Gary Yarus: Roadblocks to Third-Party Success – Part I

At the end of my December 30th post in RP, “Is a “Third-Party Needed?”,  I asked the question,  Do you know which President was the last successful third-party candidate?  I suspect most reader’s had a common thought that this must be a trick question. Surely a third-party candidate could never be successfully elected President.  I am equally sure some of you used Google and found the “rest of the story”.

There was a time a respected lawyer, well known in his community, got elected to office at the state level. He was then approached by an existing political part, organized for several years that asked him to run for President. The man never thought about higher office, but after talking with his advisers and family took up the challenge and began campaigning across the country. Wherever he went, the two major parties of the day would just criticize him and his relatively unknown party.  After much campaigning, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States as a Republican. Yes, the Republican Party was the third-party during that time period when Whigs and the Democrats were the two major parties who had held the Presidency until then.

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gary-yarus-1953e8f7beWritten with national Presidential elections in mind, there have been many different kinds of challenges to dominance of the two major parties, yet we have had the same two-party duopoly in power for 150 years as both Republicans and Democrats have proved their staying power. During this time period the duopoly has had landslide victories, demoralizing defeats, cliffhanger wins and losses, major splinter movements, and the realignment of their electoral support base.  Yet they have endured Presidential campaigns and stayed in power.

The reasons for dismal third-party success is not always the same. The reasons may change over time and usually, no one factor limits the development of a third-party. It is often, several factors working in combination.

For example, ballot access, considered the most important roadblock, and monetary constraints hurt John Anderson in 1980, the Electoral College system hurt both Anderson and Perot but did not hurt Strom Thurmond. George Wallace, in 1968,  garnered 46 votes in the Electoral College but was held in check by cultural factors resulting in Richard Nixon winning a landslide victory.  In the 1992 election cycle, independent candidate H. Ross Perot had no ballot access process problems qualifying in all fifty states.  He was even included in the Presidential debates, and at one time held a lead in the polls, but ultimately finished with no electoral votes. The 2000 race was incredibly close, with the Supreme Court finally deciding the election in favor of George W. Bush. Although numerous factors were at play during that election, many Democrats consider Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy to have been monumental.

There is often disagreement on which factors are most detrimental in any particular election, although there is consensus that the constraints are quite high.  According to ballot access expert Richard Winger, “The extreme disparity of the burdens placed on old, established parties versus new parties has no parallel in any other democratic nation in the world.

In this post,  I will examine two of the many cultural, sometimes called psychological factors, affecting third-party success.

“The Wasted Vote”

I always hear people say, I will only vote for front-runners, I don’t want to waste my vote.  They believe voting for a third-party candidate, who can’t possible win, would do just that. Finding it distasteful to waste their vote, they deny themselves from making, perhaps, a more principled preferred choice which would might be better for the country.

As I have mentioned previously, in 2012, I voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein for President.

As an escapee from the Democratic Party, I will most likely stay committed to the Green Party platform, intending to cast Green votes whenever like-minded Green candidates are on the ballot.

In 2012, I used a time-tested argument with my Obama-supporting, Democratic party friends. I told them if they saw merit in expanding our democracy and improving our electoral system by including a third-party, they should also vote Green, since Obama didn’t have a realistic chance of winning  the decidedly “red” state of Kentucky anyway.  I explained, they could overcome the hurdle of a “wasted vote” and peer pressure and make a pragmatic and principled vote and not anguish over defecting from their Democratic Party roots..  In doing so,  they would be helping the Green candidate garner 5% of the popular vote guaranteeing Green Party ballot access and Federal matching funds in upcoming elections. My argument, was based  upon the the 1948 wasted-vote-theory of  President Truman against the Progressive Party.  In the final analysis,  my pitch didn’t hold sway with many, so, few were cured from their wasted vote syndrome.

“The Spoiler Effect” 

Some voters do not fear wasting their vote and are willing to vote for a candidate having little chance of winning but are unwilling to support a third-party candidate if they believe that it may change the outcome of an election, if doing so elect the candidate they least prefer.   Since our election winner is based on a plurality of votes,  races with three or more candidates allow a winner to be elected with less than 50% of the vote, two like-minded candidates can split their base of support, allowing a less desired candidate to win. This is known as the “spoiler effect.” This winning candidate, if elected with less than 50% of votes, does not necessarily have the support of most voters and may in fact represent views in conflict with the majority of voters. In some instances, vote-splitting between two candidates can lead to the election of a candidate whose views are the polar opposite of the majority of voters. Strong evidence indicate people vote strategically to avoid this “spoiler effect.” But the entire problem can be avoided with a more modern approach to voting which will be discussed in a future post.

During my lifetime, there are many examples where a third-party candidate has been arguably accused of denying victory to a major nominee in a Presidential Election: In 1968, George Wallace denied victory to Hubert Humphrey allowing Nixon to win, Ross Perot in 1992 denied victory to George H.W. Bush allowing Bill Clinton to win, and again in 1996, Perot helped defeat Bob Dole, allowing  the second Clinton term. The most prominent example is the 2000 President election, in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nadar received 94,000 votes in Florida, contributing to Democratic Party candidate Al Gore, with help from the Supreme Court, loosing the election to George W. Bush.

In future 3rd Party posts,  I will cover, the roadblocks imposed by the presidential electoral system, ballot access laws, media coverage and financial restraints. Finally, as an added category, I will examine some  internal failures of third parties, including poor campaign decisions and failure to build coalitions.

Stay tuned!

Gary Yarus is an escapee from the Democratic Party, a student of political movements, a progressive populist, a Green Party pro-democracy advocate and the curator of an online magazine, covering democracy, ecology, peace and social justice called “The Beacon”  Email

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