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The term third party is used in the United States for a political party other than one of the two major parties, at present, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. It is used as shorthand for all such parties (also called "minor parties"), or sometimes only the largest of them. The term is often used dismissively.

Historically, in the U.S. since the formation of organized political parties in the 1830s, the country has had a two-party system. Following Duverger's law, the Electoral College with its "winner take all" award of electors in presidential elections plus, for Congress, single-seat plurality voting, have, over time, created the two-party system. Another contributing factor is the division of the government into three separate branches, which differs from the parliamentary system.

Although third parties rarely win national elections, they can have an effect on them. Third parties can draw attention to issues that may be ignored by the majority parties. If the issue finds resonance with the voters, one or more of the major parties may adopt the issue into its own party platform. Also, a third party may be used by the voter to cast a protest vote as a form of referendum on an important issue. Third parties may also help voter turnout bringing more people to the polls. Third party candidates at the top of the ticket can help to draw attention to other party candidates down the ballot, helping them to win local or state office. In 2004 the U.S. electorate consisted of an estimated 43% registered Democrats and 33% registered Republicans, with independents and those belonging to other parties constituting 25%.

Current U.S. third parties

Largest (voter registration over 100,000)

Smaller parties by ideology


State-only parties


State-only parties


State-only parties



State-only parties

Barriers to third party success

Winner-take-all vs. proportional representation

In winner-take-all (or plurality-take-all), 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. 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. If the candidate fails in the primary and believes he has a chance to win in the general election he 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 a 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.

Ballot access laws

Nationally, ballot access laws are the major challenge to third party candidacies. While the Democratic and Republican parties usually easily obtain ballot access in all fifty states in every election, third parties often fail to meet criteria for ballot access, such as registration fees or, in many states, petition requirements in which a certain number of voters must sign a petition for a third party or independent candidate to gain ballot access. 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 multimillionaire, 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 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 ballots and D.C. For more information see ballot access laws.

Debate rules

Presidential debates between the nominees of the two major parties first occurred in 1960, then after three cycles without debates, took place again in 1976 and have happened in every election since. Third party or independent candidates have been included in these 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.

Debates in other state and federal elections often exclude Independent and third party candidates, and the Supreme Court has upheld such tactics in several cases. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private company.
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. His participation helped Perot climb from 7% before the debates to 19% on Election Day.

Perot was excluded from the 1996 debates despite his strong showing four years prior. 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 remained in place for 2004, when as many as 62 million people watched the debates, and is still in effect for 2008. The 15% criterion, had it been in place, would have prevented Anderson and Perot from participating in the debates they appeared in.

Major Party Marginalization

Sometimes, a third party candidate will strike a chord with a section of voters in a particular election. They can bring 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 third parties with southern agendas. 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 Perots popularity in the 1992 election. This severely undermined Perot’s campaign in the 1996 election.

Current and recent notable third party officeholders

U.S. congressmen

  • Joe Lieberman, U.S. Senator, formerly a Democrat, won reelection to his Senate seat in 2006 on the "Connecticut for Lieberman" party line after being defeated by businessman Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary. Lieberman currently identifies himself as an "Independent Democrat".
  • Bernie Sanders, who served in U.S. House and Senate as self-described "democratic Socialist" in Vermont. but official independent, won election to the Senate in 2006 after serving sixteen years as an independent Congressman from Vermont.


State legislatures

Five Vermont Progressive Party members are currently serving in the Vermont House of Representatives, one of whom David Zuckerman is chair of the House Agriculture Committee. There is also one Progressive



There are also Green Party members on city councils (or equivalent) in several major cities [40410]. Libertarian Ed Coleman, is a member of the Indianapolis City-County Council. On February 17, 2007 Coleman publicly announced that he had left the Republican Party and joined the Libertarian Party.

Notable elections

Recent gubernatorial

Listed below are any election since the year 1998 involving a third party candidate receiving at least 5% of the vote.





  • In the Maine gubernatorial election, Green Party nominee John Carter gained 9.3% of the vote in third place.

  • In the New Mexico gubernatorial election, Green Party nominee David Bacon received 5.5% of the vote.

  • In the Wisconsin gubernatorial election, Libertarian party nominee Ed Thompson who received 10.5% of the vote.


Recent senatorial

Listed below are any election since 2006 involving a third party candidate receiving at least 5% of the vote.




Listed below are all elections in which a third-party or independent candidate won an electoral vote or won at least 1% of the popular vote. Elections where a third party candidate won electoral votes (excepting faithless electors) are marked with an asterisk (*).


The Anti-Masonic Party, seeking the eradication of the Freemasons and other secret societies from the United Statesmarker, nominated former U.S. Attorney General William Wirt for President. Wirt, a former Mason, received seven U.S. electoral college votes from the state of Vermontmarker and 8% of the national popular vote.

John Floyd received no popular votes but won 11 electoral votes when the state of South Carolina, where the state legislature cast electoral votes, voted to support Floyd. President Andrew Jackson was unpopular in South Carolina due to the Nullification Crisis. Jackson won re-election while Henry Clay finished second.


James G. Birney, running as the candidate of the anti-slavery Liberty Party, won 2.3% of the national popular vote. Birney's candidacy may have been decisive in swinging the election to winner James K. Polk. Democrat Polk beat Whig Henry Clay 170-105 in the Electoral College, but in New York, which had 36 electoral votes, Polk edged out Clay by 5,000 votes, 48.90% to 47.85%. Birney won nearly 16,000 votes in New York, a quarter of his national total and good for 3.25% in that state. If Birney had not run, the majority of his votes would have gone to the Whigs rather than the pro-slavery Democrats, but whether or not Clay would have netted five thousand more votes is unknown. Starting with Birney, anti-slavery parties would make strong showings in every election up to the Civil War.


The Free Soil Party, another anti-slavery party and a precursor of the Republicans, nominated former President Martin Van Buren as its presidential candidate. Van Buren won 10% of the nationwide popular vote but did not carry a state. Zachary Taylor, the Whig Party candidate, won the election.


For the third election in a row, an anti-slavery party made a significant showing, as John P. Hale of the Free Soil Party received 5% of the nationwide popular vote. Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election.


In 1856 the original two-party system (Democrat and Whig) collapsed. The Whigs, who had been one-half of the two-party system since 1832 and had won the presidency in 1840 and 1848, disintegrated, fatally split by dissension over slavery. Southern Whigs and a minority of northern Whigs coalesced around the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic American Party, better known as the "Know Nothing" movement. Their candidate was former President Millard Filmore. Northern, anti-slavery Whigs formed the new Republican Party and nominated explorer John C. Fremont. Which was the "third party", Republican or American, is a matter of perception. In the Northern, free states, Fillmore ran a distant third. However, in the Southern, slave states, the Republicans received almost no support, not even appearing on the ballot in 13 of the 15 slave states and receiving tiny shares of the vote in the border slave states of Delaware and Maryland. Democrat James Buchanan won the election with 45% of the popular vote and 174 electoral votes, Fremont received 33% and 114 electoral votes, while Fillmore won 22% but carried only one state, Maryland, thus winning 8 electoral votes.


The election featured four candidates, including the breakaway Southern Democratic Party, which nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge as its candidate, and the Constitutional Union Party, neutral on the slavery issue, which nominated John Bell. Breckenridge, the southern pro-slavery candidate, carried most of the slave states, but had little support in the North outside of Pennsylvania. Bell drew most of his support from former southern Whigs.

Abraham Lincoln won the election with 39.8% of the overall popular vote with 180 electoral votes, his votes being concentrated in the northern free states. Stephen A. Douglas finished second in the popular vote with 29.5%, but his votes were scattered all over the country and as a result he won only 12 electoral votes. Breckenridge, the quasi-third party candidate of southern Democrats, got 18.2% winning 72 electoral votes from several south states. Bell, a true third party candidate, finished with 12.6% but received 39 electoral votes from three states.

Following 1860 a new two-party system coalesced around the Democratic and Republican parties.


James B. Weaver of the Greenback Labor Party won 3.3% of the popular vote.


The Greenback Labor Party changed its name to the Greenback Party. Ben Butler, running as the joint candidate of the Greenback Party and the new Anti-Monopoly Party, won 1.3% of the popular vote. Neither the Greenback nor the Anti-Monopoly parties lasted past the 1884 election, but other progressive and populist parties would succeed them.

Also in 1884, the Prohibition Party made its first significant showing, with John Pierce St. John of Kansas winning 1.5% of the popular vote.


The Prohibition Party, with nominee Clinton B. Fisk, improved on its showing from four years before, increasing to 2.2% of the popular vote. Alson J. Streeter of the short-lived Union Labor Party won 1.3%.


James B. Weaver, the Greenback Labor nominee in 1880, ran as presidential candidate for the Populist Party. The Populist Party won 22 electoral votes and 8.51 percent of the popular vote [40412]. Weaver became the first third-party candidate to win a state since John Bell in the transitional election of 1860. The Democratic Party eventually adopted many Populist Party positions after this election, notably the Populist call for the free coinage of silver, making this contest a prominent example of a delayed vote for change.

John Bidwell, running on the Prohibition ticket, won 2.2% of the popular vote.


The Populist Party supported Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan after Bryan and the Democrats came out for support of Free Silver. Democrat/Populist Bryan won 47% of the vote and 171 electoral votes, losing to Republican William McKinley.


John G. Woolley of the Prohibition Party won 1.5% of the popular vote.


Eugene Debs, Socialist Party candidate, won 3% of the popular vote. Debs and the Socialists would be factors in Presidential elections for several more cycles.

Silas C. Swallow of the Prohibition Party received that party's usual 2% of the popular vote.


Debs, running again for the Socialists, got 2.8% of the vote. Eugene W. Chafin of the Prohibition party got 1.7%.


Republican Theodore Roosevelt ran as the "Bull Moose Party" (Progressive Party) nominee in the 1912 election. Roosevelt won 27.4% of the popular vote and carried six states totaling 88 electoral votes. If the transitional elections of 1856 and 1860, when there was no clear two-party structure, are excluded, Roosevelt's was the most successful third-party candidacy in American history. It was also the only third-party effort to finish higher than third. Instead incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft finished third, taking only 23% of the popular vote and 8 electoral votes. The split in the Republican vote gave Democrat Woodrow Wilson victory with 42% of the popular vote, but 435 electoral votes.

Debs, running in his fourth consecutive Presidential election as the Socialist Party candidate, won 6% of the vote, an all-time high for the Socialists. The elections of 1860 and 1912 are the only two times that four candidates each cleared 5% of the popular vote in a Presidential election.

Eugene Chafin, running again as the Prohibition candidate, got 1.4% of the popular vote.


Allan L. Benson, taking over as the Socialist Party candidate from Eugene Debs, received 3.2% of the vote. Prohibition candidate J. Franklin Hanly won 1.2%.


Eugene V. Debs went to prison in 1919 for violating the Espionage Act by giving a speech opposing American involvement in World War I. Despite being incarcerated in Federal prison, Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate again in 1920, his fifth and last campaign. Debs received 3.4% of the vote.

Parley P. Christensen, running as the candidate of the newly formed Farmer-Labor Party, received 265,411 votes for 0.99% of the total vote despite being on the ballot in only 19 states. (The Farmer-Labor Party continues to exist today in the state of Minnesota, where it merged with the Democratic party to form the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.)


Erstwhile Republican Robert M. La Follette ran as a Progressive. After the Democrats nominated conservative John W. Davis, many liberal Democrats turned to La Follette. He received 4,831,706 votes for 16.6% of the popular vote and won his home state of Wisconsinmarker receiving 13 electoral votes. With the Democrats split, incumbent President Calvin Coolidge won election by a wide margin.


Norman Thomas running as the Socialist Party candidate received 884,885 for 2.2% of the total vote. Following Eugene Debs's death in 1926, Thomas became the Socialist standard-bearer and was the party's Presidential nominee in every election from 1928 to 1948.


William Lemke running for the short-lived Union Party received 892,378 votes for 2.0% of the total vote.


Democrat Strom Thurmond ran on the segregationist States' Rights ("Dixiecrat") Party ticket in protest of the Civil Rights Act. Former Vice President and Cabinet Member Henry Wallace also sought Democratic votes by running for the Progressive Party ticket, opposing racial discrimination and calling for closer relations with the Soviet Unionmarker. Thus the Democratic vote was split three ways between Thurmond on the right, Wallace on the liberal left, and incumbent President Harry S. Truman in the center. Thurmond received 1,175,930 votes (2.4%) and 39 votes in the electoral college from Southern states. Wallace earned 1,157,328 votes for an identical 2.4% of the popular vote, but no votes in the Electoral College due to his support being mostly concentrated in the more populous states of New York and California. Despite both challenges, Democratic incumbent Truman still defeated Thurmond, Wallace, and Republican Thomas Dewey in what was widely regarded at the time as an upset.


Former Democratic Governor of Alabamamarker George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party line. Wallace received 9,901,118 votes for 13.5% of the popular vote, receiving 45 electoral votes in the South and many votes in the North. Wallace remains the only third party candidate since 1948 to win a state. Republican Richard Nixon won the election with 43% of the popular vote and 301 electoral votes.


John G. Schmitz, the American Independent Party candidate won 1.4% of the vote, or 1.1 million votes.

John Hospers of the newly formed Libertarian Party received only 3,674 popular votes but won an electoral vote when Roger MacBride, an elector pledged to winner Richard Nixon, instead voted for Hospers. Hospers' vice presidential running mate, Toni Nathan, became the first woman ever to receive an Electoral College vote.


Congressman John B. Anderson received 5,719,850 votes, for 6.6% of the vote, as an independent candidate for President. Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark won 921,128 votes, or 1.1% of the total. No other Libertarian candidate has ever gotten more than 0.5% in a presidential election.


Ross Perot, an independent, won 18.9% of the popular vote (but no electoral votes). His was the second-best popular vote showing ever for a third-party candidate, trailing only Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Perot finished second in three states: in Alaska and Utah ahead of election winner Bill Clinton, and in Maine ahead of incumbent President George H. W. Bush.


Ross Perot ran for president again, this time as the candidate of the newly formed Reform Party. He won 8% of the popular vote.


Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received 2,882,955 votes, 2.7%, of the popular vote and tipped the election to Republican nominee George W. Bush. Bush carried New Hampshiremarker by 7,211 votes, a 1.27% margin. while Nader received over 22,000 votes there, 3.90% of the total. In Florida, after a disputed recount that was eventually terminated by order of the United States Supreme Courtmarker, Bush was declared the winner by only 537 votes out of 5.96 million cast, a margin of 0.01%. Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida, 1.6% of the total. Bush beat Gore in the Electoral College by a vote of 271 to 266 (with one Gore elector abstaining); if either Florida or New Hampshire had gone for Gore, he would have won the Presidency.

See also



  3. 1920 election

External links

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