Time For Another Third-Party Run?

Presidential election results are often pictured through electoral college maps, a useful and simple tool. Looking at the competition of the two parties throughout time provides a quite interesting exercise. Certain states turn blue, then red, then blue again. Others stay the same color. One election the map is filled with red; the next election blue makes a comeback. And on and on it goes.

This is in fact quite deceiving. What the electoral college does not show is the history of third-party challenges to the two-party system. In 1992, for instance, presidential candidate Ross Perot finished with 18.9% of the vote – yet not a single state in the 1992 electoral college showed his third-party run.

Since 1992, however, third-parties have had quite a rough run. This graph shows the third-party vote after that year:

Several factors influenced this. Mr. Perot ran again in 1996, winning a much reduced share of the vote. In 2000 Green candidate Ralph Nader polled as high as six percent, before his support collapsed as voters abandoned Mr. Nader for Vice President Al Gore. Then came the infamous Florida debacle, in which Nader votes literally cost the Democratic Party the presidency. Ever since then not a single third-party candidate has gained more than one percent of the vote.

Will either 2012 or 2016 be the year for a third-party run? On a micro-level, discontent with both parties does not appear to be extremely high. Democrats are fairly happy with President Barack Obama. The tea-party movement is really just a large group of amped-up Republican supporters – so the Republican Party isn’t exactly falling apart, either. Of course, these types of evaluations are naturally subjective. Different people may come to different conclusions.

Let’s take a look, then, at the macro-level trend. Here is a graph of third-party performance throughout the entire history of the United States, since popular voting first started. (The picture here is a small thumbnail of the real graph, which can be found here.)

The picture here is a small thumbnail of the real graph, which can be found at the link above.

The data here is also fairly inconclusive. Strong minor party candidacies seem to come and go in no particular order. There are long periods where they get less than 1% of the vote, and times where they regularly break the 10% barrier. To be frank, I was expecting to find a more discernible pattern – say, a strong minor party performance every four or five cycles.

Here is the data in a table format, for those interested:

To conclude, one can make a strong case either way. Since 1964, strong third-party performances seem to come every three elections or so. Under this argument, America might be overdue for a third-party candidacy in 2012 or 2016. On the other hand, one might also argue that the country is headed towards another long period of utter two-party dominance, such as existed from 1928 to 1964 (during the time of the so-called New Deal coalition).

What is fairly certain is that third-party candidates will continue having extreme difficulty actually winning the presidency. Out of 56 presidential elections, minor parties have a batting average of exactly zero. The strength and organizational depth of the two major parties, combined with the extreme hurdles presented by the first-past-the-post system, continue to make a third-party presidency almost impossible.

This might be a good thing. To date, the strongest minor party performance in the electoral college occurred in 1860, when they won a combined 111 out of 303 electoral votes. That year Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, despite not being on the ballot in ten states. Shortly afterwards the country plunged into Civil War.

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3 Responses to Time For Another Third-Party Run?

  1. Why do you keep talking about Gore’s LOSS? GORE WON! All the blame is moot if Gore was actually elected! And the media consortium, which reviewed all the possible ways to count the undervotes and overvotes, determined that MORE persons in Florida voted for Gore than for Bush! That’s all that counts!

    So to keep harping on Gore’s loss avoids the truth that Gore didn’t FIGHT to secure his WIN. It was more important to let Nader and the Greens be scapegoated!

    I also don’t buy your biased framing that somehow Nader “denied” Gore votes or “handed” Bush the White House (the SCotUS did THAT!)! That’s not how YOUR vote works here! Nobody but nobody OWNS your vote but YOU, and to suggest that somehow the vote BELONGED to Gore, but Nader “siphoned” it or “denied” it or otherwise “cost” Gore it, is political bigotry, illogical, and also flies in the face of the right to CHOOSE the candidate one WANTS rather than settle for the least worst you are “allowed” to vote for by two corporatist parties.

    Al From and Al Gore are on record that Nader was not the cause of Gore’s “loss” (again, particularly as Gore WON!), and From points to polls that show that had Nader NOT run, Bush would have done BETTER, indeed might even HAVE WON outright, by a full percentage point. So your belief is NOT supported by actual polls taken in 2000.


    “The assertion that Nader’s marginal vote count hurt Gore is not borne out by polling data,” Al From [DLC founder and CEO] wrote in the DLC’s report. “When exit pollers asked voters how they would have voted in a two-way race, Bush actually won by a point. That was better than he did with Nader in the race.”

    “Given the fundamental conditions in the country, the outstanding record of the Clinton/Gore administration and the Vice President’s own record of achievement, I believe Al Gore should have won a solid victory,” said From, noting that a host of political science models projected that Gore would prevail by some 10 percentage points.

    Al From noted that Gore lost every income category of voters who earned more than $50,000 a year – the most rapidly growing part of the American electorate. Moreover, Gore lost middle class voters by one percent, and upper class voters by an even wider margin, From said.”

    Hey, argue with CNN who provided the poll data; this is from CNN’s exit polls, first national:

    Vote in Two-Way Race
    All Gore Bush Buchanan Nader
    Gore 48 % 96 % 1 % 0 % 2 %
    Bush 49 % 2 % 96 % 0 % 1 %
    Wouldn’t Vote 2 % 23 % 28 % 9 % 31 %

    And this from Florida:

    Vote in Two-Way Race
    All Gore Bush Buchanan Nader
    Gore 47 % 97 % 1 % 0 % 1 %
    Bush 49 % 1 % 96 % 0 % 1 %
    Wouldn’t Vote 2 % 0 % 0 % 0 % 0 %

    And this from New Hampshire, another state where people claim Nader not being in the race would have given it to Gore. Not so:

    Vote in Two-Way Race
    All Gore Bush Buchanan Nader
    Gore 47 % 95 % 1 % 0 % 3 %
    Bush 48 % 3 % 95 % 0 % 2 %
    Wouldn’t Vote 4 % 0 % 0 % 0 % 0 %

    (I don’t know why the would-not-have-voted columns drop to 0% in the state races, unless they just left out that data. But the key point is that, nationally, and in two close races, BUSH
    clearly beats Gore IF Nader is not in the race. I presume that this is the data that Al From is quoting from. Do you have a problem with “independent media” CNN and their polls?)

    Remember, most Nader supporters would have voted for another third-party candidate or not voted; some would have voted for Gore, and some for Bush. Indeed, many DID vote for Gore at the last minute (Nader’s Florida poll numbers dropped from about 6% the week before the election to less than 3% election day, as many bought the fearmongering and voted FOR Gore, in numbers enough to give him the WIN!).

    50 million Bush voters, Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, the SCotUS, and Gore’s incompetence put Bush in the White House. Why do you not focus on the vastly larger number of REGISTERED DEMS who voted for BUSH? 13 TIMES as many Dems in FL voted for BUSH than voted for Nader (which votes didn’t contribute to Bush’s total count against Gore a single vote)! THAT’S where your blame and anger should be directed!

    We’re talking ACTUAL numbers of ACTUAL votes cast, and the numbers show that Nader voters gave NO votes to Bush’s total, but 13% of Dems in Florida, and at least 10% nationwide, voted FOR BUSH, which was enough to give Bush the margin of victory in every state that Gore had a chance at and lost.

    Or what about the non-voters who COULD have been persuaded to vote for Gore, IF Gore were not such a lousy campaigner, even though HE DID WIN?!!! I’m afraid you are never going to give up this unsupportable belief, because it’s easier to blame ONE guy than all the other factors, including the most relevant ones I pointed out.

  2. “Then came the infamous Florida debacle, in which Nader votes literally cost the Democratic Party the presidency.”

    Uh, nope. Incredible that this hoary myth is still around after ten years!

    Of course, ANY of the other third party candidates, each of whom received more than the irrelevant 500-odd votes the “official” tally claims Bush had over Gore, “cost” Gore the win.

    Except that Gore DID win Florida, and hence the EC, and hence the presidency! Too bad he didn’t FIGHT to keep his win and justify the voters who gave him their votes in vain, INCLUDING the thousands of Nader voters who DID switch to Gore at the last minute to SECURE Gore’s win. You’re welcome.

    Then there’s the tens of thousands of legal black voters Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush threw of the rolls illegally, which Gore and the Dems, who knew about it, didn’t contest. And the military and other overseas ballots selectively allowed or counted. And the Diebold and other electronic voting machines rigged or hijacked to turn Gore votes into Bush votes, or otherwise help STEAL the election. And the SCotUS, which threw away all precedents and states rights to ignore the actual voting process altogether.

    And don’t forget the nearly 300,000 registered Dems IN FLORIDA (8 million in the US) who voted FOR Bush, a double whammy for Gore to overcome, unlike the Nader votes, which put NO votes in Bush’s column, and took no votes off of Gore’s; it was the same as staying home and not voting. Speaking of which, what about the 50% of potential voters who didn’t vote at all? Gore should have been going after THOSE non-voters, any few thousand of which in a few places would have secured his win (assuming the thieves in the GOP wouldn’t have found a way, like the thousands of ballots found in dumpsters, to still steal it!), particularly the traitor DEMS who voted for Bush. Why don’t you rightly blame them?

    Gore didn’t win his home state (when has THAT ever happened?), or Clinton’s. Oh, and three scary words: President Joe Lieberman.

    There were thousands of banana peels Gore slipped on, EVEN THOUGH HE WON! So to blame Nader is absurd and political bigotry. Even Al From, DLC head, and Al Gore himself have said Nader didn’t cost Gore the election! So get with the program and stop the silly scapegoating already!

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks a lot for reading my post and putting all that effort into writing your response; I love it when people respond to what I write, especially with opinionated analysis such as yours.

      As for your critique – you’re absolutely right that there were a number of other factors involved in Vice President Al Gore’s close loss in Florida. Florida’s extremely strict felon disenfranchisement laws, for instance, probably denied Mr. Gore as many votes as Mr. Nader did.

      Nevertheless Mr. Nader did play a role in Mr. Gore’s loss. The blame placed on his candidacy, rightly or wrongly, has essentially killed the third-party vote to this day. Personally, I do believe that Mr. Gore, not Governor George W. Bush, would have been president for the last eight years if Mr. Nader had not been on the ballot. Left-leaning Ralph Nader voters who found Mr. Gore too conservative for their tastes essentially handed Mr. Bush a presidency from which the country is still recovering.

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