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Experience January/February 2024

Are Third-Party Candidates Always Spoilers?

Douglas Denton Church


  • Let’s take a stroll through history to evaluate the effect of third-party and independent candidates on presidential elections.
Are Third-Party Candidates Always Spoilers?

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Given the highly divided electorate, it’s not unusual that a splinter candidate will emerge and run as an independent or the candidate of some third party.

Currently, three candidates fall into those categories. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. started as a Democrat and then shifted to an independent. As she did in 2016, Jill Stein is running as the Green Party candidate. Cornel West has also announced, beginning as a candidate of the People’s Party, then shifting to an independent.

In the memory of most of us in the Senior Lawyers Division, notably, the candidacies of Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and George Wallace likely spring to mind. Each had an impact on the outcome of that year’s presidential election and served to alter the standard debates between Republicans and Democrats. They forced the major party candidates to deal with their issues in ways that might otherwise have been ignored.

They’re but three of the many third-party or independent candidates who’ve run for president dating back to 1832 when William Wirt was the candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party. In that election, Democrat Andrew Jackson defeated Wirt and the Republican candidate, Henry Clay. Perhaps the name of Wirt’s party is a sufficient indication of its motivation—and that, as it turns out, isn’t unusual.

Over the years, a single-issue focus has typically been the basis for the creation of a third party. Or perhaps it’s some specific ideological bent: Free Soil, Socialist, Greenback, Prohibition, Green, and Libertarian are names that have surfaced, along with a candidate to carry their banner over the years.

Fair to call them spoilers?

There’s a widely held perception that third-party candidates have served as spoilers in the general election. It’s also believed that, in many, if not most, cases, the candidate with whom the third-party candidate may be most philosophically aligned suffers; the “spoiler” takes votes away from the major party candidate.

With those perceptions as background, let’s look at a few of the more recent elections that have included a serious run by a third-party or independent candidate.

  • 1992—President George H. W. Bush had just received one of the highest popularity ratings in the history of presidential polling after the first Gulf War. That quickly disappeared as domestic matters became more important.

Ross Perot, a plain-talking Texan mounted an independent campaign focusing on economic issues and a plan to balance the federal budget. His entrepreneurial background and business success gave him significant credibility, and he burnished his image when he managed to mount a successful attempt to rescue two of his employees who’d been imprisoned in Iran. (His running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, notably started the vice-presidential debate by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”)

Perot has the distinction of gaining the most votes of a nonmajor party candidate, with nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. Though he won no states and earned no votes in the electoral college, he did clearly impact the outcome of the election won by Bill Clinton. The vote count in key states showed that a vote for Perot was usually a vote that would traditionally have gone to Bush.

My favorite quote from Perot addressing the North American Free Trade Agreement: “There will be a giant sucking sound going south” as manufacturing jobs flood to Mexico.

  • 1968—What a year in the history of our country! The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, followed by the Chicago riots during the Democratic convention, were lowlights. But it was also the year George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, ran as the candidate of the American Independent Party, a loose alliance of disaffected “Dixiecrats” and others who supported a return to segregation.

Wallace is remembered for saying at his gubernatorial inauguration in 1963, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

His national appeal was primarily in southern states. But unlike Perot, he actually won states and received 46 electoral votes. His impact wasn’t insignificant, as Republican Richard Nixon won the election over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The loss of traditional Democratic votes from southern states clearly reduced the votes that normally would have gone to Humphrey.

Wallace wasn’t the first and probably won’t be the last candidate who appealed to a particular category of voter with a view of America inconsistent with the realities of our more and more diverse population.

  • 2000—Ralph Nader, author of Unsafe at Any Speed and darling of the Green Party, was the Green Party candidate in the election ultimately won by the incumbent, George W. Bush. His vote total on a national scale was just under 3 percent. But the impact in key states was seen by many as the deciding factor preventing Vice President Al Gore from winning the race.

Nader was unrepentant, although a portion of his base recognized that his candidacy resulted, in their view, in a far worse situation with the election of Bush. Nader continued to flirt with presidential politics in 2004 and 2008.

  • 2016—For many, the loss by Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump was a product of the impact of independent and third-party candidates. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, received more than a million votes nationwide. And Gary Johnson turned in the best showing of any Libertarian candidate in history, receiving more than 4 million votes.

The votes for these candidates clearly exceeded the total difference between the major party candidates in key electoral states. Conventional wisdom suggests that most of those voters might have been traditional Democratic voters.

Third party runs from the history books

There have also been races with third-party or other candidates with some historical significance. Here are just a few.

  • 1912—Theodore Roosevelt had served the balance of William McKinley’s term and then a full term of his own. His hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, had disappointed Roosevelt during Taft’s first term in office, and Roosevelt decided he had to right the ship of state by returning to the presidential race.

He was the creator, for all intents and purposes, of the Bull Moose Party. He ran as a third-party candidate against Taft, the Republican nominee, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat. It was the most successful third-party candidate in history, receiving more than 27 percent of the popular vote and garnering 88 electoral votes.

In the end, Roosevelt’s popularity among Republican voters took votes away from Taft and ensured Wilson’s victory.

  • 1860—This election placed Republican Abraham Lincoln against his long-time rival, Democrat Stephen Douglas. Less well remembered is John Breckenridge, who ran as a third-party candidate of a group of disaffected Democrats from the South who sought to maintain a pro-slavery platform in the Democratic Party.

In southern states, Breckenridge actually received more electoral votes than Douglas, although Douglas garnered more popular votes. The division between the northern and southern branches of the Democratic Party clearly played a part in the election of Lincoln. Notably, for his second term, Lincoln ran as the candidate of a third party known as the National Union Party consisting of Republicans and northern Democrats.

  • 1948—The major party candidates were Thomas Dewey, the Republican, and Harry Truman, the Democrat. The continuing struggle for states’ rights, the rallying cry of Southern Democrats, led to the candidacy of Strom Thurmond. The senator from South Carolina was the candidate of the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party.

The country, weary of war and inclined toward a return to a simpler time, gave pollsters and others the sense that Dewey was destined to win. In fact, during a time when publication deadlines preceded the actual election results, the day after the election, “Dewey Defeats Truman” was the banner headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Many historians consider the Truman victory one of the great upsets in the history of presidential elections, and the impact of the Thurmond candidacy could easily be seen in the Electoral College results. His 39 electoral votes were significant, but more telling was his popular vote impact in key swing states.

As we’ve seen time and again, a slight change in states’ popular-vote totals can result in a major change in electoral college totals.

There are many other tales to tell about the impact of independent and third-party candidates in presidential elections. You may recall some the names of other candidates: Eugene V. Debs, Martin Van Buren, John B. Anderson. In every case, the candidacy was the product of both personal ego and traditional party disaffection.

Arguably, some higher motive was also involved in many of these candidacies. But what’s universally true is that none of these candidates ever won the presidency (with the possible exception of the election for Lincoln’s second term, but since he was an incumbent, that complicates the analysis). And their candidacies tilted the ultimate outcome in ways that were almost always inimical to their traditional political positions.

This year, the emergence of a serious third-party or independent candidate may yet impact the results of the presidential election. And it remains to be seen exactly who the major party’s candidates will be and which candidates could be most impacted.