Division of the Republic: The Role of Third-Party Candidates in our Two-Party Dichotomy

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties… This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.”                                                    John Adams

For better or worse, John Adams’s principal concern about American politics has been realized — our political climate revolves around a two-party system, characterized by dissatisfaction and dichotomy.

The incumbent government has only one third-party congressman, Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT), and one third-party governor, Bill Walker (Independent-AK). Additionally, no United States president with a party affiliation other than Republican or Democrat has been elected since Abraham Lincoln.

Major party candidates Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D). Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_and_Hillary_Clinton_during_United_States_presidential_election_2016.jpg

2016’s major party presidential candidates Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D). Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

According to a September Pew Research poll conducted before the presidential election, 63% of prospective voters were dissatisfied with the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D). Furthermore, over half of proponents of the major party candidates claimed to feel more hostile toward the opposing candidate than in favor of their chosen candidate.

Libertarian Nominee Gary Johnson

Libertarian Nominee Gary Johnson. Photo credit: Gary Johnson 2016.  

“Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton meets the fundamental moral and professional standards we have every right to expect of an American president,” wrote the editorial board of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in September. Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Times-Dispatch had endorsed the Republican nominee in every presidential election, yet the editorial board broke tradition this September, endorsing Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

At Collegiate, many Upper School students shared similarly unfavorable opinions of Trump and Clinton. “I view both the main party candidates as having too many flaws for me to support them,” remarked Will Woods (‘17) before the election. Claire Andress (‘17) asserted that she didn’t feel “satisfied” with the nominees. “Both of them have shown pretty significant flaws,” Andress explained, citing “Trump’s racist and misogynistic comments & Hillary’s email scandal,” yet she did add that “it would be impossible to find a ‘perfect’ candidate.”

Jill Steil, 2016 Green Party Candidate. Photo Credit: 3

Jill Steil, 2016 Green Party Candidate.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via flickr. 

Despite widespread discontent, many Americans are unaware that their options aren’t limited to the GOP and Democratic Party nominees. In August, nearly 40% of voters were unfamiliar with Libertarian Gary Johnson, while 41% hadn’t heard of Green Party Candidate Jill Stein. Name-recognition rates remained relatively low throughout the campaign; however, this year’s third-party candidates were actually expected to fare relatively well. The Wall Street Journal estimated that 47% of Americans considered voting for a third-party candidate, and RealClear Politics (RCP) projected in the week before the Election Day that Johnson would win 4.7% of the vote, more than any third-party candidate since Ross Perot.

Polling at 4.7%, Johnson wasn’t considered a serious contender to win the presidency, yet stakes were still high for the Libertarian candidate. Had Johnson outperformed the RCP projection and received five percent of the national popular vote, the Libertarian Party would have officially achieved major party status, granting federal funding and an automatic place on the ballot to future Libertarian candidates.

Unfortunately for Libertarians, the unofficial results from November 8 show Johnson underperforming predictions, receiving only 3.3% of the national popular vote. Some of Johnson’s underperformance may be accounted for by his infamous “What is Aleppo?” scandal, where he seemed to be unaware of the human rights crisis occurring in Aleppo, Syria when asked during an interview on MSNBC. But other factors clearly also came into play — third-party candidates amassed approximately five percent of votes nationwide, greater than totals in recent years, yet vastly less than the 47% of voters who considered voting third-party.

This phenomenon of third-party candidates underperforming expectations is not limited to 2016; rather, it’s been pervasive in recent election years. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the past two presidential election cycles, fewer than 1 out of 20 voters who considered casting their ballot for a third-party candidate actually followed through.

Asked if they would vote for a third-party candidate who exemplified their political ideals, many Collegiate Upper School students responded negatively.  “I would want to,” explained Andress, “but I feel like it wouldn’t be effective.” Andress went on to argue that “third party candidates don’t really receive enough votes to affect the process.” Price Withers (‘17) said that his decision to vote for a third-party candidate “would depend… on how much support they were getting from other people.”

Both Andress and Withers’ responses are indicative of a potential source of the gap between Americans considering third-party candidates and Americans voting for third party candidates. Many citizens may not be inclined to vote for nominees whom they perceive to be extreme long shots; they may instead feel obligated to strategically cast their vote to a main-party candidate whom they deem tolerable, in order to prevent the election of a candidate they strongly oppose.

To best understand the roots of this sentiment regarding third-party candidates, one must look to the historical roles of third-party candidates and the sources the two-party system in American politics.

George Washington, who didn’t align himself with a political party, could arguably be regarded America’s first prominent third-party candidate. However, his election as president predated the unofficial establishment of the two-party system, and his political leanings generally aligned with the Federalist Party at the time.

1832 Electoral Map. Photo Credit: 4

1832 Electoral Map.
Image credit: Users Cg-realms & AndyHogan14 via Wikimedia Commons.

In reality, the first eminent third-party candidates were William Wirt (Anti-Masonic Party) and John Floyd (Nullifier Party), who carried Vermont and South Carolina, respectively, in 1832. Wirt and Floyd spoke out strongly against both major party candidates, Andrew Jackson (Democrat) and Henry Clay (National Republican), yet their candidacies largely attracted anti-Jackson voters away from Clay, all but ensuring a Jackson victory. Exact vote totals for Floyd are unknown due to historical record keeping flaws, but it’s estimated that Wirt, Floyd, and Clay cumulatively received more votes than Johnson, leading to the first historical example of third-party candidates potentially influencing a U.S. presidential election. It’s uncertain whether Wirt and Floyd truly acted as spoilers; however, the 1832 election highlights a major concern of modern voters — third-party nominees can siphon away votes from main-party candidates.

Collegiate Upper School history teacher Nate Jackson concurs that third-party candidates can affect election outcomes. “Theodore Roosevelt [Progressive Party] did act as a spoiler to William Howard Taft [Republican] in 1912,” claims Jackson, calling Roosevelt’s candidacy a “classic example” of the potential impact of third-party candidates.

Ralph Nader, 2000 Green Party Candidate. Photo Credit: 5

Ralph Nader, 2000 Green Party Candidate.
Photo credit: User Ragesoss via Wikimedia Commons. 

While the 1832 and 1912 election scenarios may seem distant, nominees from third-parties have shaped the outcomes of national elections as recently as 2000. After over a month of recounts, George W. Bush (Republican) defeated Al Gore (Democrat) by five electoral votes in arguably the closest presidential race in history. The election came down to Florida’s 25 electoral votes, eventually awarded to Bush due to a 537 vote (0.009%) majority in the final tally. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader garnered 97,488 votes in Florida, over 180 times the official margin between Bush and Gore. Considering Nader’s leftist platform, the majority of those votes could well have gone to Gore. According to Gerald Pomper, prominent political scientist and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, Nader cost Gore the election. Citing exit polls of Nader voters, Pomper argued that had Nader not been a factor, “Gore would have achieved a net gain of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than needed to carry the state easily.”

As a result of the potential impact of only few votes, some Americans are understandably averse to voting third-party. However, John McAlister, former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, urges voters not to succumb to that school of thought. “If you think the Republican or the Democrat really does best mirror your beliefs, by all means, vote for that candidate,” suggests McAlister. “But if you don’t, and you still vote for them, you’re helping to preserve the status quo you probably despise.”

This “status quo” to which McAlister refers largely stems from the “single-winner” voting districts that characterize our election structure. Under the single-winner system, only one party can win each district, incentivizing candidates to align themselves under two competing political parties (currently the Republicans and Democrats) in order to lessen the chances of an opposing ideology winning an election. In single-winner districts with more than two parties as major contenders, it’s possible for a generally disliked candidate to be elected; third-party candidates can split the majority vote, leading to a misrepresentation of the will of the district. Consequently, many potential third-party voters elect to vote for a main-party candidate.

In contrast to the winner-take-all United States system, countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have adopted “multi-winner” districts, which are often larger than their single-member counterparts and distribute multiple representative positions to different political parties on a percentage basis. As a result of its multi-winner districts, the Danish government has nine political parties represented in its parliament.

Proponents of single-member districts argue that they drastically simplify representation; citizens have a clearly identifiable, relatively local representative whom they can hold accountable. Others contest the merit of single-member districts, arguing that they lead to gerrymandering and overrepresentation of certain groups. Regardless of their virtues or lack thereof, single-winner districts indisputably contribute to the perpetuation of the two-party system.

There have been instances in which candidates with third-party affiliations have overcome the intrinsic major-party advantage; however, these successful third-party candidates almost exclusively had previous political experience under a major party or eminence stemming from work in the private sector.

In perhaps the most famous example, Abraham Lincoln was first elected president as a Republican in 1860, but was re-elected as a member of the National Union Party. Having already established himself, Lincoln no longer needed a major-party affiliation to lend credibility to his bid for re-election.

There have even been cases of politicians switching parties while in office. John Tyler, originally a Whig elected as Vice President in 1840 under William Henry Harrison, cast aside his party affiliation when he became president 1841 after Harrison’s death. Another instance of a politician switching party affiliation in office occurred during the first year of the George W. Bush presidency. The Senate was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with Republican Vice President Dick Cheney holding the deciding vote. In May 2001, this balance was disrupted by two-term Senator James Jeffords from Vermont, who switched party affiliation from Republican to Independent and began to caucus with the Democrats. Expressing a similar sentiment to many 2016 third-party voters, Jeffords explained, “Increasingly I find myself in disagreement with my party.”

Iconic 1992 Reform Party Nominee, Ross Perot. Photo Credit: 6

Iconic 1992 Reform Party Nominee, Ross Perot.
Photo credit: Allan Warren via Wikimedia Commons. 

Prominent figures from outside of the political world have also enjoyed success as third-party candidates, including Reform Party icon Ross Perot. An outspoken Texan, billionaire, and Medal of Honor recipient, Perot garnered 18.9% of the popular vote during the 1992 election, the most of any 20th century third-party nominee besides Theodore Roosevelt, even after having dropped out of the race two months before Election Day. While Perot lacked previous political experience, his background as a high-profile, successful businessman supported the soundness of his candidacy and separated him from previously unsuccessful third-party candidates. Other celebrities, such as Jesse Ventura, former professional wrestler turned governor of Minnesota, have also made successful transitions from the private sector to third-party politics, yet none have achieved the same level of national preeminence as Perot.

Despite the few examples of third-party success, non-major parties suffer an inherent disadvantage in American politics, more often resulting in the demise of other candidates than the election of their own. Addressing this very issue, PBS Newshour writes, “according to historians and scholars … the political process … has relegated third parties to the sidelines.” Historically, third-party candidates without such hooks as previous prominence in a major party or widespread name-recognition derived from non-political pursuits have faced extraordinarily long odds. Unintentionally imposed, this advantage yielded to main-party candidates wasn’t directly written into the U.S. Constitution, but rather arose from the election system devised by the founding fathers. If the United States wishes to operate as democratic republic, representative of the will of the people and equal in opportunity for all political ideals, it might reconsider the current election system in order to break apart the hierarchy of political parties.


Featured image: democracychronicles.com.

About the author

Parker Conquest is a senior at Collegiate School.