Every U.S. president elected to office since 1852 has belonged to one of two political parties: Republicans and Democrats. But polling data suggest that many people aren't satisfied with that either-or scenario in the voting booth. In 2018, a Gallup survey found that 57 percent of Americans supported the idea of a third party. Only 38 percent believed the current two-party system was doing an adequate job [source: Reinhart]. Nevertheless, the odds of that happening are slim, judging by third parties' collective legacy as flashes in the pan that glimmer every four years or so and quickly fade out.
Perhaps one of the best-known quotes about political third parties comes from deceased Columbia University professor and popular historian Richard Hofstadter: "Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die" [source: Douthat]. Often functioning to highlight hot-button issues that major parties might not care to approach, third parties have successfully steered political discourse and lawmaking, yet largely haven't stuck around long enough to get their own candidates into office, particularly in the case of presidential elections. Nevertheless, a number of those who have attempted to reach the White House on third party tickets have persisted in public memory because, though ultimately unsuccessful, they attracted noteworthy proportions of popular votes. Not only that, the most successful third-party candidate in U.S. history is also largely responsible for the long-time reign of America's two-party political structure.
Ron Paul (2008)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 0.03
In the 2008 presidential election, Republican Congressman Ron Paul only won 0.03 percent of the popular vote, plopping him in ninth place [source: Federal Election Commission]. Despite the slim returns, the Texas legislator has been credited with sparking the Tea Party, a widely publicized conservative third party that emerged in 2009 [source: Reeve]. Paul's vocal stance on minimizing the role of government to the point of dissolving the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, as well as withdrawing military forces in foreign outposts, also re-energized the Libertarian Party, the oldest third party in the U.S. [source: Sanneh].
Hoping to score the Republican nomination for president in 2012, Paul hit the campaign trail again and spread his shrink-the-government message to larger crowds. But in May 2012, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in an insurmountable delegate lead, Paul threw in the towel, having won no primaries or caucuses.
Strom Thurmond (1948)
Percent of Popular Vote: 2.4
Though he left behind one of the most reviled political legacies in U.S. history, former South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond managed to win 2.4 percent of the popular vote when he ran for president in 1948. Running on a pro-segregation platform, Thurmond was the leader of the third-party States' Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats, which splintered from the Democratic Party when the latter endorsed racial desegregation of the military at its 1948 national convention [source: New Encyclopedia of Georgia]. Appealing to states in the Deep South, Thurmond and the Dixiecrats won Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana [source: Woolley and Peters]. But the segregationist stance didn't attract broader support in the pre-Civil Rights political climate, and the party dissolved after the election. As Democratic opponent Harry S. Truman then entered his second presidential term, Thurmond, meanwhile, went on to have a 47-year career as a U.S. senator for South Carolina, and turned 100 years old while still in office in 2002 [source: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress].
Ralph Nader (2000)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 2.74
When Green Party candidate Ralph Nader announced that he was running for president in 2004, the response from the liberal end of the political spectrum wasn't necessarily celebratory. Four years earlier, Democratic leadership had encouraged Nader to drop out of the race to prevent the Green Party from potentially distracting voters from their candidate, former Vice President Al Gore. When Gore lost to Republican candidate George W. Bush by fewer than 1 million votes, some Democrats automatically blamed Nader for spoiling the election [source: Moore].
Running on a platform of government-sponsored healthcare, workers' rights and the Green Party's cornerstone of pro-environmental protectionism, Nader had snagged more than 2.8 million votes -- and an aftermath of outrage from the defeated Democrats.
George Wallace (1968)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 13.5
The year 1968 was a raucous enough, even without a presidential election. Race riots erupted in major U.S. cities, including Detroit, Baltimore and Chicago, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in April and June, respectively. During that time, Alabama Governor George Wallace's wife also died from cancer in the midst of his campaign for the White House [source: PBS].
Having famously declared "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Wallace was running for president on the American Independent Party ticket, which staunchly opposed desegregation and withdrawal from the Vietnam War [source: Pearson]. Harping on racist fears of integration, Wallace performed well below the Mason-Dixon Line and triumphed in five Southern states, capturing a sizeable 13.5 percent of the nationwide popular vote [source: Woolley and Peters]. But as Civil Rights tensions gradually eased, Wallace's anti-minority rhetoric lost its appeal in his successive presidential attempts in 1972 and 1976 [source: Pearson].
Robert La Follette (1924)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 16.6
While serving as a Wisconsin district attorney in 1890, Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette was offered a bribe by a Republican state leader in exchange for La Follette stopping a court case from indicting a group of fellow legislators [source: Wisconsin Historical Society]. Outraged by the display of political corruption, La Follette began a public career of speaking out against corporate and political dishonesty and leapfrogged from the governorship of Wisconsin in 1900 to the U.S. Senate six years later, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. Having earned a national reputation as a reform leader and an outspoken opponent of American involvement in World War I, La Follette ran for president in 1924 on the Progressive Party ticket. With 16.6 percent of the popular vote, La Follette nevertheless came in third to Democrat John W. Davis and the winning Republican Calvin Coolidge, who brought in 54 percent of the votes. La Follette died the next year.
Ross Perot (1992)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 18.6
Independent presidential candidate and billionaire Ross Perot suspended his 1992 campaign for three months from July to October, restarting it barely one month before Americans headed to the polls to pick among him, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton [source: Holmes]. The popular voting results indicated that the break from stump speeches and baby-kissing wasn't all that detrimental either.
Having bankrolled his own bid for the White House, the wealthy Texan courted voters with promises of a balanced federal budget and a halt to deficit spending. In return, Perot wooed 18.6 percent of the vote. Stunned pundits noted that the conservative-leaning Perot had become one of the most successful third party candidates to date, but his second presidential audition in 1996 on the Reform Party ticket wasn't so rosy. Up against Bill Clinton once again, Perot ended up with only 8 percent of the votes [source: Woolley and Peters].
Millard Fillmore (1856)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 21.6
Just as race relations compelled anti-desegregation politicians Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) to run for president on third-party tickets, the rights of black citizens was also the pivotal issue a century prior in the 1856 election. At the same time, the political landscape was undergoing a major transition. The formerly dominant Whig Party had begun dissolving, and a new, pro-abolition group called the Republican Party was on the rise to challenge the established Democratic Party, which preferred to leave slavery up to states to decide [source: Ernst and Sabato]. With that topsy-turvy political backdrop, the middle-ground American Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore, who graduated from vice president to the executive seat after Zachary Taylor died in office in 1850, to campaign on its anti-immigration platform. Fillmore and his nicknamed "Know Nothings" -- a moniker that referred to the secret way in which the party was organized -- didn't hold much appeal to slave-holding Southerners but diverted enough electoral votes away from the Republicans to deliver the presidency to Democrat James Buchanan [source: Heidler, Heidler and Coles]. Maryland was the only state that sided with Fillmore and the Know Nothings.
William Jennings Bryan (1896)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 45.8
In 1896, former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan received nominations to run for president from not one, but three, parties: Democrats, Populists and Free Silver [source: Encyclopædia Britannica]. Having traveled around speaking publicly on progressive issues for the previous two years, Bryan wowed the audience at the 1896 Democratic National Convention with his famous speech, "Cross of Gold," which argued for broadening U.S. currency beyond gold. By stumping for inflated silver coinage, which would have been a financial boon to debt-strapped farmers, the nicknamed "Boy Orator" held the most appeal for rural and agrarian voters, while the Republicans' William McKinley drew in the urban electorate [source: USHistory.org].
In the end, the support of three political parties, including the Democrats, wasn't enough to whip the Republicans. Bryan gave McKinley a decent run for his money and went on to run as the Democratic nominee for president two more times, serve as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State and prosecute John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution in the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial. Meanwhile, the 1896 loss also signaled the disbanding of the Populist Party.
Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 29
When Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt first galloped into the White House as William McKinley's vice president in 1900, he did so as a Republican. But when he ran for office for the third time in 1912, the splintered Republicans sided with Roosevelt's 1908 presidential successor, William Howard Taft. Incensed, Roosevelt and his band of allies quickly formed a third party, the National Progressives, better known as the Bull Moose Party [source: Garber].
Up against progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt campaigned aggressively until a few weeks before the election, when he narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Roosevelt was shot in the chest outside a Milwaukee hotel by a local saloon owner, and the ex-president's metal eyeglass case in his breast pocket and 50-page speech he clutched against himself stopped the bullet from making fatal contact [source: Garber]. In true Rough Rider style, Roosevelt delivered his speech as planned that afternoon with the bullet still in his body [source: Glass]. That brand of bravado couldn't make up for the rift within the Republican Party that split votes between Roosevelt and Taft, thus surrendering the electoral advantage -- and the presidency -- to Woodrow Wilson.
Abraham Lincoln (1860)
Percent of the Popular Vote: 39.8
Believe it or not, when Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860, the Republican Party hadn't emerged yet as a major force in American politics [source: PBS]. It had only been around for six years and was started by anti-slavery groups. In 1856, Republican Party candidate John C. Fremont came in second out of three, beating out the previously powerful Whig Party. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln competed for the presidency against three others, which meant the somewhat slim 39.8 percent of the vote he earned, largely concentrated among Northern constituents, was enough to push him and the Republicans over the victory line.
Although Lincoln didn't found the Republican Party as some people mistakenly claim, the "Great Emancipator" was responsible for cementing its stance as a major political party in the United States. Therefore, not only did a third-party candidate win the presidency, but it also catapulted American politics toward its long-standing two-party system.
Author's Note: Top 10 Most Successful Third-party Presidential Candidates
Even though no third party candidate has won the White House since the 1850s, repeated calls for a third party that could shake up the electoral status quo in a time of dwindling presidential approval ratings and a less-than-exciting Republican candidate have come from conservatives and liberals alike. That's because, even though it doesn't necessarily show in the exit polls, American politics loves third parties and their unique brand of refocusing political conversations and debates away from the two-party platforms. Understanding how the 10 Most Successful Third Party Candidates did just that also offers case studies throughout American history of why these fleeting political groups shouldn't be written off as ineffective. Just because third parties have a tough time getting their candidates into office, doesn't mean they don't serve a valuable governmental role.
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Originally Published: Jun 25, 2012