Why 3rd Parties Don’t Win

6 05 2009


Gio posed an excellent question in his “Wednesday’s Open Thread”: Given the sorry state of the Republican Party, should conservatives form a third party? But…what is the likelihood that a third party can win in the next election?

Here’s a good summary of the intransigence of the American two-party system and the chances for third parties.



The Populist (third) Party, est. 1891

The Populist (third) Party, est. 1891


For more than two centuries the two-party system has endured in the United States. It has had varying degrees of influence on American government. Why, when most other democratic countries have numerous political parties whose candidates are elected to public office, does the United States still have only two parties? Minor parties have formed, and they sometimes have received a significant number of votes. However, none of them has lasted. There must be some good reasons, and indeed there are at least three.


The force of historical tradition is a major reason the United States continues to have a two-party system. Since the nation began with two parties-the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists-people have grown used to the system. The longer it has persisted, the more unthinkable it has become to have it any other way.


Another factor that has influenced America’s two-party system is the shared principles and ideals of the American people. In many other countries, the range of beliefs is greater, and disagreements run deeper. For example, France has a communist party that, though weaker than it once was, still gets a significant amount of support. It also has a strong right-wing nationalist party whose members have almost the opposite political views from the communists.

Likewise, Nigeria has for many years been locked in a serious dispute over who should control policy: the military or the proponents of democracy. The broad ideological consensus in the United States encourages just two large parties-with overlapping points of view-whose main focus is to win elections, not to represent vastly different sets of beliefs.


Probably the single most important reason that the United States has a two-party system is the winner-take-all electoral system, instead of proportional representation. In nearly all elections, from the race for the presidency to contests at the local level, the winner is the one who receives the largest number of votes. The winner does not need to have more than 50 percent of the vote, only one vote more than his or her opponents. Because a party does not gain anything by finishing second, minor parties can rarely overcome the assumption that a vote for them is “wasted.” Elections for national and most state representatives are based on single-member districts. One person represents the people within a small area, or district, of a state. No matter how many people run, the person with the largest number of votes wins. This encourages parties to become larger, spreading their “umbrellas” to embrace more voters. Parties without big groups of voters supporting them have little hope of winning, and often even have a hard time getting their candidates listed on the ballot.



Even though the two-party system is deeply entrenched in United States politics, minor third parties have popped up consistently through American history. They don’t last, largely because the winner-take-all electoral system gives them almost no chance of winning elections. The names of most of them are forgotten: the Free Soil party, the Know Nothings, the Liberty party, the Poor Man’s party, and the Greenback party. Others, like the Populists, Progressives, and States’ Rights Democrats (Dixiecrats) have certainly influenced the course of political history.


The minor parties that have won electoral votes tend to be economic protest parties, often based in a particular region. Minor parties are sometimes splinter parties, which split from a major party. The Populists were an influential economic protest party that gathered support from Midwestern and southern farmers who felt taken advantage of by big banks and companies. The Progressive party of 1912 and the Progressive party of 1924 splintered from the Republicans, gaining 88 electoral votes in 1912 and 13 votes in 1924. Often these parties form around charismatic figures- Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Bull Moose) or George Wallace in 1968 (American Independent). Like all third parties, they faded as issues changed, sometimes because the major parties eventually broadened their goals and addressed their concerns. Other minor parties do not always take on the goal of winning elections and electoral votes. Ideological parties often profess broad political beliefs and values that are radically different from the mainstream. For example, the Communist party (1920s to the present) wants to replace capitalism with socialism, a point of view that has never won electoral votes. Although members know they will not win, they persist in running candidates for office, hoping that they can eventually bring about a revolutionary change. Single-issue parties have as their main goal to influence one major social, economic, or moral issue; too narrowly focused to win large groups of voters, they often have no real desire to continue after the issue is resolved. For example, the Free Soil party formed in 1848 to prevent the spread of slavery and faded away in 1852.


Besides attracting new groups of voters, minor parties have shaped American politics in two major ways:

Influencing the Outcomes of Elections – Even though minor parties have never won the presidency, and few have elected candidates to Congress, they sometimes get enough votes to determine which candidate from the major parties wins. For example, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party siphoned votes from Republican William Howard Taft, so that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912. In 1968, George Wallace’s American Independent party undermined Democratic support in the South, helping Republican Richard Nixon to win. Some observers believe that in 1992 and 1996 Ross Perot’s campaigns hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats, ensuring victory for Democrat Bill Clinton.Encouraging the Major Parties to Face Important Issues – The “umbrella” nature of the two major parties causes them to look for ways to attract more voters. They pay attention to votes lost to a minor party that addresses a significant or appealing issue. Often the Democrats or Republicans will adopt the policies of the minor parties in order to attract voters back. In fact, the actions of minor parties have helped bring many significant issues to the public’s attention-from women’s voting rights and the income tax to the Social Security program and voter referendums.  For example, the Progressive party championed eight-hour workdays and better working and living conditions for the urban poor, and both major parties eventually adopted this point of view. 

Wood, Ethel, and Sansone, Stephen C.  American Government – A Complete Coursebook.  Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group, 2000.



13 responses

6 05 2009
The Doktor

I carry the great shame of having voted for Perot in ’92 and paving the way for 8 years of Clinton. Rest assured I have learned my lesson and always, ALWAYS vote for the lesser of two evils within the two parties. It just turns out that that always seems to be a Republican. Surprise.

However, the Republicans have left the Conservatives behind and we have to remind them who brought them ”to the party”, as it were. Kicking out each and every RINO in the primaries is a start.

It took me a bit of a journey to ”break the chains I had upon me” (Weezer – Heart Songs) and to see the truth about America and the brainwashing that has been going on since – well, the forties, I guess. The entertainment media was fairly infiltrated by the end of the fifties (except for the old-timers, Wayne, Heston, etc.) and the schools were well on their way to being overrun with Leftists.

By the early 90’s I knew who I really was. I had worked very hard to succeed and to obtain more than ever before. I saw who the real enemy to the ”common man” was and it wasn’t the Right.

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh, yeah, Third Parties. I never use them anymore. Except for the U.S. Senate race in Illinois where a friend of ours was running against Hussein and Alan Keyes. Keyes was the Carpetbagger Republican without a chance in hell (especially after Jack Ryan was destroyed by Hussein’s probe and subsequent disclosure of Ryan’s personal divorce records – THANKS Chicago Tribune!! You pigs!!!).

Third Parties cannot, because of the current technologies (using them to control the populace and the media and, therefore, the information people receive), get any more than lip service. Let me make my point simply:

Governor Sarah Palin is a Republican – one of the two major parties. She has, through the media, been essentially destroyed and made ineffectual in the minds of the Ignorant Masses. That’s real power. Power a Third Party can never have or defeat.

Doktor Digression

6 05 2009

I hear you, Dok. I, too, voted for Perot in ’92.

We conservatives have essentially two choices before us:

1. Stay with or, in the case of Independents like myself, join the Republican Party and work to reform it from within; or
2. Form a third party, knowing full well that its likelihood of actually winning is not just slim, it’s nonexistent.

Notwithstanding the electoral fate of third parties, they nevertheless can still serve a useful purpose — by encouraging, or forcing, the major parties to face important issues. I quote from the article above:

The “umbrella” nature of the two major parties causes them to look for ways to attract more voters. They pay attention to votes lost to a minor party that addresses a significant or appealing issue. Often the Democrats or Republicans will adopt the policies of the minor parties in order to attract voters back. In fact, the actions of minor parties have helped bring many significant issues to the public’s attention-from women’s voting rights and the income tax to the Social Security program and voter referendums. For example, the Progressive party championed eight-hour workdays and better working and living conditions for the urban poor, and both major parties eventually adopted this point of view.

Given the present head-in-the-sand attitude of the Republican party elite, they will only change when threatened with a 3rd party.

P.S. I’m no fan of Jeb Bush. He recently declared that the Republican Party should stop being “nostalgic” for Ronald Reagan. Besides, is America so short of talent that we must settle for another Bush in office, thereby consolidating the Bush Dynasty? Having the Kennedy Dynasty is bad enough!

6 05 2009


Isn’t it a shame that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils? There are so few candidates out there that deserve our support, so we try to elect the one who won’t hurt as much. What a sad commentary on our society.

6 05 2009

I agree.

There is also the Human psychological desire to be on the winning team. I think many voters vote for who they think can win instead of the candidate that they believe truly represents their beliefs. This will likely come down to the two major parties unless there is some type of major shake-up or the emergence of some other charasmatic Obamalike third-party candidate that can hypnotize the public.

6 05 2009


Voting to be on the winning side?? How can people discard their beliefs just to be on a winning team? I believe what you’re saying, it just sounds crazy. I must remember the world is getting crazier every day and anything people do shouldn’t shock me.

6 05 2009


Before this last election, I nearly killed myself in attempt to get through to some of my co-workers. I actually heard the words “McCain doesn’t have a chance so I’m voting for Obama.” It had nothing to do with the candidates, the issues, our freedom or a desire to make a good (let alone the right) choice. It seemed only to be about voting for the winner. I am still at a loss.


6 05 2009

Boo: I tried convincing people, too, but they just kept spouting talking points. I never heard the line about McCain not having a chance. Do you ever want to go up to someone and say, “What were you THINKING?” People in our country have become complacent and they don’t give a whit about what’s happening around us. They are stuck in their small little worlds and don’t ever look at the big picture. They cannot add 2 and 2 and get 4. Sometimes I just want to scream. I’m so fortunate to have Gio’s to vent. Keeps my blood pressure lower. 🙂

6 05 2009


Okay, I must disagree with you about Jeb Bush. He did some good things while he was governor. He signed the Castle Law which I’m sure you know. He did a tremendous job in 04 when we had the horrible hurricanes (two came over our house!) He’s always been down-to-earth to me. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but he would be a much better Senator than Crossover Crist. BUT, I am not trying to convince you. I’m just telling how I feel. We can amicably agree to disagree about Jeb. 🙂 Still friends? 🙂

6 05 2009

Of course, Muffin! Even BestFriendsForever disagree sometimes 😉

I just can’t stomach the thought of yet another Bush….

6 05 2009

Glad we’re still friends. Gotta go cook dinner now, but I have thoroughly enjoyed all conversations today.

Take care everyone.

6 05 2009


Actually, I am not shy about asking people “What the hell were you thinking?” as well as, “How’z that working out for you?” YES….gio’s has actually been a God-send for me. I am able to come in and vent and keep up on information…without being consumed by my own blogs.


6 05 2009

Gio’s is GREAT for information. So many people contributing, too. I’m especially looking for Second Amendment information which I pass on to family and friends. Yes, we are clinging to our guns and religion. 🙂 I have visited your 2nd Amendment site.

31 01 2010
The Mahablog » Know Nothings and Do Nothings

[…] bring up parties some genius always chirps that what we need is a third party. Beside the fact that third parties can’t win national elections in the U.S., I think this is a variation on Sara Robinson’s third fallacy — the belief that the key […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: