This Is a Blog: Elections in Brief: Top 10 Third Party Candidates

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Elections in Brief: Top 10 Third Party Candidates

I'm tired of hearing about people talking about voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. Not because I disagree with them but because most of them have no idea what voting for a third party candidate means (if this isn't you, don't get offended, it's not about you then). I'd venture a guess none of them have ever heard of Eugene Debs, the most tenacious third party candidate in US History. Do they know anything about historical third parties or their role in American politics? Or why we don't have any small, strong parties today? Instead of mocking these ignoramuses (ignoramii?) , it's time to get educated.

I'm not just going to lecture here about the dangers of third party presidential candidates. Ralph Nader arguably turned the results of the 2000 election. As a result, people who want to vote for a third party candidate keep having to hear about the futility of that decision. Nader won only 2.74% of the vote and received no electoral votes, but he still tipped the election toward the candidate most ideologically opposed to himself, George W. Bush. Is this always the result? With the two parties controlling the entire political process, is there hope for third-party candidates? Here's a list of the top 10 most successful third-party candidates, by success in both electoral votes and percentage of popular vote. Nader doesn't even rank on this list, and he tipped an election.

Candidates and winners are color coded to better illustrate the relationship between the third party candidate and the winner of that election. Obviously these candidates ran because they didn't support one of the two major parties, but on the general political spectrum, a candidate will usually lean in one way or the other. If a candidate leaned toward the Democrats of the time, they're blue, vice versa red for Whigs or Republicans (Green means neutral party), so if the candidate and winner have the opposite color, it means the winner of the election sat on the opposite side of the political spectrum than the candidate (eg- Ralph Nader vs. George W. Bush). Below each title is the candidate's electoral vote result / popular vote percentage.

10. John Floyd, Nullification
William Wirt, Anti-Masonic 
(1832, winner: Jackson, Dem.)
Floyd: 11ev / 0%; Wirt: 7ev / 7.78%

In 1832, the first real political party, Democratic, had finally bred the beginnings of an opposition party, Whig. South Carolina preferred the smaller Nullification Party, and Vermont preferred the Anti-Masons.  

RESULT: No effect, Jackson won by a landslide

9. James Weaver, Populist (1892, winner: Cleveland, Dem.)
22ev / 8.5%

Unlike today, members of other parties actually held seats in Congress. Former Republican Weaver found himself later in his career more aligned with Democrats but still a leader in the Greenback then Populist parties. There were a lot of smaller party candidate around this time, but with an actual party machine behind him, he gained real traction.  

RESULT: No effect, but incumbent Benjamin Harrison spent most of the election mourning his recently deceased wife, and Cleveland had already been a fairly liked president. Cleveland should have won in a landslide, but he only won by 3%.

8. Robert La Follette, Progressive (1924, winner: Coolidge-Rep.)
13ev / 16.62%

The last vestiges of reform in the Republican Party left with this last big push of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party. More on that later.

RESULT: No effect, Coolidge won by a landslide

7. Strom Thurmond, Dixiecrat (1948, winner: Truman, Dem.)
39ev / 2.41%

In protest over Truman's civil rights actions, Thurmond ran a pro-segregation Southern Democratic ticket. He won an impressive four states, despite winning less than 2 million votes.  

RESULT: No effect; Truman still won, but as historically bad headlines indicated, this race was too close for comfort.

6. Martin Van Buren, Free Soil (1848, winner: Taylor, Whig.)
0ev / 10.13%

This one is an interesting case in political ideal vs. the process. After forming the Democratic Party, getting Jackson elected, and serving his own term as president, Van Buren found himself ardently anti-slavery at a time when neither his own party nor the Whigs he despised wanted to resolve the issue. When he lefty he party he founded, loyalists followed.

RESULT: With Dems. and former Dems. split, the Whig Taylor won by less than 5% of the popular vote.

5. Ross Perot, Independent (1992, winner: Clinton, Dem.)
0ev / 18.91%

Disillusioned by establishment Republican president Bush, billionaire Perot ran as an independent. Despite not winning any states, he won the third highest vote percentage ever for a third party candidate.  

RESULT: With conservative votes split, incumbent Republican Bush lost to the candidate most ideologically opposed to Perot

4. Millard Fillmore, Know Nothing (1856, winner: Buchanan, Dem.)
8ev / 21.54%

By 1856, the Whig Party was gone. Its members had split into the anti-slavery Republicans and slavery-indifferent Know Nothings. Fillmore had never been elected president, and he failed to secure the nomination in 1852. Maybe he really did believe slavery should be ignored for the good of the Union, but maybe he just felt he deserved to be elected. Republican Fremont was so popular, even Democrats tried to get him to run. Fillmore never had a shot to win, and like he always did, he took the safe, weak position.

RESULT: Former Whig president Fillmore split the non-Democrat vote, and Buchanan won with only 45.3% of the popular vote.

3. George Wallace, American Independent (1968, winner: Nixon, Rep.)
46ev / 13.53%

When the Civil Right Act passed, it was noted that with this single act, Democrats had effectively given up the South. On top of that, incumbent LBJ chose not to run, then the presumptive Democratic standard bearer, RFK, was assassinated. Democrat George Wallace attempted to steal the White House by offering a segregationist, non-Republican option, thereby sweeping the South and forcing a plurality to the House of Representatives, where he had many friends and believed he could win.  

RESULT: Wallace split the Democratic vote and handed the White House to Nixon, who won by less than 1% of the popular vote

2. John Breckinridge, Southern Dem.
John Bell, Constitutional Union
(1860, winner: Lincoln, Rep.)
Breckinridge: 72ev / 18.2%; Bell: 39e / 12.62%

Breckinridge broke from the Democratic Party because they refused to be pro-slavery. Bell ran on a platform of holding the country together.  

RESULT: With the Democratic vote split, Lincoln won (with only 39.8%), eventually freeing the slaves... after the country broke apart. Great job, slavery guy and Union guy!

1. Teddy Roosevelt, Progressive (1912, winner: Wilson, Dem.)
88ev / 27.39%

When people talk about the damaging effects of a third party candidate, they now mention Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, but the real story is TR in 1912. Dissatisfied with his successor, TR came back from his world travels to challenge a sitting president from his own party. Running under a new Progressive Party, he captured the most electoral votes for any third party candidate. Wilson only won 41% of the popular vote.  

RESULT: Wilson broke a four election win streak for the Republicans, and the sitting Republican president came in third. After turning the Republican Party into the party of progressivism, TR effectively sucked all the reformers out of the party.


CONCLUSION: Best case for a third party candidate, he has no bearing on the result whatsoever. Worst case, he hands the election over to the party that stands for the opposite of what he does. Nightmare scenario, a real three-way split, where the House decides who gets to be the president. In 2016 terms, best case: not enough people vote for Stein or Johnson to make a difference; worst case: Stein and Johnson pull enough support from rational voters to hand Trump the election; and nightmare scenario: a three or four way plurality, where Paul Ryan gets to decide who gets to be the next president.

I'm all for more parties, like we had at the turn of the 20th century. Those parties didn't form by running no-names for president then disappearing for four years. They formed by pulling together rational people under a clear ideology. That's how we fix the two-party system. You don't just vote for the Green Party president and hope everything sorts itself out. Bernie Sanders is up for re-election in 2018. Perhaps instead of re-running as an Independent, he form a new, real Progressive Party, and focus on gaining enough support and finding the right candidate for a presidential run in 2024 or 2028.

If you're planning on voting for a third party, ask yourself, who would you rather win the White House? Clinton or Trump? If you truly don't care, vote for Stein or Johnson. But then you don't get to complain if Trump wins, and yes, I will absolutely blame you for it.

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