Voices & Choices

The United States’ history of third party candidates: Is the problem with third parties, or with our binary election system?

The United States’ history of third party candidates: Is the problem with third parties, or with our binary election system?

Libertarian Justin Amash’s short-lived presidential campaign in this year’s election led to immediate vitriol and questions on how a third-party candidate may impact who becomes President. Of course, there are other third-party candidates this year, including the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. What is clear is that many voters blame third-party candidates for “spoiling elections” when margins of victory are smaller than the vote shares of third-party candidates. 

FairVote proposes a simple fix to this problem: adopt ranked choice voting (RCV). To do nothing risks another election where we are left wondering, “what if?”, then mistakenly blame voters instead of giving voters greater say in who should lead our nation. 

Historically, third-party candidates are not uncommon; in fact, our democracy has had a long long history with them, including moments where those candidates split the vote. Last year, FairVote’s Julia Foodman wrote about the history of third-party presidential candidates. In this post, we expand on this history and include an analysis of the 2020 election. Nearly every four years, a “dark horse” third party candidate adds pressure and chaos to our presidential elections. We must break our history’s pattern of panicking over third party candidates and integrate real reforms, like ranked choice voting, to our election infrastructure.



This year, we expect to see another crowded field of third-party presidential candidates on voter’s ballots. The presumptive nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, the Libertarian Party, Green Party, and over a dozen or so smaller parties that will vary state by state. 

In a 2019 Green Quinlan Rosner poll, 7% of polled voters stated that they would vote for Libertarian candidate Justin Amash, 42% for Republican candidate Donald Trump, and 46% for the Democratic nominee. However, the second choice votes of Amash are difficult to gauge. Some commentators have said that Amash’s candidacy would pull Michigan support from Joe Biden, and that this would “not likely to make up enough for Mr. Trump’s fundamental challenges in the state this year.” While others believe that “more libertarian-minded voters are more likely to vote Republican than Democratic, which could cost Trump at the ballot box.” There is also the possibility that a bloc of Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins. 

How likely these candidates will impact the outcome of the election will depend on geography. Third party votes in Republican or Democratic strongholds are less likely to impact the outcome of who wins the electoral votes of California, New York, Utah, and Wyoming. However, third-party candidates are more likely to impact the race in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 



In the last presidential election, a whopping 32 candidates vied for the presidency, with the least competitive of them receiving just 332 votes nationwide.

Libertarian Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, garnered 3.3 percent of the vote. While that may not seem significant, he did accrue nearly 4.4 million votes, more than a million more than the total by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Likewise, Jill Stein of the Green Party got 1.1 percent of the vote, making her the first fourth-place finisher to breach the one-million-vote mark since 1948.

14 states were won with less than half the votes, with half of those states won by Clinton and half by Trump -- including such battlegrounds as Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvnia and Wisconsin. While, at first glance, it might appear that, if Johnson and Stein votes had gone to Clinton, she would be president, we must remember that t not all such n voters would have all voted for Clinton. Many Johnson voters may have voted for Donald Trump instead given the ideological closeness of libertarianism and conservative economic stances and Johnson’s two terms as a Republican governor of New Mexico.

A more likely scenario would have been some combination of Stein’s and Johnson’s voters voting for Clinton, though we will never be able to draw a definite conclusion of that potential outcome because RCV was not in place. What we can say is that the election results could potentially could have been different, as neither candidate reached 50 percent of the vote.



Similar to the 2016 election, the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the election. Because Republican George W. Bush won in the Electoral College by only four votes and won the key battleground of Florida by only 537 votes, third parties did play a role in the outcome. In total, third party candidates garnered 138,063 votes in Florida, with the Green Party’s Ralph Nader accruing over 97,488 of those votes. Had Florida voters had the opportunity to rank their vote, the final results in the state may have looked quite different.


1996, 1992

Bill Clinton won the 1996 and 1992 elections with less than fifty percent of the vote, which RCV is designed to prevent. In these election years, the Reform Party’s Ross Perot ran successful campaigns, garnering 18.7 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively. Though Reform Party ideals align more closely with the Republican platform, independent analyses indicate that Perot drew equally from Republicans and Democrats. Therefore, we cannot say definitely that the election results would have been different had RCV been implemented -- but we can say that in 1992, only a single state (Clinton’s home state of Arkansas) was won with more than half the votes.

Perot passed away on Tuesday, July 9, and is the most successful third party candidate in modern American history.



FairVote’s co-founder John B. Anderson started the year as a Republican candidate who had served in Congress for 20 years. After Ronald Reagan gained the upper hand in the nomination, Anderson left the party to run as an independent to uphold his tradition as a “Rockefeller Republican.” Early on he polled over 20 percent and secured a role in one debate, but ultimately won 6.6 percent - more than six times the total for the Libertarian Party ticket that included David Koch, one of the two Koch brothers who have played a major role in Republican politics in recent years. Reagan won more than 50 percent nationally, but only 26 states were won with more than half the votes.



This election was unlike any previously seen in the country. George Wallace, widely known for his quote, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," ran with the American Independent Party because his pro-segregation policies had been rejected by the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Wallace, with 12.9 percent of the popular vote, ended up winning five southern states, accruing 46 electoral college votes. Republican Richard Nixon won 43.2 percent of the popular vote but 56.1 percent of the electoral college; Democrat Hubert Humphrey won 42.6 percent of the popular vote but only 35.5 percent of the electoral college.

It should be noted that Wallace did not expect to win the election; his strategy was to prevent either major party candidate from winning a preliminary majority in the Electoral College. He had his electors pledge to vote not necessarily for him but for whomever he directed them to support. His objective was not to move the election into the U.S. House of Representatives, but rather to give himself the bargaining power to determine the winner. Though he was ultimately unsuccessful, he managed to prevent either party from winning a popular vote majority. A shift of just 1.55 percent in California would have given Wallace the swing power in the Electoral College he sought.

After the election, Republican President Richard Nixon pushed Congress to abolish the Electoral College--with Hubert Humphrey’s support-- because Wallace had attempted to do something the founding fathers would not have anticipated.



Republican Theodore Roosevelt had served as president from 1901 to 1909, and William Howard Taft had won the 1908 Republican presidential nomination with Roosevelt's support. Displeased with Taft's actions as president, Roosevelt challenged Taft in 1912.

After being denied the Republican nomination in an era before presidential primaries, Roosevelt rallied his progressive supporters and launched a third party bid. Roosevelt's Progressive Party, nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party,” lost the election but marked the most successful third party bid in history, winning 27.4 percent of the vote. Taft, the incumbent president, did not perform as well, winning 23.7 percent. The Socialist Party also had a successful race this year, as Socialist nominee Eugene V. Debs secured 6 percent.

Four candidates made significant waves this election. In one potential scenario with RCV, Debs would have been eliminated and his second choice votes would have gone to Roosevelt or Wilson. Then Taft would’ve been eliminated, and his second choice votes probably would not have gone to Woodrow Wilson (who ultimately won), but to Roosevelt instead. Evidently, the results could have been drastically different.

Notably, talk of second choice voting grew markedly after this election, with the Nebraska Bull Moose Party actually endorsing it in its official platform (See page 139 of the link).



In 1891, the American Farmers' Alliances met with delegates from labor and reform groups in Cincinnati, Ohio, to discuss the formation of a new political party. They formed the People's Party, commonly known as the Populists. James B. Weaver of the Populist Party carried five states, accruing 8.5 percent of the popular vote, while winner Grover Cleveland earned 46 percent. If RCV had been implemented, this election would have had a winner with majority support.



In the 1860 election, no candidate reached 40 percent of the vote. At a time when the nation was so divided, the vote matched the political climate. Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election; however, Democratic voters were divided between Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. Together they accrued 47.6 percent of the vote, significantly more than Lincoln. John Bell of Constitution Union got 12.6 percent. While Lincoln won only 39.7 percent of the national popular vote, he did win more than half the votes in northern states that together had more than half of the Electoral College.

While ranked choice voting within the Electoral College system would not have prevented Lincoln’s victory and the resulting civil war, it could have provided a clearer picture of the fault lines dividing the country.



Former Whig President Millard Fillmore, running on the American Party platform, won 21.5 percent of the vote in this election, winning only Maryland. Second choice votes could have either pushed the winner, James Buchanan who earned 45.3 percent, or runner-up John Fremont, who won 33.11 percent, over the 50 percent majority margin.



Democrat Martin Van Buren was president from 1837-1841. After getting booted out of office, he ran a failed campaign in 1848 as a candidate for the anti-slavery Free Soil Party. Van Buren won over ten percent of the vote, preventing the Whig candidate (eventual winner Zachary Taylor) or Democratic candidate Lewis Cass from earning support from half the country’s electorate.



In 1844, pro-slavery candidate James K. Polk ran against soft abolitionist Henry Clay and hard-line abolitionist James Birney. While Polk ended up winning the election, Clay and Birney did split votes. Most notably, this occurred in New York, where Birney received 15,812 votes but Polk beat Clay by only 5,106 votes. If ranked choice voting had been implemented in this election, it is quite possible the country would have elected a different president and, most importantly, taken a different tack in regards to slavery. This piece, by professor Lawrence Lessig, does a great job of describing this election and others in the context of ranked choice voting. Polk beat Clay in New York by 5,106 votes, yet Birney received 15,812 votes.



Sixty-nine Electoral College votes unanimously elected George Washington as president of the United States in 1788. Since then, candidates, political parties, electors, and the very fabric of our country have evolved significantly. As early as 1824, John Quincy Adams was chosen by the House of Representatives as president after earning only 31 percent of popular votes compared to Andrew Jackson’s 41 percent.

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