A Brief History of Third Parties

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Howard Schultz may run for President as a third-party candidate. In our history, there have been several significant third-party candidacies. Some have had a major influence on the election results. Others have modified the political direction of the country. And some third-party candidacies have not any lasting effect. The elections listed below reflect years when the third-party candidate received over 5% of the vote.

1848 – Free Soil Party – Martin Van Buren

The issue of slavery continued to divide the country. Neither of the two major parties at that time - the Whig Party and the Democratic Party - came out against the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories obtained from the Mexican-American War. Dissatisfied northerners created the “Free Soil Party,” which opposed allowing slaves into the new territories. The party nominated former President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren won 10% of the popular vote and exceeded 25% of the vote in several key states, perhaps costing the Democrats the election. The main legacy of the “Free Soil Party” is the consolidation of the anti-slavery movement into a party leading to the creation of the Republican Party a few years later.

1856 – American Party – Millard Fillmore

Slavery was still the main issue facing the country. Democrats continued to support popular sovereignty in determining whether a state allowed slavery, while the new Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery into new States and Territories. The American Party was originally part of the “know nothing” movement, which opposed immigration and was anti-Catholic. Although he did not seek the nomination and was out of the country during the convention, the American Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore ran on a national unity platform and won over 21% of the vote including the state of Maryland. After the election,the American Party splintered, along with the rest of the nation, with some joining the Republican party and the rest scattering into the other parties. 

1860 – Four Party Presidential Contest

Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, won a four-way contest against Democrat Stephen Douglas and two third-party candidates. The four parties reflected the split in the country resulting from the slavery issue. Lincoln won absolute majorities (>50%) in enough states to have a majority in the Electoral College. Before Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern States seceded from the Union, resulting in the Civil War.

1892 – Populist Party – James Weaver

In the late 1800s, there was concern over the power of corporations and income inequality along with a desire for electoral reform, protection for trade unions, and assistance to groups struggling with debt. These issues led to the formation of the Populist Party. Their candidate, Ohio’s James Weaver, won the electoral votes of five western states and about 8.5% of the popular vote. In 1896, the Democratic Party, under candidate William Jennings Bryan, adopted many of the Populist Party positions and, as a result, received the endorsement of the Populists.

1912 – Progressive Party - Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt finished his second Presidential term in 1908 and endorsed William Howard Taft as successor. Taft won the 1908 election. Roosevelt became dissatisfied with some of Taft’s policies and challenged him for the 1912 Republican Presidential nomination. When he narrowly failed to win the nomination, Teddy decided to run as a progressive third-party candidate. Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote allowing Woodrow Wilson, another progressive, to win. Roosevelt finished in second place winning 27% of the popular vote and the electoral vote in 8 states, the only third-party candidate to finish ahead of a major party candidate. Roosevelt was a war hawk and pressured Wilson to enter World War 1 and criticized Wilson’s leadership once the United States did enter.

1924 – Progressive Party / Socialist Party - Robert La Follette

Progressives felt that the Republicans and Democrats had each nominated conservative candidates and united behind Robert La Follette, Senator from Wisconsin. The Progressive Party nominated him, and the Socialist Party endorsed him. La Follette ran on a platform calling for government ownership of railroads and utilities, support for labor unions, and other progressive ideas. Although he won over 16% of the vote, Calvin Coolidge still won an absolute majority in the country, so La Follette’s campaign did not affect the final election result. 

1968 – American Independent Party – George Wallace

George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, received over 13% of the vote and won five southern states in the 1968 election. He ran as a populist on a segregation platform. The election between Nixon and Humphrey was exceedingly close. Had Wallace won a few more states, the election would have gone to the House of Representatives. Even had Humphrey won those five southern states, he still would have lost the electoral college to Nixon. 

1992 and 1996 – H. Ross Perot

Billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot ran against Bill Clinton and the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. He received almost 19% of the popular vote in 1992, although he did not win any Electoral College votes. His campaign focused on reducing the national debt and opposition to the NAFTA free trade agreement. Bill Clinton’s margin of victory would have been enough to win even if a significant number of Perot’s voters had voted for Bush instead. Perot ran again in 1996 receiving about 8% of the vote and no electoral votes. Clinton’s margin of victory over Bob Dole exceeded Perot’s vote total.

Conclusion

The last third party to truly affect the Presidential result was Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign. Howard Schultz has expressed interest in running as a third-party centrist. It will be a great challenge to pull enough voters from the right and left to win. The race for the Democratic nomination has just started with many candidates running. There is fear that a Schulz candidacy would pull votes from the eventual Democratic candidate. But it is too early to project the effect of a Schultz third-party run until we know who the candidate is and that candidate’s stand on the issues.