Is there room for a third party?

_63673502_comp_464Could a third party break through in US politics? It is generations since it has happened. There have been one-off instances, but the last was twenty years ago, and Ross Perot was third in 48 states, and did not come first even in a congressional district. George Wallace, the Dixiecrat candidate in 1968, carried several states as he was a regional candidate, but neither of these became permanent fixtures in the American polity. Nor did Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912 – the last time one of the major parties was pushed into third place. The Republican Party – the younger of the two major parties – was never a third party. It was created by the merger of the Whig Party with the anti-Masonic Know Nothings and some anti-slavery Democrats. It secured second place their first time it ran a candidate for President and first place four years later when Abraham Lincoln was elected.

So the precedents are not good. When one of the major parties splits or there is a temporary third party surge, one of the main parties absorbs the breakaway group.

There are two nationally organized minor parties at present: the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. After the 2000 election, Democrats worried that they had a problem with the Greens. In the incredibly tight election there is a possibility that the presence of the Greens on the ballot cost the Democrats the election. In that scenario it is possible, though generally, this is unusual. The tiny numbers who vote Green or Libertarian do not do so expecting their candidate to win. They find the Democrats and Republicans (Republicrats, as they often say) equally repugnant and, without a third option, most would abstain.

In 2012, it was Republicans who worried, as the Libertarian candidate came far ahead of the Green, though still with only one percent of the vote. This was with an outstanding candidate: a former two-term governor.

There is a Free State Project under which libertarian leaning people promised to move to New Hampshire to try to gather in sufficient numbers to influence the political process there. Typically – they are libertarians, after all – a breakaway group has opted for Nevada instead. There is little or no evidence of any influence on the political process. 

Libertarian aligned Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has argued that the GOP needs to find candidates better able to appeal to New England and western states – read more libertarian candidates. Aside from New Hampshire, most states in New England are very firmly Democratic, though a swathe of states in the West – Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon are somewhat swingy. Obama won all bur Arizona twice while Bush won all but Oregon in 2004. But Republican voters in all of those states include significant numbers of social conservatives, albeit not in as strong a proportion as in the South.

The Greens have more of a potential regional base. There are pockets around the country where greenish voters are the majority and a Green candidate could conceivably defeat a Democrat. A Green mayoral candidate came very close in San Francisco a few years ago. Burlington, Vermont, the Portlands, Maine and Oregon, and a handful of university town such as Madison, Wisconsin, stand out as possibilities. And, from there? A Green Mayor of Portland would be a formidable candidate for Governor of Oregon


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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