Can a Third Party Win?
Third Parties can win elections, but they rarely do. This is because the United States of America has a two-party system in practice.
While third parties sometimes win local races, a third party has never won a Presidential race and has rarely won Congressional races. However, despite these facts, a third party win to any elected office is technically possible.
The problem is that the U.S. has a “two-party culture” despite not having an official “two-party system” due to majorities being needed to win elections.
Since majorities are needed to win elections, coalitions tend to build around the two major parties as a result. This is especially true regarding the higher federal offices. The Presidency is very hard to win due to the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college. It is the logistics arising from the two-party culture in practice, and not the underlying system as per the federal Constitution, on which the “voting third party splits the vote” line is based.
Thus we can say, “third parties can win, they just rarely do in practice at the federal level due to the ‘two-party culture‘ in the United States political system.” Third party victories at the local level are another story. Despite a historical failure to win presidential elections, third parties have historically played an important role in U.S. politics.
Below we look at history and semantics to see the ways in which a third party can or can’t win and how voting for one may or may not “upset” a given race.
TIP: To fully get this argument you must understand that America has always had “two major parties.” The names of those parties and the positions of those parties changed over time, but only nominees from one of the two established majority parties in a given era have won presidential elections. See the parties switched platforms.
Can A Third-Party Candidate Ever Become President?
FACT: America has essentially always had two major parties in each race. The exceptions are the Democratic-Republicans in the early 1820’s when we had “a one-party system” in practice despite their being two divergent factions, which went on to become Whigs and Democrats. There were also a few key years like 1812 when we had a major third party running. The Progressive Party ran with the Republicans and Democrats. Despite the semantics, a major party has always won the Presidency in practice. See more of this logic below.
TIP: See related pages on “does my vote count” and “is the United States a two party system?”
Understanding How a Third Party Can or Can’t Win
For 2016 there are only two viable “major” parties on the ballot in all 50 states in the Presidential election: Democrats and Republicans.
Meanwhile, the other three even remotely workable “minor” parties are Libertarian and Green, which are on the ballot in all or almost all states, and Constitution, which is on the ballot in over 20.
The rest of the parties of which there are many including a few socialist parties are on the ballot in less than 20 states and aren’t well known. Any Presidential win by them is unlikely.
Third parties have won states in the past. They have never won the majority of states needed to win a Presidential race, and haven’t won a Congressional seat very often in practice. Consider that Bernie Sanders is the only non-major party official currently sitting in Congress and he even ran as a Democrat in the Presidential Primary.
In local and state races there are many third parties running, and there may be less competition. A third party victory is much more possible. It could help create diversity in your state and region.
An Exception to the Third Party Can’t Win Rule
There is one exception to the above in a Presidential election. If the vote is split and goes to the House then technically a more obscure party could win by being voted in by the House despite not having a majority of popular or electoral votes. In my opinion, this very unlikely scenario is probably the only way for a third party to win the Presidency.
When thinking “a can third party win,” one should remember Van Buren’s Free Soil Party, Bryan’s Progressive Free-Silver People’s Party, Teddy’s Progressive Bull Moose Party, and George Wallace’s States’ Rights Party. All failed to win the Presidency despite their popularity and instead “split the vote” and “upset the election.”
The 1824 Election Explained. This election involved a third party upset and splitting of the Democratic-Republican party into the current parties. They had previously been split but came together briefly in the Era of Good Feelings. In this case, all parties were different varieties of Democratic-Republicans. From shortly after this era until Clinton’s time, the Democratic party would always contain a Southern Conservative faction, although, from 1900’s on, a solid social liberal wing, (think FDR and Kennedy) grew alongside it. Learn more about the party switches.
The Election of 1912 Explained. This election straight up changed politics forever. The SOCIAL liberal Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt split the previously social liberal Republican party and changed both major parties in the process. He also lost the Republicans the election by “spoiling the vote” for Taft. Today the Democrats are the social liberal major party.
Maybe Jill Stein or Gary Johnson have more sway than Van Buren, Bryan, Roosevelt, or Wallace did in their day, but those who read history are likely to be as doubtful as I am.
As noted above, those who feel strongly about third parties should be thinking about local and in some cases state positions where a third party has a chance of winning. That aside, the focus should be on voting for or against the legislation. They should also be thinking long term how to become one of the two majority parties. Then, of course, they would no longer be a “third party” and would consequently pass the label of “spoiler” in elections to the party that lost majority favor.
Who Are The Third Party Presidential Candidates?
TIP: Check out past Presidential elections on 270 to see how past races have been upset. Roosevelt’s 1912 election is a notable example. In 1968 and 1948 the states’ rights movement did this, and in 1892 the Progressive People’s Party did this in the Presidential election.
TIP: The names and positions of parties have changed over time. See our page on the parties switching platforms.
Is Voting For a Third Party a Vote for the Other Team? Does Voting Third Party Split the Vote?
Voting for a third party can and has historically upset an election. This is typical since it usually, but not always, deprives a major party candidate of votes. Sometimes it deprives all candidates of the majority, which can work in any party’s favor.
TIP: How voting for a third party affects a race depends on your state or region (see: does my vote count?). If it is a swing-district or swing-state then voting for a third party could change the entire election (see Bush vs. Gore 2000). If however, you are voting against an active majority, then a third party vote does very little and can even make a statement.
TIP: There is a lot of false information out there, so study up and vote tactically. Don’t fool yourself into taking a position based on one side’s viewpoints, remember to look closely at what each candidate stands for and what legislation they have passed in their prior offices.
Third Parties Explained: US History Review.
TIP: The platforms of parties have changed over time to meet the new demands of voters, embracing new key voter issues and demographics and letting go of former issues and members. The two major parties have essentially done an 180 since 1861. While one may feel frustration with either major party candidate, consider the very effective tactic of a begrudged vote for a major party and tactful votes down a ballot to change the general environment in which the President and Congress serve. This can push the major parties toward a direction currently embraced by the many third parties. For instance, if one voted for a local carbon tax and down ballot progressives, these votes could have a similar effect the outcome Jill Stein had been striving for. It isn’t “the same,” but one is well advised to think practically about their vote if they wish to see change.