Jeremy Young: So You Want To Run A Third-Party Presidential Campaign?

Okay, so maybe you don’t. But some folks do. In the past month, America’s three largest third parties – the Libertarians, Greens, and Constitutionists – have chosen their presidential nominees. As someone who’s always been a bit of a third-party junkie, I thought it would be interesting to do a post on the history of third party presidential campaigns. The (rather lengthy) result follows.

First of all, let’s look at the raw data. Below, I’ve compiled a table of every third-party Presidential run in American history that netted at least 1% of the national popular vote (warning: you'll have to scroll down for some formatting reason I don't understand):
RankCandidatePopular VotePartyYearElectoral Vote
1Andrew Jackson41.36%Democratic-Republican Party182437.9%
2John Fremont33.09%Republican Party185638.5%
3Theodore Roosevelt27.40%Progressive Party191216.6%
4Millard Fillmore21.54%American Party18562.7%
5H. Ross Perot18.91%Independent19920.0%
6Robert La Follette16.61%Progressive Party19242.4%
7George Wallace13.53%American Independent Party19688.6%
8John Bell12.62%Constitutional Union Party186012.9%
9Martin Van Buren10.13%Free Soil Party18480.0%
10John Weaver8.51%Populist Party18925.0%
11H. Ross Perot8.40%Reform Party19960.0%
12William Wirt7.78%Anti-Masonic Party18322.4%
13John Anderson6.61%Independent19800.0%
14Eugene Debs5.99%Socialist Party19120.0%
15John Hale4.93%Free Soil Party18520.0%
16Eugene Debs3.41%Socialist Party19200.0%
17James Weaver3.32%Greenback Party18800.0%
18Allan Benson3.19%Socialist Party19160.0%
19Eugene Debs2.98%Socialist Party19040.0%
20Eugene Debs2.83%Socialist Party19080.0%
21Ralph Nader2.73%Green Party20000.0%
22Strom Thurmond2.41%States’ Rights Democratic Party19487.3%
23Henry Wallace2.37%Progressive Party19480.0%
24James Birney2.30%Liberty Party18440.0%
25John Bidwell2.24%Prohibition Party18920.0%
26Norman Thomas2.23%Socialist Party19320.0%
27Clinton Fisk2.20%Prohibition Party18880.0%
28William Lemke1.95%Union Party19360.0%
29Silas Swallow1.92%Prohibition Party19040.0%
30Eugene Chafin1.71%Prohibition Party19080.0%
31John Woolley1.51%Prohibition Party19000.0%
32John St. John1.50%Prohibition Party18840.0%
33John Schmitz1.42%American Party19720.0%
34Eugene Chafin1.38%Prohibition Party19120.0%
35Benjamin Butler1.33%Greenback Party18840.0%
36Alson Streeter1.31%Union Labor Party18880.0%
37James Hanly1.19%Prohibition Party19160.0%
38Ed Clark1.06%Libertarian Party19800.0%


- I did not include candidates who received electoral votes but no popular votes.
- I did not include elections prior to 1824 because the popular vote was not tabulated for those elections.
- My definition of “third-party candidate” was a candidate of a party that either had not run candidates before or whose candidates had never previously attained the status of major-party candidates by coming in second in a national election. Thus, in 1824, only Andrew Jackson counts as a third-party candidate, because he essentially forged a brand new party, while his three rivals split the old Democratic-Republican Party between themselves. In 1836, all the Whig candidates were candidates of the Whig party rather than third-party candidates. In 1856, both John Fremont and Millard Fillmore were third-party candidates. In 1860, the only true third-party candidate out of four was John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. The Progressive Party runs of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Henry Wallace were in reality candidacies of different parties using the same name, so all three were third-party candidates.

Hidden in the above table’s rows of names and numbers is a series of guidelines for third-party presidential candidates of today and tomorrow. These suggestions differ depending on a party’s electoral objectives in a specific election. Below, I’ve teased out some of the possible strategies suggested by the table at each level of achievement.

If you want to win the Presidency (10% or higher)

Looking only at the results for candidates who scored above the 10% mark, we can learn a few things about the most successful third party challenges, those that came within striking distance of the Presidency.

1) Run an ex-President

The strategy: It’s a little-known fact that no ex-President has ever run for President, secured ballot status, and failed to win at least ten percent of the vote. There are only three ex-Presidents on this list – Theodore Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore, and Martin Van Buren – and they clock in at #3, #4, and #9 respectively. Of the three, only Roosevelt was popular when he was in office, yet Fillmore still managed to crack 20% running with a party which was notoriously secretive and whose entire platform consisted of various plans to deport immigrants. Not bad, considering.

But doesn’t work with: ex-Vice Presidents – as Henry Wallace learned to his chagrin in 1948, when he got just over 2% of the vote in a four-way race.

Possible candidates for 2012: None. Bush Sr. and Carter are too old, Clinton and Bush Jr. are constitutionally ineligible.

2) Run a charismatic national figure

The strategy: Ex-Presidents generally do the best, but nationally-known and –beloved figures cut quite a figure in third-party races as well. Of the top nine above, seven are either ex-Presidents or nationally-known figures. The four who fall into the latter category are Andrew Jackson (#1, war hero), John Fremont (#2, famous explorer), Robert La Follette (#6, noted antiwar Senator and Republican Presidential candidate), and George Wallace (#7, Governor and charismatic segregationist). Honorable mention goes to some lower-percentage candidates as well, who performed better than expected under the circumstances: William Wirt (#12, former Attorney General), Eugene Debs (#14, #16, #19, and #20, nationally-known labor leader and charismatic orator), and Ralph Nader (#21, consumer and vehicle-safety advocate).

But doesn’t work with: U.S. Congressmen (sorry Bob Barr). Notable underperformers in this category include William Lemke (#21), John Schmitz (#33), and Benjamin Butler (#35), none of whom cracked 2% despite running with established and well-organized parties and occupying attractive ideological niches. The exception is when a party actually possesses a third-party Congressman, as happened when Greenback Party Congressman James Weaver ran for President first as a Greenbacker (#17) and then as a Populist (#10).

Possible candidates for 2012: Al Gore, Colin Powell, Chuck Hagel, Jesse Ventura.

3) Fill a void in a party system that’s breaking down

The strategy: This, ultimately, is the only way third parties have ever attained the Presidency: by stepping into the void left by the breakdown of one of the major parties. This has been accomplished three times in our history: by the Democrats (Andrew Jackson, #1) and the Republicans (John Fremont, #2), plus one candidate who didn’t make the list because of the lack of popular-vote tabulation in his race: Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1796. In all three cases, the party didn’t actually win the Presidency until the following election. In addition, this void-filling strategy has been attempted three other times: by the American Party (Millard Fillmore, #4), the Constitutional Union Party (John Bell, #8) and the Progressive Party (Theodore Roosevelt, #3). Fillmore’s party wanted to replace the Whigs in 1856, but was outdueled by Fremont and the Republicans. Bell attempted to take advantage of the breakdown of the Democrats in 1860, but the Civil War intervened and prevented his party from taking advantage of their gains. Roosevelt tried to precipitate a breakdown in the Republicans by bolting the party in 1912, but Taft’s strong showing stanched the bleeding at the state and local levels and ensured that the Republicans, not the Progressives, would survive to fight the next election. Nevertheless, all three candidates broke the 10% mark. In addition, this was attempted by the Populists at a regional level during the 1890’s (more on that later).

But doesn’t work with: extreme leftist or rightist parties. Despite Debs’ 6% showing in 1912, neither the Socialists nor the Prohibitionists were ever able to really capitalize on the weakness of the major parties during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Possible candidates for 2012: It’s likely the Republicans will be the weakest party going into this election, so any center-right party such as the Libertarians or the Reform Party could have a strong showing.

4) Run a charismatic self-funder

The strategy: This has only been done successfully twice, and both times by the same guy, but he did so well that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him here. It’s a safe bet that few people knew who H. Ross Perot was before he spent $50-70 million on his 1992 independent race (#5), briefly led both major-party candidates, and finished with nearly 19% of the vote. He repeated this performance in 1996 (#11), winning just over 8% of the final vote, a nice chunk for a repeat candidate who was already beginning to seem just a little bit kooky.

But doesn’t work with: uncharismatic self-funders. The poster child for this category is Ed Clark, who comes in last on our list despite having spent over $3.5 million on his campaign (thanks to his rich running mate), being positioned as a centrist, and having ballot status in nearly all states. Perot’s money certainly helped him, but his “Throw the bums out!” message may have been a bigger part of his success.

Possible candidates for 2012: Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs.

If you want to swing the election (5-10%)

1) Develop strong party organization at the state and local level

The strategy: Don’t be deceived by James Weaver’s 8.5% showing (#10) in 1892. His Populist Party in its heyday was probably the strongest third party on this list (after the Jacksonian Democrats and Republicans). The Populists may not have met with much success on the national level, but they won election after election in the Midwest and particularly in the South, where they attained major-party status in the absence of a functioning Republican Party. Their secret? Strong organization and regional support, along with a series of charismatic leaders, particularly Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly and Georgia Governor Thomas Watson. This rock-solid organization, coupled with Weaver’s strong showing in 1892, paved the way for the Populists to attempt an unprecedented takeover of a major party (the Democrats) four years later. They were instrumental in the Democrats’ embrace of Free Silver with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan, and they also tried unsuccessfully to convince Bryan to choose a Populist (Watson) for his Vice President.

But doesn’t work with: single-region parties, as Strom Thurmond learned in his poor 1948 showing (#22). Thurmond won three-and-a-half Southern states, but performed so poorly elsewhere that Democrat Harry Truman actually moved away from Thurmond’s positions in an effort to undercut Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, whom he deemed the greater threat.

Possible candidates for 2012: Were the Vermont Progressive Party to develop a more national base, leaders Peter Clavelle and Anthony Pollina could do reasonably well.

1) Adopt a defining issue or philosophy (that people are talking about)

The strategy: It seems incredible today, but in 1832 there really were a whole lot of voters who believed that the greatest threat to American society was…the International Order of Freemasonry. The issue was so potent that an entire political party, the Anti-Masons, was organized with the single platform of expelling the Masonic Lodges from United States soil – and its Presidential candidate, William Wirt (#12), drew over 7% of the vote in 1832, denying Whig nominee Henry Clay any chance at unseating President Andrew Jackson. The Anti-Masons may be the most remarkable example of this strategy, but there are many others: the antislavery Free Soilers (Martin Van Buren, #9, 1848, and John Hale, #15, 1852), the anti-Immigrant Know-Nothings (Millard Fillmore, #4, 1856), the Socialists (especially Eugene Debs, #14, 1912), and the segregationist American Independents (George Wallace, #7, 1968).

But doesn’t work with: issues that people aren’t talking about, or that are already well-represented by a major party. For the former, look at all the Libertarians who didn’t make this list; for the latter, look at the Prohibitionists, who never cracked 3% because most Republicans at least paid lip service to prohibition.

Possible candidates for 2012: Jim Gilchrist, Cindy Sheehan, Ralph Reed.

If you want to influence the national debate (1-5%)

1) Develop party loyalty

The strategy: Over half of the candidates who have achieved this level of support in American history come from just two parties: the Prohibition Party and the Socialist Party. Both organizations built their success on developing party loyalty over successive election cycles. How did Prohibitionist voters know to choose nonentity Silas Swallow in the 1904 election (#20), when the previous nominee had been fellow nonentity John Woolley (#31)? They didn’t – they simply brought the pre-printed Prohibition ballot with them to the polls. Though Eugene Debs was the recognizable face of the Socialists from 1900-1920 (#14, #16, #19, #30, plus one unlisted run), Allan Benson’s success in 1916 in Debs’ absence (#18) indicates that the Socialists pursued a similar strategy of party imprinting. Even in today’s voting booth, where candidates are listed by name instead of simply pre-printed on party ballots, party loyalty can be used to similar effect.

But doesn’t work with: parties that hold discredited beliefs. The fate of the Prohibition and Socialist Parties after WWII amply demonstrates this. Wondering where their successes went after the 1930’s? Down the rathole with the 21st Amendment and McCarthyism, respectively.

Possible candidates for 2012: The Libertarian, Constitution, and Green Parties are in the best shape to do this, but would need to increase their membership and visibility.

2) Fail at one of the higher-level strategies

The strategy: This isn’t so much a “strategy” as it is an acknowledgment that even a failed 10% strategy can net a 2% result. Unfortunately, it also usually results in the utter destruction of the party that attempts it, as William Lemke (#28) and John Schmitz (#33) can testify.

But doesn’t work with: parties that don’t have ballot status in many states. The Peace and Freedom Party ran tickets in 1968 (Eldridge Cleaver) and 1972 (Dr. Benjamin Spock) that should easily have netted them in the 1-5% range, but since they never attained ballot status in more than 13 states their strong candidates were irrelevant to the final vote totals.

Possible candidates for 2012: Any party that nominates a paper tiger.


Now we get to the interesting part: there are some real lessons to be gleaned from the table for third parties in general. Here are a few that jump out:

1) A rising tide floats all boats

You would expect that third parties would do best in elections where one major-party candidate wins in a landslide, making people feel comfortable “throwing away their vote” on a minor party – but that’s not the case at all. Instead, third parties tend to do best in elections that feature other high-vote-getting third parties. For some solid evidence, look at the two third parties whose electoral strategy has remained constant over long periods of time and which consistently scored high vote totals: the Socialist and Prohibition Parties. The Socialists ran one man five times (Eugene Debs), while the Prohibitionists ran no-name party activists in every one of their elections – but both parties’ performance varied considerably. Debs’ best election was in 1912, when the public was energized by Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party race. Meanwhile, the Prohibitionists ran their most successful campaign in 1892, a year which saw a major third-party challenge from Populist James Weaver. There’s more evidence from other races, too: the Libertarians’ best race was in 1980, the year John Anderson waged a major independent run; John Fremont and Millard Fillmore seem to have aided each other in 1856. To be sure, not all third-party candidates have benefited from other third-party races – Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin was unable to capitalize on the success of Roosevelt and Debs in 1912, and Libertarian Andre Marrou performed poorly in 1992 despite Ross Perot’s excellent showing – but it remains an interesting and well-proven principle that one third party’s good showing is good for other third parties.

I’m not certain why this happens, but my guess would be that a lot of third-party campaigning is about telling voters it’s okay to vote third party. Once someone like Roosevelt or Weaver had shaken major-party voters loose, it might have been easier for them to vote for some other third party they agreed with more. At any rate, this finding suggests that third party candidates might want to work together more closely in future in order to mutually boost their vote totals.

2) Congressmen make bad third-party nominees

This is one of the most important findings, and one that’s been ignored by both the Libertarian and Green parties this cycle. Anybody who told you that choosing a Congressman over a party activist would help a third party increase its vote totals was a dirty liar, and that’s a fact. Here’s why: if the Presidential candidate’s stature is going to help the ticket at all (and you can still wage successful third-party races if it doesn’t, as Weaver and Bell proved), he or she has absolutely got to be a well-known national figure – and Congressmen simply have no national profile whatsoever. The Green Party in 1996 and 2000 made the right call in choosing a national figure with no political experience (Ralph Nader) rather than someone who had held public office at a low level. The Libertarians at this year’s convention who were torn between choosing a Congressman and an activist should have been told that there was only one individual in the room who would have been a particular draw at the top of the ticket: nationally-known entertainer Penn Jillette.

3) Organization helps, but not as much as you’d think

Having a nationally-organized party can be a real help for a top-ticket race, as the Populists demonstrated in 1892. But more often than not, strong presidential races don’t go hand in hand with strong national organization. The Libertarians have been the strongest third party in America organization-wise since 1976, but the strongest third-party candidates during that time – John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000 – were all either independents or members of other third parties. Similarly, Perot did better in 1992, when he ran as an independent, than in 1996, when he ran with the Reform Party. Factor in the success of candidates like William Wirt who had little party apparatus to speak of, and the risk that a spurned former nominee like Ralph Nader will gut your party after the election, and you’ve got a strong argument that a solid Presidential slate and a solid down-ticket party form an either/or situation.

4) It’s getting harder to be a third-party nominee

One thing that surprised me while compiling the chart is just how well the Socialists and especially the Prohibitionists did in election after election during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. These years saw some of the closest elections in American history, yet Prohibitionist and Socialist candidates routinely drew from 1-4 percent of the vote. In 2000, the Democrats screamed bloody murder when Ralph Nader took 2.7% of the vote in an extremely close election. But in 1888, when Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison despite gaining a larger percentage of the popular vote, he made no attacks on Union Labor candidate Alson Streeter, who had taken a 1.3% bite right out of Cleveland’s left flank. Similarly, when Winfield Scott Hancock lost by a minuscule 10,000 votes to James Garfield in 1880, he expressed no anger toward Greenbacker James Weaver, who had won 3.3% of the vote that would likely otherwise have gone to Hancock.

Thus, the notion of third-party candidates as “spoilers” is a new and dangerous one, and something that third-party candidates need to combat at all costs. While many signs point to the electorate’s increased willingness to consider alternative candidates, this is one that operates powerfully against that trend. Today, as always, third parties and their presidential candidates have their work cut out for them. But isn’t their perennial status as underdogs what makes third parties so much fun in the first place?

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