Third party on the horizon: What does history say?

The first of the two parts

After a brief hiatus from the 2020 election, the focus is again on the possibility of a third party playing a key role in American politics.

In 2016, both the Libertarian Party ticket and the Green Party ticket received an unusually large number of votes-a record-high %% for Libertarians and the all-time best 1% for Greens. That year, former House Republican policy director Evan McMullen ran as an independent, garnering some votes from anti-Trump Republicans and threatening Donald Trump to lead in Utah. In 2020, however, enthusiasm for these options was limited, and third-party voting rates were much lower than four years ago.

Now the wheel turned again. Democratic divisions, as a result of public demonstrations in Congress, have also led to the resignation of a significant figure in the party. Andrew Young, the 2020 presidential candidate for the Democratic presidency and the 2021 Democratic candidate for mayor of New York, has announced the formation of the Forward Party. Young has indicated that the party has no plans to run for president in 2024, although it may still decide to do so. On the other side of the biased division, anti-Trump Republicans, who had hoped the president’s defeat and abusive departure from the White House would resume, were disappointed. While the GOP still adjusts to the possibility that it belongs to Donald Trump, they are also thinking about their options. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg suggested they would also form a third party.

What does the history of third parties or independent candidates tell us?

Impossibility of victory

The most obvious historical lesson is that such candidates face long adversity. Since the advent of the modern bipartisan system in the 1830s, no major party candidate has won a presidential election. Even Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans, who began as a third party in 1854, replaced Huigs as the second major party when Lincoln won the presidency in 1860. Both Greens and Libertarians have been elected officeholders in recent decades. Ross Perrot’s Reform Party elected Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998. Popular in the 1890s and progressive in the 1910s. Both parties elected many state legislators, members of Congress or governors, but their electoral victory proved short-lived.

What explains this lack of political success?

Most obviously, the major parties still hold the allegiance of the majority of American voters. These loyalties may move – and variable loyalty is a common feature of American politics – but such changes are more likely to occur gradually. The default for most voters is to stay with their party.

Structural issues also play a big role. The American electoral system puts a premium on finishing first. You have to win the states to get any vote in the Electoral College. If you finish second in a state you get nothing, even when the second means 49%. Ross Perrot 1 won 1 %% of the nationally popular vote in 1992 but did not win any state votes. It does the same thing in congressional and most state legislative races, which are governed by the rule of single member plurality. Other structural barriers include ballot-access laws, campaign-finance rules, and even criteria adopted by the Presidential Debate Commission, requiring participating candidates to meet a voting limit that third parties rarely achieve. In most states, for example, the major parties have almost automatic ballot access, but other candidates must submit a significant number of petition signatures, pay a fee, or both. Since 1968, Supreme Court decisions have been reduced but have not removed barriers to third-party ballot access. In 2016, although the Libertarian president’s ticket was on the ballot in all 50 states, voters in only five states could vote for the Greens. Evan McMullen’s name appeared on the ballot in only 11 states (although he received several votes as a right-in).

In addition, although social media may present new opportunities to third-party organizers, major media outlets reduce their chances, and therefore cover them less thoroughly, creating a vicious cycle.

What are the effects of third parties?

Although third-party candidates rarely won assembly seats and never won the presidency, they were not irrelevant to American politics. Being without victory is not the same as being without influence. There are three successful effects that the most successful third parties have achieved.

Party entrance: Third parties sometimes act as a gateway between major parties. Sometimes those voters are “de-aligned”, and sometimes they are attracted to other major parties. The Populist Party served as a middle point for some Western peasants who turned to William Jennings Brian’s Democrats. Storm Thermond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 accustomed some Southern Democratic voters to leave their ancestral home. Many of them eventually voted for Republicans in the presidential election, although they generally continued to vote for local Democrats.

Biased punishment: Third parties or independent candidates who win a significant number of votes have the power to punish the nearest major party by ideologically splitting its vote. From the Gold Democrats and Silver Republicans in 1966 to the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt to Storm Thermond and Henry Wallace in 1212, candidates have tried to teach their home party a lesson by sharing their votes; The most successful of these was Roosevelt, who finished second and was a reasonable competitor. In recent times, Ralph Nader has run on the green ticket to punish Clinton-era Democrats for their (in his view) comfortable embrace of the corporation and inadequate attention to the environment. From another political point of view, McMullen’s 2016 run generally fits this model.

Splitting votes may be a common byproduct of third-party activity, but its effects are often over-evaluated by analysts or their candidates who want to blame their defeat for splitting their party’s normal alliance. For one thing, gambit often doesn’t work. Harry Truman won in 1948, despite candidates from both the right and left, trying to cut out parts of the Democratic Alliance. McMullen did not keep Donald Trump out of the White House. Moreover, the real story is often more complicated than it seems. In 2000, Ralph Nader’s 2,000,000 votes in Florida seemed to shift from Al Gore to the presidential race, but Pat Buchanan, running as a Reform Party candidate, won more votes than Gore’s margin in other states, with George Florida More votes than what he gave to W. Bush.

After all, it is wrong to assume that all voters would vote for the main-party nominee in favor of a third party or individual candidate, which analysts see as the “closest” to their choice. Many supporters of George HW Bush blamed Ross Perrot for their people’s defeat, but exit polls showed that about half of Perrot’s supporters would not have voted if he had not voted, and the rest would have divided their vote closely between Bush and Bill. Clinton. Similarly, in 2016, Hillary Clinton blamed her defeat on Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who received more votes than Trump’s victory margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But about half of Stein’s supporters said they would not vote at all, and while Clinton was on top of Trump with the rest of Stein voters, that was not enough to pull Clinton to victory. Bottom line: If someone votes for a third party in the American way, there is a very good chance that he or she is not interested in voting for a big party candidate.

Gravitational pull: Finally, third parties or independent candidates have historically had a significant impact when they have won enough votes to pull the main or two parties towards them after the election. The populists succeeded in drawing the Democrats to their free-silver and railroad-regulation platforms. Ralph Nader was instrumental in pulling the Democrats to the left after 2000. Ross Perrot, a centrist independent, struck a balance between the two sides in 1992 and drew both sides in different directions: Later that year, Democrats adopted campaign-money reform and cut deficits through tax increases, while Republicans reduced deadlines and spending cuts. Through deficit reduction.

In the second part, I will examine the effects of third party history for the 2024 election.

Andrew E. Bush Government Crown Professor and George R. He is the co-author of “Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics” (Rowman and Littlefield).

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