Third parties face many obstacles in the United States. In all states, the Democratic and Republican candidates automatically get on the ballot, whereas third-party candidates usually have to get thousands of signatures on petitions just to be listed on the ballot. The state and federal governments, which make rules governing elections, are composed of elected Democratic and Republican officials, who have a strong incentive to protect the existing duopoly. Also, third-party candidates often face financial difficulties because a party must have received at least 5 percent of the vote in the previous election in order to qualify for federal funds.





Anti-Masonic Party1828–1832First party to hold a convention to nominate candidates
Prohibition Party1867–presentHas nominated a candidate for president in every election since 1872
Progressive Party1912Elected a number of candidates to state legislatures, Congress, and even the U.S. Senate. Deflected enough votes from Republican William Howard Taft to hand the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
American Independent Party1968–presentWon electoral votes (for George Wallace)
Libertarian Party 1971–present Some members have won local elections.
Green Party1984–presentSome members have won local elections.

the Appeal of Third Parties

Third parties appeal to people for a number of reasons:

  • Ideology: People who feel strongly about a particular issue might be drawn to a third party that focuses exclusively on that issue.

Example: The Greenback Party focused on the monetary system, and the Prohibition Party sought to ban the consumption of alcohol. The Populist Party, meanwhile, grew out of the Populist movement, and the Republican Party developed primarily out of the abolitionist movement.

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo: Some third parties form when part of a major party breaks off in protest and forms a splinter party.

Example: In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt led a group of dissidents out of the Republican Party to form the splinter Progressive Party.

  • Geographical location: Third parties can be closely tied to a specific region, which can increase their appeal. Chicago’s Harold Washington Party, for example, seeks to carry on the legacy of Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor.

The Role of Third Parties

Despite their lack of success in the polls, third parties can affect American politics in a number of ways:

  • Introduce new ideas: Third parties propose many government policies and practices.

Example: The Populist Party introduced ideas that influenced some economic policies of the New Deal, whereas the Anti-Masonic Party was the first party to use a convention to nominate its candidates, in the mid-nineteenth century.

  • Put issues on the agenda: Third parties can force the major parties to address potentially divisive problems.

Example: In 1992, neither Bill Clinton nor George H. W. Bush talked much about the budget deficit until independent candidate Ross Perot emphasized it in his campaign.

  • Spoil the election: Third parties can cost one party an election by playing the spoiler. If a third party draws enough votes away from a major party, it can prevent that party from winning. It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened had the third-party candidate not run, but in some cases, it seems that the third party probably cost one candidate the election.

Example: Some pundits argued that Ralph Nader’s bid in the 2000 presidential election may have cost Al Gore the presidency by siphoning away votes in key states such as Florida.

  • Keep the major parties honest: A leftist party can challenge the Democratic Party, for example, on social justice issues, whereas a conservative party can pose problems for the Republican Party. Because third-party candidates usually have little chance of winning, they can speak more frankly than their major party rivals, addressing facts and issues that the major parties would often prefer to ignore.

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