The effect of third parties

Dateline: 20 June 2007

In the Twentieth Century, third party candidates were a major feature in just three presidential elections: 1912, 1968 and 1992. Of those three occasions, only one – 1912 – genuinely affected the outcome of the election. It enabled Democrat, Woodrow Wilson to win during a period otherwise dominated by the Republicans.

Many commentators take the view that Perot’s independent run in 1992 cost President George H W Bush his re-election. I am convinced that Bush would have lost anyway. At least half of Perot’s voters were new – people who had abstained previously. Without him on the ballot they would have abstained again. The rest would have split fairly evenly between Bush and Clinton. In 1912, on the other hand, President Taft came third. But that is because his third party challenger was Teddy Roosevelt. How would George Bush have fared if his challenger had been not Perot, but Ronald Reagan?

Some have suggested that the tiny vote for Ralph Nader in 2000 cost Al Gore the election. It is mathematically possible, of course. The election was very close. But given that everyone knew it was going to be close, the only people voting for Nader were people who despised both Bush and Gore. With no Nader, they would not have voted at all. In 1996 Perot and 1980 Anderson got around 6% of the vote – massively more than Nader in 2000 – but, again, it is unlikely that this changed the outcome. Clinton and Reagan would both have won anyway.

Without George Wallace taking a handful of southern states in 1968, Nixon’s victory would probably have been larger. Wallace’s voters hated the Johnson-Humphrey administration.

So, history suggests that a third party challenge is unlikely to make much difference in 2008 -–no matter how disillusioned people are with a Republican President and a Democratic Congress. But it might not be like that.

Maverick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has been in deep conversation with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Hagel would bring foreign policy and Washington experience while Bloomberg has executive experience and more money than the two major parties put together. This may come to nothing. Both might balk at taking second place. Either of the major parties could select a popular candidate with appeal to the centre. But if both the major candidates are flawed a centrist ticket could have widespread appeal.

While a Bloomberg-Hagel ticket would probably do no better than Perot’s 1992 run, one other maverick ticket possibly could. John McCain is unpopular among Republicans, but has substantial support among independents. With independent Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate McCain could take a lot of votes. If both parties select weak candidates, such a ticket could win.

Former New Mexico governor Garry Johnson and former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr are among those who could mount semi-credible campaigns for the Libertarian Party. Rep Ron Paul – a former Libertarian Presidential candidate – is seeking the Republican nomination this year. He will get nowhere, and may lose his Congressional seat into the bargain, but running for the Libertarians he could transform the Party’s fortunes. Of course, that might just mean lifting their vote from 1% to 5%, but that is a significant improvement.

Congressmen Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter are possible defectors to the Constitution Party – another minor party that could benefit from a high profile candidate. The Green Party needs someone more credible than Ralph Nader, and former California governor, Jerry Brown, might just be the man.

It is unlikely, but a third party could shake things up.


Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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