It seems that for the past 47 years (1968-2015), there has not been a significant third party presidential contender. This is now a common theme of American politics. The Republicans and Democrats have become so powerful and extreme that third party candidates usually get drowned out over the extreme views and big money. Third party contenders tend to be either in a niche political view or libertarian. In this post, I want to show some data from the American Presidency Project and add my own knowledge about why third parties no longer contend in presidential elections. I think to start on this question we need to discover how parties came about and transition to the numbers.
George Washington in his farewell address warned against the formation of political parties. The warning last through Washington’s two terms, which became the precedent. In election race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, parties started to form. The party lines were drawn by the beliefs of about the strength and role of the federal government. This is a simple explanation but it serves as the basis for the parties as we know and understand them now. John Adams was a federalist who believed the federal government should play more of a role in running the country. Federalist also supported a strong constitution before its signing. Meanwhile, on the other side Thomas Jefferson who lost this election but won the next election was on the side of the Anti-Federalists. They opposed the signing of a constitution and were strong believers of state rights. The differences in organization gave the federalist a slight advantage and resulted in the signing of the constitution and election of John Adams as second President of USA.
The two parties further evolved as time went on. The two main parties were basically the same until the civil war in 1860. It was because of a third party that Abraham Lincoln was able to run and be elected as the first true Republican party president. Its quite confusing because some of the whigs and the democrats pre-civil war became today’s Republican party. The split of the Whig party created modern Republicanism. The 1860 election featured two third party candidates. It was first true third party election. It did not happen again for another 30 years or so in 1892 when Populist candidate James B. Weaver ran against an democratic candidate Grover Cleveland and an Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison. (Grover Cleveland won, fun fact: only president to serve two separate terms)
There was only 4 third party elections since 1892 going back to the latest impactful third party election. However, let me clarify that what I mean by impactful is a third party candidate won a state or states. The last time a third party candidate won a state was in 1968. American Independent George Wallace won three states from the race. President Richard Nixon won that election. The next election to effected by a third party was in 1992 and 1996 This is the most modern example of an election being impacted by a third party candidate. H. Ross Perot had just enough votes to help Bill Clinton edge out George H. Bush and in 1996 Robert Dole. Then in 2000, Ralph Nader made a considerable run stealing some votes from Al Gore. Helping George W. Bush win. This is pretty much full run down of what the data can tell us. The numbers show us the results only.
The interesting question that I really want to answer is why are third party candidates not getting any traction? The problem is that data can only give us so much. I believe that American values are changing and becoming more extreme. This is evidenced by Congress’ inability to pass anything. A lack of bipartisan work tells me that extreme views are becoming the norm. This unfortunate for American voters of all kinds. Third party candidates can appeal to people who just don’t buy into the two mainstream parties. Another interesting fact is that many voters are independent. According to this April 2015 Pew article at least 48 percent of voters are registered as independent. Of course, there is many other factors that cannot be overlooked like gender, age and race origin when looking at party affiliations. The question still remains unanswered though because none of these facts explain the strange void.
One factor that might be the most heavy influence on third party candidates is voter turnout. Voters have been turning out in historic lows. According to this article, approximately 36.4 percent of voters showed up at the polls. This might be the cause of a third party void. I have said this in previous articles that young people are the primary reason why voter turnout is low. I know and have met many people who say they don’t like politics or they can’t stand either party. As it happens, I am a person who can’t stand either party. However, I still vote. Civic duty is an important right to exercise. With the two party system, I think over time you tend to get more extreme because with no third party contenders the parties only have to be the opposite of each other. For example, if one party wants a higher minimum wage then the other will want a lower minimum wage. Its human nature to go more extreme to get your point across especially if you just have one opponent.
So you’re probably thinking all that explanation and history just to say voter turnout is the problem. Unfortunately that is where it seems to be creating the third party void. To put into perspective our two party system with rare third party candidates, we must look at Europe. In Europe, many countries have democracies with multi party elections. There is even countries with as many as 20 candidates in an election. I also feel like its healthy for a democracy to have many options. If there are many options for elections then it creates a fair playing field. In our two party system, there is usually 2 or 3 legitimate contenders sometimes all within the same party. The problem of a third party void is that it leaves out many voters who don’t like either of the two party candidates.
My recommendation to anyone else out there who ends up reading this and finds themselves not being able to pick a candidate like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. I would strongly encourage you to look at third party candidates. Listen, I know they won’t win but if you vote and share then maybe one day we can change our two party system. Its not all about winning. Its about exercising your right to vote. Just my opinion here, but I believe that Rand Paul should switch to a third party. I think he could do some damage next election.
I hope you found this to be educational. Thanks for reading!