Third party, or minor party, is a term used in the United States' two-party system for political parties other than the Republican and Democratic parties.

Third parties are most often encountered in presidential nominations. Third party vote splitting exceeded a president's margin of victory in three elections: 1844, 2000, and 2016. No third-party candidate has won the presidency since the Republican Party became the second major party in 1856. Since then a third-party candidate won states in five elections: 1892, 1912, 1924, 1948, and 1968. 1992 was the last time a third-party candidate won over 5% of the vote and placed second in any state.[1]

Competitiveness

With few exceptions,[2] the U.S. system has two major parties which have won, on average, 98% of all state and federal seats.[3] There have only been a few rare elections where a minor party was competitive with the major parties, occasionally replacing one of the major parties in the 19th century.[4][5] The winner take all system for presidential elections and the single-seat plurality voting system for Congressional elections have over time helped establish the two-party system (see Duverger's law). Although third-party candidates rarely win elections, they can have an effect on them through vote splitting and other impacts.

Notable exceptions

Main articles: List of third party and independent performances in United States elections, List of third-party performances in United States presidential elections, and Third-party and independent members of the United States Congress

Greens, Libertarians, and others have elected state legislators and local officials. The Socialist Party elected hundreds of local officials in 169 cities in 33 states by 1912, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin; New Haven, Connecticut; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Schenectady, New York.[6] There have been governors elected as independents, and from such parties as Progressive, Reform, Farmer-Labor, Populist, and Prohibition. After losing a Republican primary in 2010, Bill Walker of Alaska won a single term in 2014 as an independent by joining forces with the democratic nominee. In 1998, wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket.[7]

Sometimes a national officeholder that is not a member of any party is elected. Previously, Senator Lisa Murkowski won re-election in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary to a Tea party candidate, and Senator Joe Lieberman ran and won reelection to the Senate as an "Independent Democrat" in 2006 after losing the Democratic primary.[8][9] As of 2023, there are only three U.S. senators, Angus King, Bernie Sanders and Kyrsten Sinema, who identify as Independent and all caucus with the Democrats.[10] Sinema may have left the Democratic Party in 2022 because she thought she could not win a democratic primary race in 2024.[11]

The last time a third-party candidate carried any states in a presidential race was George Wallace in 1968, while the last third-party candidate to finish runner-up or greater was former president Teddy Roosevelt's 2nd-place finish on the Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912.[1] The only three U.S. presidents without a major party affiliation upon election were George Washington, John Tyler, and Andrew Johnson, and only Washington served his entire tenure as an independent. Neither of the other two were ever elected president in their own right, both being vice presidents who ascended to office upon the death of the president, and both became independents because they were unpopular with their parties. John Tyler was elected on the Whig ticket in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, but was expelled by his own party. Johnson was the running mate for Abraham Lincoln, who was reelected on the National Union ticket in 1864; it was a temporary name for the Republican Party.

Favorable systems for third parties

Electoral fusion

Electoral fusion in the United States is an arrangement where two or more U.S. political parties on a ballot list the same candidate,[12] allowing that candidate to receive votes on multiple party lines in the same election.[13]

Electoral fusion is also known as fusion voting, cross endorsement, multiple party nomination, multi-party nomination, plural nomination, and ballot freedom.[14][15]

Electoral fusion was once widespread in the United States; however, as of 2024, it remains legal and common only in New York and Connecticut. It was once legal in every state and credited by advocates as being instrumental in enabling major democratic advances.[16]

Ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting in the US by state
  Some state-wide elections
  Local option for municipalities to opt-in
  Local elections in some jurisdictions
  RCV banned state-wide

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) can refer to one of several ranked voting methods used in some cities and states in the United States. The term is not strictly defined, but most often refers to instant-runoff voting (IRV) or single transferable vote (STV).

RCV is used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Maine; and for state, congressional, and presidential general elections in Alaska. It is used for local elections in 47 US cities including Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Cambridge, to name a few.[17] It is also used by the Virginia, Utah, and Indiana Republican parties in state conventions and primaries.[18][19][20] As a contingency in the case of a runoff election, RCV ballots are used by overseas voters in six states.[17]

RCV is used in American non-governmental elections as well. Examples include student elections at approximately 95 colleges and universities, along with elections for officers in professional associations, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars), American Chemical Society, American Philosophical Association, and Society of Actuaries.[17]

Between 1912 and 1930 limited forms of RCV, typically with only two rankings, were implemented but later repealed,[21] as has also occurred in some cities in the 21st century.[22][23][24]

Approval voting

On an approval ballot, the voter can select any number of candidates.

Approval voting is an electoral system in which voters can select any number of candidates instead of selecting only one.

Approval voting ballots show a list of all the candidates running and each voter indicates support for as many candidates as they see fit. Final tallies show how many votes each candidate received, and the winner is the candidate with the most support.

Proportional representation

Activists campaigning for proportional representation in Canada in September 2013

Proportional representation (PR) refers to any type of electoral system under which subgroups of an electorate are reflected proportionately in the elected body.[25] The concept applies mainly to political divisions (political parties) among voters. The essence of such systems is that all votes cast – or almost all votes cast – contribute to the result and are effectively used to help elect someone – not just a bare plurality or (exclusively) the majority – and that the system produces mixed, balanced representation reflecting how votes are cast.

In the context of voting systems, PR means that each representative in an assembly is elected by a roughly equal number of voters. In the common case of electoral systems that only allow a choice of parties, the seats are allocated in proportion to the vote share each party receives.

The term "proportional representation" may also be used to mean fair representation by population as applied to states, regions, etc. However, representation being proportional with respect solely to population size is not considered to make an electoral system "proportional" the way the term is usually used. For example, the US House of Representatives has 435 members, who each represent a roughly equal number of people and each state is allocated a number of members in accordance with its population size, thus producing representation by population. But members of the House are elected in single-member districts generally through first-past-the-post elections: single-winner contests are not proportional by vote share as each has only one winner. Conversely, PR electoral systems are typically proportional to both population (seats per set amount of population) and vote share (typically party-wise). The European Parliament gives each member state a number of seats roughly based on its population size (see degressive proportionality) and in each member state, the election must also be held using a PR system (with proportional results based on vote share).

The most widely used families of PR electoral systems are party-list PR, used in 85 countries,[26] mixed-member PR (MMP), used in 7 countries,[27] and the single transferable vote (STV), used in Ireland,[28] Malta, the Australian Senate, and Indian Rajya Sabha.[29][30] All PR systems require multi-member voting districts, meaning votes are pooled to elect multiple representatives at once. Pooling may be done in various multi-member districts (in STV and most list PR systems) or in single countrywide – so called at-large – district (in other list-PR systems). A country-wide pooling of votes to elect more than a hundred members is used in Angola, for example. For large districts, party-list PR is more often used. A purely candidate-based PR system, STV, has never been used to elect more than 21 in a single contest to this point in history. Some PR systems use at-large pooling or regional pooling in conjunction with single-member districts (such as the New Zealand MMP and the Scottish additional member system), others use at-large pooling in conjunction with multi-member districts (Scandinavian countries). In these cases, pooling is used to allocate leveling seats (top-up) to compensate for the disproportional results produced in single-member districts using FPTP (MMP/AMS) or to increase the fairness produced in multi-member districts using list PR (Denmark's MMP). PR systems that achieve the highest levels of proportionality tend to use as general pooling as possible (typically country-wide) or districts with large numbers of seats.

Due to various factors, perfect proportionality is rarely achieved under PR systems. The use of electoral thresholds (in list-PR or MMP), small districts with few seats in each (in STV or list-PR), absence or insufficient number of leveling seats (in list-PR, MMP or AMS) may produce disproportionality. Other sources are electoral tactics that may be used in certain systems, such as party splitting in some MMP systems. Nonetheless, PR systems approximate proportionality much better than other systems[31] and are more resistant to gerrymandering and other forms of manipulation.

Barriers to third party success

The presidential election results for all Libertarian Party candidates from 1972 to 2020.

Winner-take-all vs. proportional representation

See also: Duverger's law

In winner-take-all (or plurality voting), the candidate with the largest number of votes wins, even if the margin of victory is extremely narrow or the proportion of votes received is not a majority. Unlike in proportional representation, runners-up do not gain representation in a first-past-the-post system. In the United States, systems of proportional representation are uncommon, especially above the local level and are entirely absent at the national level (even though states like Maine have introduced systems like ranked-choice voting, which ensures that the voice of third party voters is heard in case none of the candidates receives a majority of preferences).[32] In Presidential elections, the majority requirement of the Electoral College, and the Constitutional provision for the House of Representatives to decide the election if no candidate receives a majority, serves as a further disincentive to third party candidacies.

In the United States, if an interest group is at odds with its traditional party, it has the option of running sympathetic candidates in primaries. Candidates failing in the primary may form or join a third party. Because of the difficulties third parties face in gaining any representation, third parties tend to exist to promote a specific issue or personality. Often, the intent is to force national public attention on such an issue. Then, one or both of the major parties may rise to commit for or against the matter at hand, or at least weigh in. H. Ross Perot eventually founded a third party, the Reform Party, to support his 1996 campaign. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt made a spirited run for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, but he never made any efforts to help Progressive congressional candidates in 1914, and in the 1916 election, he supported the Republicans.

Micah Sifry argues that despite years of discontentment with the two major parties in the United States, third parties should try to arise organically at the local level in places where ranked-choice voting and other more democratic systems can build momentum, rather than starting with the presidency, a proposition incredibly unlikely to succeed.[33]

Spoiler effect

Main article: Spoiler effect

Strategic voting often leads to a third-party that underperforms its poll numbers with voters wanting to make sure their vote helps determine the winner. In response, some third-party candidates express ambivalence about which major party they prefer and their possible role as spoiler[34] or deny the possibility.[35] The US presidential elections most consistently cited as having been spoiled by third-party candidates are 1844, 2000, and 2016.[36][37][38][39][40][41] This phenomenon becomes more controversial when a third-party candidate receives help from supporters of another candidate hoping they play a spoiler role.[42][43][44]

Ballot access laws

Nationally, ballot access laws require candidates to pay registration fees and provide signatures if a party has not garnered a certain percentage of votes in previous elections.[45] In recent presidential elections, Ross Perot appeared on all 50 state ballots as an independent in 1992 and the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996. Perot, a billionaire, was able to provide significant funds for his campaigns. Patrick Buchanan appeared on all 50 state ballots in the 2000 election, largely on the basis of Perot's performance as the Reform Party's candidate four years prior. The Libertarian Party has appeared on the ballot in at least 46 states in every election since 1980, except for 1984 when David Bergland gained access in only 36 states. In 1980, 1992, 1996, 2016, and 2020 the party made the ballot in all 50 states and D.C. The Green Party gained access to 44 state ballots in 2000 but only 27 in 2004. The Constitution Party appeared on 42 state ballots in 2004. Ralph Nader, running as an independent in 2004, appeared on 34 state ballots. In 2008, Nader appeared on 45 state ballots and the D.C. ballot.

Debate rules

Presidential debates between the nominees of the two major parties first occurred in 1960, then after three cycles without debates, resumed in 1976. Third party or independent candidates have been in debates in only two cycles. Ronald Reagan and John Anderson debated in 1980, but incumbent President Carter refused to appear with Anderson, and Anderson was excluded from the subsequent debate between Reagan and Carter. Independent Ross Perot was included in all three of the debates with Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, largely at the behest of the Bush campaign.[citation needed] His participation helped Perot climb from 7% before the debates to 19% on Election Day.[46]

Perot did not make the 1996 debates.[47] In 2000, revised debate access rules made it even harder for third-party candidates to gain access by stipulating that, besides being on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority, debate participants must clear 15% in pre-debate opinion polls. This rule has continued being in effect as of 2008.[48][49] The 15% criterion, had it been in place, would have prevented Anderson and Perot from participating in the debates in which they appeared. Debates in other state and federal elections often exclude independent and third-party candidates, and the Supreme Court has upheld this practice in several cases. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private company.[50]

Major parties adopt third-party platforms

They can draw attention to issues that may be ignored by the majority parties. If such an issue finds acceptance with the voters, one or more of the major parties may adopt the issue into its own party platform. A third-party candidate will sometimes strike a chord with a section of voters in a particular election, bringing an issue to national prominence and amount a significant proportion of the popular vote. Major parties often respond to this by adopting this issue in a subsequent election. After 1968, under President Nixon the Republican Party adopted a "Southern Strategy" to win the support of conservative Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights Movement and resulting legislation and to combat local third parties. This can be seen as a response to the popularity of segregationist candidate George Wallace who gained 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 election for the American Independent Party. In 1996, both the Democrats and the Republicans agreed to deficit reduction on the back of Ross Perot's popularity in the 1992 election. This severely undermined Perot's campaign in the 1996 election.[citation needed]

However, changing positions can be costly for a major party. For example, in the US 2000 Presidential election Magee predicts that Gore shifted his positions to the left to account for Nader, which lost him some valuable centrist voters to Bush.[51] In cases with an extreme minor candidate, not changing positions can help to reframe the more competitive candidate as moderate, helping to attract the most valuable swing voters from their top competitor while losing some voters on the extreme to the less competitive minor candidate.[52]

Current U.S. third parties

Main article: List of political parties in the United States

This list does not include political organizations that do not run candidates for office but otherwise function similarly to third parties. For non-electoral political "parties", see here.

Currently, the Libertarian and Green parties are the largest in the U.S. after the Republican and Democratic parties. Shown here are signs of their 2016 campaigns, respectively.

Largest

Top 5 U.S. political parties by registration (2022)
Party No. registrations[53] % registered voters[53]
Democratic Party 47,130,651 38.73%
Republican Party 36,019,694 29.60%
Libertarian Party 732,865 0.6%
Green Party 234,120 0.19%
Constitution Party 128,914 0.11%

Smaller parties (listed by ideology)

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This section includes only parties that have actually run candidates under their name in recent years.

Right-wing

This section includes any party that advocates positions associated with American conservatism, including both Old Right and New Right ideologies.

State-only right-wing parties

Centrist

This section includes any party that is independent, populist, or any other that either rejects left–right politics or does not have a party platform.

State-only centrist parties

Left-wing

This section includes any party that has a left-liberal, progressive, social democratic, democratic socialist, or Marxist platform.

State-only left-wing parties

Ethnic nationalism

This section includes parties that primarily advocate for granting special privileges or consideration to members of a certain race, ethnic group, religion etc.

Also included in this category are various parties found in and confined to Native American reservations, almost all of which are solely devoted to the furthering of the tribes to which the reservations were assigned. An example of a particularly powerful tribal nationalist party is the Seneca Party that operates on the Seneca Nation of New York's reservations.[54]

Secessionist parties

This section includes parties that primarily advocate for Independence from the United States. (Specific party platforms may range from left wing to right wing).

Single-issue/protest-oriented

This section includes parties that primarily advocate single-issue politics (though they may have a more detailed platform) or may seek to attract protest votes rather than to mount serious political campaigns or advocacy.

State-only parties

Third-party presidential election results (1992–present)

Only the top 3 third-party candidates by popular vote are listed.

1992

Main article: 1992 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Ross Perot Independent 19,743,821
18.91%
Maine: 30.44%
Andre Verne Marrou Libertarian 290,087
0.28%
Bo Gritz Populist 106,152
0.10%
Utah: 3.84%
Other
269,507
0.24%
Total
20,409,567
19.53%

1996

Main article: 1996 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Ross Perot Reform 8,085,294
8.40%
Maine: 14.19%
Ralph Nader Green 684,871
0.71%
Oregon: 3.59%
Harry Browne Libertarian 485,759
0.50%
Arizona: 1.02%
Other
419,986
0.43%
Total
9,675,910
10.04%

2000

Main article: 2000 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Ralph Nader Green 2,882,955
2.74%
Alaska: 10.07%
Pat Buchanan Reform 448,895
0.43%
Harry Browne Libertarian 384,431
0.36%
Georgia: 1.40%
Other
232,920
0.22%
Total
3,949,201
3.75%

2004

Main article: 2004 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Ralph Nader Independent 465,650
0.38%
Alaska: 1.62%
Michael Badnarik Libertarian 397,265
0.32%
Indiana: 0.73%
Michael Peroutka Constitution 143,630
0.15%
Utah: 0.74%
Other
215,031
0.18%
Total
1,221,576
1.00%

2008

Main article: 2008 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Ralph Nader Independent 739,034
0.56%
Maine: 1.45%
Bob Barr Libertarian 523,715
0.40%
Indiana: 1.06%
Chuck Baldwin Constitution 199,750
0.12%
Utah: 1.26%
Other
404,482
0.31%
Total
1,866,981
1.39%

2012

Main article: 2012 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Gary Johnson Libertarian 1,275,971
0.99%
New Mexico: 3.60%
Jill Stein Green 469,627
0.36%
Oregon/Maine: 1.10%
Virgil Goode Constitution 122,389
0.11%
Wyoming: 0.58%
Other
368,124
0.28%
Total
2,236,111
1.74%

2016

Main article: 2016 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Gary Johnson Libertarian 4,489,341
3.28%
New Mexico: 9.34%
Jill Stein Green 1,457,218
1.07%
Hawaii: 2.97%
Evan McMullin Independent 731,991
0.54%
Utah: 21.54%
Other
1,149,700
0.84%
Total
7,828,250
5.73%

2020

Main article: 2020 United States presidential election

Candidate Party Votes Percentage Best state percentage
Jo Jorgensen Libertarian 1,865,535
1.18%
Howie Hawkins Green 407,068
0.26%
Maine: 1.00%
Rocky De La Fuente Alliance 88,241
0.0006%
California: 0.34%
Other
561,311
0.41%
Total
2,922,155
1.85%

2024

Main article: Third party and independent candidates for the 2024 United States presidential election

In 2023 and 2024, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has polled higher than any third-party presidential candidate since Ross Perot[55] in the 1992 and 1996 elections.[56][57][58]

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Further reading