavery into new territories - a major issue in the antebellum years. Martin Van Buren, only seven years after leaving the White House, joined the Free Soilers and ran for president on their ticket in 1848. As a third-party candidate, he won over 10 percent of the popular vote, but no electoral college votes. The Free Soil Party was, shortly afterwards, absorbed into the newly-formed Republican Party, and the abolition of slavery became a Republican value.

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The nativist American Party, or the "Know Nothing Party," was another third-party alternative to the Democrats and Whigs (soon to become Republicans) shortly before the Civil War, from 1845-1860. Millard Fillmore, some three years out of his presidency, was chosen -- without his consent -- by the party to run in the 1856 election. He carried only the state of Maryland with eight electoral votes.

1860 to the 20th Century: A House Divided

The Election of 1860 saw the election of Abraham Lincoln with only 39.8 percent of the popular vote in the face of a crumbling Union. The opposing Democrats split up regionally in the hope of gaining more votes: the Northern Democratic nominee, Stephen A. Douglas, won 29.5 percent of the vote, and the Southern Democratic nominee, John C. Breckinridge, won 18.1 percent of the vote. Third-party candidate John Bell, representing the Know-Nothing successor Constitutional Union Party, won three states -- Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee -- which awarded him 39 electoral votes for his anti-secession platform.

Even after the Civil War, the United States found itself politically divided by region. The South became a bastion of anti-Republican sentiment as Reconstruction policies were deemed unfair, giving birth to the image of the gentleman Southern Democrat that dominated until the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Democrats found themselves severely weakened by the aftershocks of Republican victories on the battlefield as well as in Washington.

In 1872, the Democratic Party chose not to nominate anyone for president; instead, they endorsed leaders of the Liberal Republican Party, a GOP offshoot created to oppose the re-election of Republican General Ulysses S. Grant. The Liberal Republican Party was seen as a safer alternative to the still-reeling Democrats, but disappeared after losing the election with 43.8 percent of the popular vote, but only 3 electoral votes. The Liberal Republicans joined the Democrats shortly afterwards.

The increasing industrialization of the United States paved the way for the populist People's Party, founded in 1891. In the election of 1892, the People's candidate, James B. Weaver, lost to incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland, but not before winning 5 states, 22 electoral votes, and 8.5 percent of the popular vote. Even as the Democrats and Republicans began to settle into a dueling match, third parties would continue to make waves.

The 20th Century: Cementing the Duopoly

The Democrat-Republican dichotomy more or less dominated until the election of 1912. Theodore Roosevelt's loss of the Republican nomination to his longtime friend William Howard Taft galvanized him to betray the Republicans and create the Progressive Party, nicknamed the "Bull Moose Party."

The personal rift between Taft and Roosevelt grew vitriolic, and ultimately lost the Republicans the election: among fiery attacks and frustration-fueled campaigns, Roosevelt won only six states, 27.4 percent of the popular vote, and 88 electors, compared to Taft's two states, 23.2 percent of the vote, and 8 electors. This split allowed a Democratic win for Woodrow Wilson, with only 41.8 percent of the popular vote, and forty states. 1912 stands as the only election in which a third-party candidate received more popular and electoral votes than a major party candidate, as Roosevelt’s Bull Moose popularity gained him more votes than Taft’s Republicans.

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In the midst of major-party drama, the 1912 election also saw the quiet introduction of the Socialist Party in earnest: Eugene V. Debs, their candidate, garnered 6 percent of the vote, having run three times previously. He would run again in 1920 from a prison cell, a campaign in which he would win 3.4 percent of the popular vote.

The 1968 election marked the last time a third-party candidate won more than one electoral vote, and at least one state. George Wallace of the segregationist American Independent Party won 13.5 percent of the popular vote, 5 states, and 46 electors, with over 9.9 million votes.

The Libertarian Party ran for the first time in 1972, at the time small and disorganized. John Hospers, a personal friend of libertarian idol Ayn Rand, won a single "faithless elector" vote from Virginia with only 3,674 votes nationwide. He was only on the ballot in two states- Colorado and Washington, and his vice-presidential running mate -- Tonie Nathan -- was the first female nominee to receive an electoral vote. Today, the Libertarian Party is the largest third party -- and the third largest party -- in the US.

In 1992, Texas businessman Ross Perot, another independent candidate without party backing, received 18.9 percent of the popular vote, but also carried neither states nor electors. Nonetheless, he remains the most successful third party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in terms of popular vote. Perot ran again in 1996 with the populist Reform Party, receiving 8.4 percent of the popular vote and no electors.

Even more modern elections have been affected by third party or independent candidates. Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign in 2000 garnered only 2.7 percent of the popular vote. However, he won 97,000 votes in Florida- the crucial battleground state that ultimately handed George W. Bush the Oval Office. Nader's voters, which could have voted for the Democratic candidate, ultimately lost Al Gore the presidency.

Today: Are Third-Parties a Thing of the Past?

Today, the political landscape is still dominated by Democrats and Republicans, and third parties are seen as little more than accessories to the two main parties. Minor parties are often considered “spoilers”: the Green and Libertarian Parties “steal” votes from the main two parties and “spoil” the vote, much like Nader’s influence in the 2000 election.

In fact, this hold on American politics has only increased thanks to some states' "sore-loser laws" that prevent candidates that lose in primaries from running as independents or third-party candidates in both presidential and congressional races- effectively outlawing Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose run. What's more, "anti-fusion laws" prevent candidates from being nominated by more than one party in all but 8 states nationwide - making the 1872 Democratic endorsement of the Liberal Republicans illegal.

“Sore loser” and “anti-fusion” rules passed in the late 20th century helped cement two parties as the American norm. The influence of third parties appears to be waning; after all, it’s been over 40 years since a third party won even a single elector.

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However, as 18 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters consider voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the face of Hillary's looming nomination, disgruntled Republicans search for an alternative to Trump, and Jill Stein encourages Sanders to join as a running mate, third parties continue to play an important role in American political sphere.

Ralph Nader continues to champion the value of third parties and independent candidates, asserting that "voters in a democracy should vote for anybody they want, including write in or even themselves." "I believe in voting your conscience," he told Boston's NPR station, WBUR, "I don't pick between two, I don't like the Democratic Party or the Republican Party." Liz Mair told the Wall Street Journal that "the truth is, for a huge number of Americans, the thought of pulling the lever for either of is a lot like that of pulling the trigger of a gun pointed at our own heads." 2016 Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is "already drumming up much more interest than when he ran in 2012," according to US News.

The latest poll from Real Clear Politics places Johnson at around 8 percent in the polls and Stein at around 4 percent. And although Hillary Clinton maintains a close to 5-point lead over Donald Trump, 40 to 35, expect third party ranks to swell as increasing Democratic and Republican dissatisfaction increases as the conventions solidify the nominees.

Political diversity is an American value, and the variety of political factions which have tousled for ground throughout our history is proof. More elections were affected by third parties than there is room for in a single article. But there’s more than enough room on the national stage for multiple opinions.

Third parties are healthy for the nation, crucial for meaningful debate, and more reflective of voter sentiment than Rs and Ds. With at least 26 third parties active in the United States today, there’s certainly potential for more third-party action in 2016 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com

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