An Indy History Lesson: Third Parties’ Impact On Presidential Elections

Alex Kane Nov 24, 2008

While no third party presidential candidate was able to crack the one percent threshold in this year’s election, third parties have long been an important part of the electoral process. Historically, third parties have sprung up from across the ideological spectrum. And although none has won the White House since Abraham Lincoln and the newly formed Republican Party triumphed in a four-way race in 1860, third parties have periodically made an impact by pushing issues into the mainstream that wouldn’t have otherwise received attention, or by garnering enough votes to affect the chances of major party candidates. Here’s a quick look at some of the more notable third-party candidacies since the beginning of the 20th Century:

1904:  This year saw the start of what would be a series of presidential campaigns waged by the Socialist Party, with their standard-bearer being candidate Eugene Victor Debs.  Debs, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union, became one of the most prominent leftists during the early twentieth century.  In a speech in September 1904, his first presidential campaign, Debs said, “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.” Debs garnered 400,000 votes or about three percent of the vote.  Also in 1904, Prohibitionist Party candidate Silas C. Swallow received 258,000 votes.  

1912:  After a contested Republican Party convention in which President William Howard Taft came away with the nomination, former President Theodore Roosevelt and his supporters broke away from the Republican Party and formed the Progressive, or “Bull Moose” Party. Roosevelt had a much more progressive domestic platform compared than Taft, advocating for an increase in market regulation and pro-labor laws.  The party platform read, in part, “This country belongs to the people who inhabit it. Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.”  Roosevelt’s candidacy in 1912 would end up being the most successful third-party campaign in modern U.S. history with Roosevelt winning 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes. His rival Taft received only 23 percent of the popular vote and a measly eight electoral votes. Roosevelt’s candidacy effectively split the Republican Party vote, and conservative Democrat Woodrow Wilson entered the White House with 42 percent of the vote.  Eugene Debs finished in fourth with six percent of the vote, a highwater mark for the perennial Socialist Party candidate. 

1920:  With World War One in full swing, Eugene Debs gave a speech in 1918 condemning the war in Europe, saying, “every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense!”  The speech, given in Canton, Ohio, got him convicted in federal court under the Espionage Act.  Debs lost his citizenship and was sentenced to ten years in prison.  During the trial, Debs gave his most famous statement, speaking to the judge:  “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Despite being in prison, Debs was chosen by the Socialist Party to run for president in 1920.  Debs received an astounding million votes, or three percent of the total vote.  Another leftist candidate that ran in the 1920 presidential election was Parley P. Christensen on the newly formed Farmer-Labor Party.  He ran in 19 states, and won over 250,000 votes.  The Prohibition Party received only 0.7 percent of the vote, its worst performance since 1884. But that may have been due to its single issue (the prohibition of alcohol
) having been enshrined in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution the previous year, a classic example of a third-party crusade that affected change without ever coming close to dislodging the two major parties from power. 

1948:  The issue of civil-rights for African Americans came to the forefront of the Democratic National Convention held in Philadelphia in July 1948.  President Harry Truman had issued an executive order that desegregated the armed forces, dismaying many conservative southern Democrats.  These southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” were alarmed at Truman’s advocacy for a civil rights plank to be included in the platform of the Democratic Party.  When the civil rights plank made it into the party platform, delegates from Alabama and Mississippi walked out of the convention, and two and a half weeks later met in Birmingham, Alabama to form the States’ Rights Democratic Party.  The Dixiecrats selected a racist and staunch advocate of segregation, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.  Although the Dixiecrats didn’t survive as an organized party after the 1948 election, their breakaway from the national party set the stage for the full-scale migration of conservative southern Democrats to the Republicans following passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Another third-party candidate was former Vice President Henry Wallace, a liberal Democrat who campaigned for warmer relations between the USSR and the United States.  Wallace ran on the Progressive Party ticket, not to be confused with the “Bull Moose” version of the Progressive Party.  In the end, Harry Truman pulled off what is considered one of the greatest political upsets in American history when he defeated Republican Thomas Dewey, overcoming a three-way split of the Democratic Party. Thurmond won over a million votes and 39 electoral votes, while Wallace also won over a million votes, but captured no electoral votes.  

1968:  The American Independent Party was Alabama Governor George Wallace’s vehicle to run for President on a ticket that emphasized “law and order,” a coded appeal to racist whites.  Wallace, who once threatened to stand in the door of schools to prevent them from desegregating, won the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, and collected 46 electoral votes.  His vote total was over 9 million nationally.  Richard Nixon, who won the election, successfully adopted Wallace’s appeal of “law and order” and “states’ rights” to appeal to whites as well.  This election marked the start of the Southern Strategy, in which Republicans tapped into the racial fears that Southern whites were beginning to feel, causing them to defect to the Republican Party.  The American Independent Party still fields presidential candidates today, and the notorious far-right conservative Alan Keyes was their presidential candidate this year.

1992:  Ross Perot made the second most successful run ever by a modern third party candidate when he battled George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for the office of the President. Perot, a folksy, billionaire businessman from Texas, took up positions that included:  a pro-choice stance on abortion; stressing the need for a balanced budget; and a strong anti-NAFTA position.  In February of 1992, he became the first presidential candidate to launch his campaign on a TV talk show when he appeared on Larry King Live (CNN), and announced that he would run for president if his supporters got his name on the ballot in all 50 states.  Riding a wave of support from voters disenchanted with professional politicians, Perot found himself leading both Bush and Clinton in the polls during the summer of 1992 only to drop out of the race in bizarre fashion. According to the New York Times, “he thought the Democratic Party had been revitalized and that he did not want to force the contest to go to the House of Representatives.”  This was the original reason Perot gave, but he later claimed that the GOP was going to attempt to smear his daughter “with a computer-altered photograph.”  He eventually rejoined the race, performed well in the three presidential debates and won 19 percent of the popular vote while failing to win a single state.

2000:  The most significant, and eventually controversial, third-party contender in this year was Ralph Nader.  Nader, a long-time consumer advocate, ran on the Green Party ticket focusing on the prevalence of corporate power in America.  Nader saw his rivals, Al Gore and George W. Bush, as essentially being two sides of the same pro-corporate coin.  He was fond of saying things like, “Our two parties are basically one corporate party wearing two heads and different makeup…There is a difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but not that much.”  Nader, whose campaign was backed by powerhouse lefty celebrities like Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon, won almost 2.9 million votes in the 2000 presidential election, including 97,000 votes in Florida.  After the Supreme Court allowed Bush’s 537-vote victory in Florida to stand and gave him the keys to the White House, many Democrats denounced Nader as a “spoiler.”  Nader and his supporters contend that Gore’s defeat was caused by his running an ineffectual campaign, as well as the Supreme Court. 

2008:  For a rundown on this year’s third-party candidates, see “Third Party—An Alternative Vote” .
For The Indypendent’s coverage of third party election results click here.

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