A brief history of third parties in the US

The 2024 presidential race is shaping up as a rematch between Democrat Joe Biden, the incumbent, and Donald Trump, his Republican predecessor. But what if a third party shows up to throw a wild card into the mix? That may happen. NBC News reported that No Labels may step in to offer another option to voters. That has Democrats accusing the organization of trying to help Trump win. Not so, said founder Nancy Jacobson: “We will not spoil for either side. The only reason to do this is to win.” 

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There have been lots of attempts to disrupt the two-party system since Democrats and Republicans emerged as the main rivalry in the mid-19th century. None of them have lasted over the long term — or won a presidential election — but a few notable efforts have left their imprint on American politics and history. 

American Independent Party

The notorious segregationist George Wallace formed the American Independent Party in 1968 in order to run for president. (He had failed in his effort to win the Democratic Party nomination from President Lyndon Johnson four years earlier.) Curtis LeMay, the former Air Force general who urged President Kennedy to bomb Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was his running mate.

Wallace didn’t think he could win the presidency outright — but he did think he could game the system and play kingmaker. PBS’ American Experience described the strategy in its history of the 1968 campaign: Although Wallace campaigned “as though he believed he were a viable candidate for president,” the real goal was to sap enough votes from Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the Republican and Democratic nominees, to deny both men an Electoral College victory, and thus throw the election to the House of Representatives. “There, Wallace could demand that the other candidates support him on his issues before he would deliver the presidency.”

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Here’s the crazy thing: It nearly worked. Wallace carried five states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia — and came close to Nixon in North Carolina and Tennessee. Nixon barely beat Humphrey in the national popular vote, eking out a 1% win, but claimed 301 electoral votes, which were more than needed to spoil Wallace’s dream of spoiling his election. Wallace’s consolation: He was the last third-party candidate to win electoral votes. He tried again in 1972 but was shot and paralyzed on the campaign trail.

Reform Party

Like the American Independent Party, the Reform Party started out as a vehicle for one man’s outsized presidential ambitions. Ross Perot, the billionaire Texas businessman, had made a splashy, on-again-off-again run for president as an independent candidate in 1992 — and performed respectably, capturing nearly 19% of the popular vote. (Bill Clinton won that election, and many Republicans have long blamed Perot for spoiling George H.W. Bush’s re-election in that campaign.)  In 1995, he decided to make it formal, announcing the launch of the Reform Party, and predicting it would eventually replace either the Democratic Party or GOP. “One of those two parties is going to disappear,” Perot told an interviewer, “one of those special interest parties is going to melt down.”

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Unsurprisingly, Perot was the Reform Party’s first nominee for president in 1996. But he didn’t do as well as his first run — he earned just 8.4% of the popular vote. (For what it’s worth, that was just about the margin of Clinton’s victory over GOP nominee Bob Dole.) That was good enough that, under federal law, the Federal Election Commission in 2000 provided $12.6 million in matching funds to the party’s 2000 nominee, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. But the Reform Party has never again made quite the impact it did during Perot’s first runs for the presidency.

Instead, its legacy might be best remembered for two things. In 1998, former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura won the Minnesota governorship under the Reform Party banner — albeit with 37% of the vote. And in 2000, another celebrity businessman in the tradition of Ross Perot made a brief, aborted run for the party’s presidential nomination. You might have heard of him: His name was Donald Trump.

Green Party

No discussion of modern third parties is complete, of course, without the Green Party. It originally formed in the 1980s with an emphasis on environmental justice, but it really came to prominence in 2000 when consumer crusader Ralph Nader won the party’s nomination and made a bid for lefty voters who had become disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s “third way” neoliberalism under Bill Clinton. Nader won just 2.74% of the vote. 

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That might not be worth mentioning — except, of course, that was the year George W. Bush lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote, barely. The race between Bush and Al Gore came down to Florida, which ended up infamously mired in a weeks-long haze of hanging chads amidst a recount of the votes to see who would win the state’s electoral votes, and thus the presidency. Officially, Bush won the state by 537 votes, after a controversial Supreme Court ruling that stopped the recount. Nader received more than 97,000 votes in the state. And Democrats have blamed him ever since for costing the party the White House.

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“Lots of factors can be blamed for such a paper-thin defeat,” Bill Scher wrote in 2016 for Real Clear Politics. But if Nader had “chosen not to embark on an obviously quixotic campaign, Al Gore would have been elected president.” But Nader has always denied culpability for Gore’s loss. “The two-party tyranny is spoiled to the core,” he wrote in 2016 for the Los Angeles Times. “The least-worst choices are getting worse every four years.”

Forward and No Labels

The 2024 election may bring two new groups into the fray. In 2022, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and one-time presidential candidate Andrew Yang — who came to prominence as a Republican and Democrat, respectively — announced the formation of Forward, a centrist party designed to appeal to Americans frustrated with the country’s two dominant political factions. “Some call third parties ‘spoilers,'” the pair acknowledged in a Washington Post op-ed, “but the system is already spoiled.” There are skeptics. “The Forward Party is making a dangerous miscalculation,” Mary Anna Mancuso wrote for Politico. “It is betting that what a party opposes is more important than what it stands for.”

It is No Labels, though — a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents that was formed to fight partisanship — that has drawn the most attention and criticism. Arizona Democrats in August lost a lawsuit aimed at keeping the group off the presidential ballot in the state, the Associated Press reported. “This is an important win for American democracy,” the group’s leaders said, “and a testament to the power of over 41,000 Arizona voters who signed to give No Labels ballot access in Arizona.”

Updated Aug. 15, 2023: This article has been updated throughout.

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