The founding fathers of the United States were initially opposed to the formation of political parties considering them as "quarreling factions" that would hinder the public from freely judging issues on merit. The complex structure of the U.S. government with its elaborate system of checks and balances and division of power among the state and federal governments, however, makes the formation of permanent political organizations necessary for effective functioning of the system. Over the years, a two-party system has evolved with two major political parties fielding their respective candidates in most state and federal elections. Third parties take part in the elections occasionally albeit with limited impact. It is a common observation that third parties in the U.S. go only as far as their candidate; if a candidate fades out of the spotlight so does the party. In this paper, we will discuss why third parties have traditionally been unsuccesful in the U.S. political system, look at some examples of third party participation in U.S. presidential elections and discuss why the third parties tend to fade away after the elections.
Why Third Parties Have Been Unsuccesful in the U.S. Elections?
The way elections are structured in the United States works against the success of third parties. It is also the major reason behind the evolution of a two-party rather than a multi-party political system. For example, representatives in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures are elected in single-member districts where only one party's candidate with the most votes can win in each district. Hence there is a strong incentive for political competitors to organize themselves into two competing parties in order to maximize their chances of winning elections. Third parties usually thrive in a proportional representation electoral system or in countries having multi-member districts, where parties that win much smaller percentages of the vote can be elected. In a "winner takes all" system adopted in the U.S. where a vote for a third party is invariably a "lost vote," third parties can, at best, perform the role of a "spoiler." Other features of the American system of elections, such as campaign finance rules and the Electoral College further discourage the emergence of third parties. ("What is the History.." Paras 2 and 3; Greiner: 23)
Another feature of the American third parties is their lack of longevity. Third parties traditionally emerge with limited agendas and highlight specific issue(s) that they feel strongly about, e.g., the issue of "budget deficits" taken up by Ross Perot in the 1992 Presidential election. More often than not, the issue or idea championed by third parties gets "high-jacked" by one of the major parties who incorporate it in their election platform with the result that support for the third party fades away. For example, President Clinton adopted up the issue of a balanced budget as one of his priorities and implemented the policy during his presidential term. As a result, support for Ross Perot declined sharply in the subsequent 1996 Presidential elections.
Examples of Third Party Challenges in U.S. Presidential Elections
Let us now look at the performance of some of the third parties and their candidates that took part in some of the Presidential elections in the U.S. history:
Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party
Three distinct "Progressive Parties" have been formed in the U.S. political history. The first of these, also known as the "Bull Moose Party," was founded after a bitter fight for the Republican nomination in the 1912 Presidential elections among the incumbent president William H. Taft, Robert M. La Follette and the former president Theodore Roosevelt. Although most La Follette supporters switched to Roosevelt in the Republican convention in June 1912, the nomination was won by Taft. An embittered Roosevelt left the Republican Party to form the "Progressive Party," whose main agenda was opposition to President Taft's conservative and overly pro-big business policies. The party also advocated prohibition of child labor, suffrage for women, and national social insurance. A number of liberal Republicans who did not see eye-to-eye with Tuft's policies broke ranks with the official Republican Party and joined the Progressive Party. Roosevelt then ran in the 1912 presidential race as a candidate of the new party promising to increase federal regulation and protect the welfare of ordinary people. ("Progressive Party (United States)"-Encarta)
Despite an impressive showing in the Presidential elections (getting 27.5% of the popular votes), all that the Progressive Party was able to achieve was Tuft's defeat (beaten into 3rd place with 25% votes) and an easy victory for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. The result of the election was further confirmation of the inherent weakness of the third parties in the American political system as Roosevelt had been a popular president during his two previous presidential terms would probably have won the elections with ease if he had been the candidate of the Republican Party. After the elections, with the spotlight removed from its candidate, the Progressive Party simply faded away and Roosevelt himself rejoined the Republican Party in 1916. (Goodman; "Progressive Party (United States)"-Encarta)
George C. Wallace and the American Independent Party
George Wallace and the "American Independent Party" exemplify the typical characteristic of the third parties in the contemporary U.S. politics: the tendency to sink without a trace after their brief moment in the sun during elections. While George Wallace (1919-1998) is remembered for having sought the U.S. presidency in the1968 presidential elections, hardly anyone remembers the American Independent Party that he formed in 1968. Wallace is also famous (or infamous) for his tenure as the governor during a politically volatile period from 1963 to 1967 and for having personally blocked the door of the University of Alabama to black students in 1963. He ran for the presidential elections on an anti-desegregation platform, exhorting the virtues of respect for law and order, and opposing federal government welfare programs. He received 13.5% of the popular vote and got 46 electoral votes (the highest for a third party candidate in recent U.S. history) due to his concentrated support in five southern states. The American Independent Party became extinct soon after the elections and was succeeded by the American Party that further split into two components (the American and the American Independent Party) in 1976 -- both of which have had minimal impact on the American political scene. (Abramson et al. 350-351)
Ross Perot and the Reform Party
The Reform Party was formed by the American businessman and philanthropist, H. Ross Perot in 1995. Earlier Perot had run as an independent candidate in 1992, highlighting issues such as the need for reducing federal budget deficit, reform of term limits for members of Congress, and campaign finance reform. Despite his erratic campaign, Perot tapped into the dissatisfaction that many people felt with the government and the "professional" politicians and got a surprisingly high (19%) of the popular vote -- the highest third candidate vote since Theodore Roosevelt's 27% in 1912. Despite his relatively strong showing he was unable to get even a single electoral vote in the elections.
By founding the Reform Party in 1995, Perot was probably hoping to further exploit the public's alienation from the main-stream parties that was apparent in 1992's elections. The Party's performance since has, however, belied that hope. When Perot again ran for the Presidency in 1996 on a Reform Party ticket, he wasn't perceived as a serious candidate by the media and the public and got just 8% of the popular vote (less than half of the 19% he received as an independent candidate). Although issues such as his acceptance of federal campaign money and charges of a biased nomination process hurt his campaign, the result is also indicative of the irrelevance of the third party in U.S. political system. ("Perot, H (enry) Ross."-Encarta)
As far as the fortunes of the Reform Party are concerned, they have gone from bad to worse. The Reform Party's only notable electoral success occurred in 1998 when Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler, was elected governor of Minnesota by defeating the Republican and Democratic candidates. Ventura, however, left the party two years later after conflicts with supporters of Perot and Patrick Buchanan. The party split into two camps during the 2000 presidential campaign with Buchanan and John Hagelin, a physicist from Iowa, receiving nominations from their own groups in the party. They eventually ended up with less than 0.5% of the popular vote in the elections. (Ibid.) The fate of the Reform Party as a third party, therefore, appears no different than its less than illustrious predecessors.
The third party phenomenon has proved to be a non-starter in the American politics due to strong reasons such as the "winner takes all" election procedure and the Electoral College system. Even a cursory glance at the history of U.S. third party reveals that they tend to fade away as soon as the spotlight is removed from its candidates. At best, they have played the role of "spoilers" in some elections or provided…