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Independent Cause

10 Successful Independent Campaigns in History

12 min read
Bernie oil
Jack Nagel · Jan 17, 2023


Many people assume that an independent candidate could never win an election in the United States. However, there have been a number of successful independent candidates—and even some wins—in American history. Here are ten examples:

Jesse Ventura's Governorship of Minnesota in 1998

jesse ventura

Jesse Ventura's governor run in 1998 was a success because of his strong outsider appeal and unorthodox campaign style. Ventura, a former professional wrestler and Navy SEAL, ran as an independent candidate and campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism and political reform. He was able to mobilize a large number of disenchanted voters who felt left out of the traditional two-party system.

Ventura won the election with 37% of the vote, beating out the Democratic and Republican candidates. His approval rating was high during his tenure, with a Gallup poll conducted in 1999 showing that 74% of Minnesotans approved of his job performance.

During his tenure as governor, Ventura implemented a number of progressive policies, including raising the minimum wage, increasing funding for education and the environment, and cutting taxes for the middle class. He also pushed for campaign finance reform and advocated for the legalization of marijuana. He also was known for his unorthodox way of communicating with citizens and his unorthodox way of handling the media.

Angus King's Senate seat in Maine in 2012

angus king

Angus King's election to the Senate from Maine in 2012 has been widely considered a success. King, who ran as an independent, won the election with 53% of the vote, defeating both the Republican and Democratic candidates. In his time in office, King has been known for his moderate stance and ability to work across party lines. He has consistently had high approval ratings, with a recent poll showing him with a 70% approval rating among Maine voters.

King has been a strong advocate for environmental protection, healthcare reform, and veterans' rights. He has also been a vocal supporter of small businesses, co-sponsoring legislation to reduce regulations and increase access to capital for small business owners. Additionally, King has been a vocal advocate for improving the functioning of government, and is a member of the Senate’s Governance Reform Task Force.

King has also been a strong supporter of Maine's economy, working to secure funding for infrastructure projects and advocating for policies that support the state's seafood and shipbuilding industries. He has also been a vocal advocate for rural communities, working to secure funding for critical services such as healthcare and broadband access.

Furthermore, King has been a leader in the Senate on issues of national security and foreign policy, serving on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, and he is respected by his colleagues in the senate for his ability to work across party lines.

Lincoln Chafee's Governorship of Rhode Island in 2010

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee's Governorship of Rhode Island in 2010 was a significant success as he won the election by a narrow margin of just over 4,000 votes. This was a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Chafee had previously served as a Republican senator and ran as an independent candidate in the governorship race. Chafee's campaign focused on his ability to work across party lines and his commitment to fiscal responsibility.

During his term as Governor, Chafee was known for his pragmatic approach to governance and his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans to achieve his policy goals. He was able to balance the state budget and improve the state's credit rating. Chafee also implemented a number of progressive policies, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the implementation of a state health insurance exchange. He also supported the expansion of renewable energy sources and the protection of the state's environment.

Chafee's approval rating was relatively high throughout his term as governor, with his approval rating peaking at around 60% in 2012. He left office with an approval rating of around 55%, indicating that the majority of Rhode Islanders were pleased with his performance as governor.

Ralph Nader's Presidential campaign in 2000

ralph nader

Ralph Nader's Presidential campaign in 2000 was a success due to a number of factors. Nader, who ran as the candidate for the Green Party, was able to tap into a growing desire among voters for more progressive and environmentally-conscious policies. He was also able to appeal to a wide range of voters who were disillusioned with the two major parties and the political status quo.

During the campaign, Nader was able to raise significant funds from individual donors and grassroots supporters, allowing him to travel around the country and engage with voters in a way that many other third-party candidates were unable to do. Additionally, Nader's campaign was able to secure the support of a number of influential organizations, including labor unions and environmental groups, which helped to boost his visibility and credibility.

Despite facing significant obstacles, Nader was able to secure 2.7% of the national vote in 2000, which is a considerable achievement for a third-party candidate. Additionally, his campaign was able to secure a number of votes in key states, including Florida, where his campaign may have had a significant impact on the outcome of the election. Furthermore, his campaign helped to raise awareness about environmental issues, consumer rights and also helped to push the Democratic party to the left.

Ross Perot's Presidential campaign in 1992

ross perot

Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign was successful to a degree, in that it was the first independent campaign to achieve major party status since George Washington. It also spurned the Reform Party, which went on to be an important third-party force in American politics for more than two decades.

Perot ran as an independent, having never been associated with any political party before or after his run (he actually briefly joined Ross Perot's Reform Party). His platform included fiscal conservatism and social liberalism; he was pro-choice while also against NAFTA and GATT.

Although he did not win any states outright during the general election, he won 19% of the popular vote—which may have tilted the balance in favor of Bill Clinton over George H. W Bush

Eliot Cutler's Governor campaign in Maine in 2010

Eliot Cutler

Eliot Cutler's Governor campaign in Maine in 2010 was a significant success, even though he did not win the election. He managed to secure 36.5% of the popular vote, which is a high percentage for an independent candidate. Cutler's campaign was unique in that he ran as an independent, and he was able to reach a large number of voters through his use of social media, debates, and by using technology, such as the internet, to reach out to voters. His campaign was based on the idea of bringing bipartisan cooperation, improving education, and fostering economic development. His message resonated with many Maine citizens who were frustrated with the traditional two-party system and the lack of progress on these issues. Additionally, Cutler's campaign also brought attention to issues such as energy independence and environmental protection, which were critical issues in the state of Maine.

His campaign was a significant success in terms of voter turnout, as he managed to bring in about 150,000 voters, many of whom were not traditional voters. He also managed to win in several counties in the state and his campaign was seen as a close one since the gap between the first place and him was only around 2%.

John Anderson's Presidential campaign in 1980

John Anderson

John Anderson's Presidential campaign in 1980 was a significant success, in part because of his ability to appeal to voters who were dissatisfied with the two major parties. Anderson was a Republican congressman, who ran as an independent, and was able to secure 6.6% of the popular vote, which is one of the highest percentages of votes ever received by an independent candidate in a U.S presidential election.

Anderson's campaign was based on progressive and liberal values, such as environmental protection, civil rights, and campaign finance reform. His campaign was able to reach a wide range of voters, including young people, minorities, and independents who were looking for an alternative to the traditional two-party system. Additionally, Anderson's campaign was also able to secure funding from private donors, which helped him to compete with the two major party candidates. He was able to participate in the presidential debates, which helped him to reach a larger audience and to gain more visibility.

Anderson was able to win in several states, including Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut. His campaign was significant in terms of voter turnout as he was able to bring in about 5 million voters, many of whom were not traditional voters.

Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente (Green Party, 2008)

The campaign of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente (Green Party, 2008) was considered a success by many as it brought attention to the issues that the Green Party stood for and the importance of having more diversity in politics. The campaign was unique as it was led by two women of color, which was a rarity in the political landscape of the United States. They were able to connect with a large number of voters, particularly in communities of color, by highlighting the importance of issues such as environmental justice, racial equality, and poverty. They also advocated for universal healthcare, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reducing the national debt.

The campaign was able to secure 161,797 votes, or 0.12% of the popular vote, which might not be a large number but it is considered a big achievement for a third-party candidate. They also managed to be on the ballot in 45 states, which was a significant achievement and showed their ability to organize and mobilize support. Additionally, the campaign also brought attention to the importance of having more voices and representation in the political arena, which was considered as a victory for democracy and diversity. McKinney and Clemente's campaign was a success in terms of raising awareness about the Green Party and the importance of diversity in politics and also in terms of voter turnout and representation.

Abraham Lincoln's Presidential win in 1860

abe lincoln

Abraham Lincoln's Presidential win in 1860 should be considered a win as a third-party because he ran for the newly created Republican party, which was not one of the two main parties at the time, the Democrats and the Whigs. Lincoln's campaign message was centered around preserving the Union, ending slavery, and economic development.

He was able to win the election with only 39.8% of the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote with a clear majority. Lincoln's election was a significant success as it was able to bring the country together after a divisive campaign. His victory was a turning point in American history as it marked the end of slavery and the preservation of the Union.

Lincoln's presidency was marked by his efforts to modernize the country, such as the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Homestead Act. He also played a vital role in leading the country through the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Lincoln's presidency was transformative, and his leadership and vision helped to shape the United States as it is today. The impact of his politics and leadership can still be felt today and is widely regarded as one of the most successful Presidential campaigns in American history.

Bernie Sanders' Senate seat in Vermont in 2006

Bernie oil

Bernie Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist who served in the House and Senate as an independent from Vermont. In 2006, he defeated Republican candidate Rich Tarrant by a margin of 6 percent. This is the closest margin any incumbent of either party has faced since 1980, when Ed Flanagan won the race by 4 percent.

Sanders began his political career as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, serving four terms before being elected to Congress in 1990 (he also ran for President on multiple occasions). Since then, he has advocated for progressive policies such as universal health care and free college tuition while challenging mainstream Democrats who have been unwilling or unable to embrace his policy proposals. In 2016, Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton for president on a platform that included free college education coupled with increased taxes on corporations and their wealthiest shareholders; however he eventually lost this nomination due to low delegate counts despite gaining millions more votes than Clinton nationwide during primary season--more than all other Democratic candidates combined!

Many successful independents have come close to the top of the ballot, but independent candidates need structural changes (like ranked-choice voting) to have a shot at victory.

Many independent candidates have come close to winning, but they need structural changes—like ranked-choice voting—to have a shot at victory.

Ranked-choice voting is a good example of a structural change that would help independents win without the support of the major parties. In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of just choosing one (the current method). If no candidate receives an outright majority on election day, officials eliminate the last place candidate and redistribute those votes among remaining contenders until someone wins 50%+1 votes. This system would allow independent candidates like Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader to compete more easily with Democratic and Republican frontrunners by capturing second choice votes from partisans who are uneasy about their first pick but want to prevent their least favorite candidate from winning office.

For example: if a Democrat is preferred over his or her Republican opponent by 51% of respondents but only gets 45% of first choice votes due to lower name recognition or campaign performance issues, supporters will still be able to express their true preference for the Democratic nominee via second choice rankings on their ballots (or "instant runoff" tabulations used by some cities implementing ranked-choice voting systems).


The lesson here is clear: It is possible to win major office as an independent or third-party candidate and have been widely popular, but independent candidates need structural changes in order to win more elections. These successful campaigns only achieved their goals in spite of the two-party system. Ranked-choice voting is one of the best ways to ensure that voters get their voices heard, because they can rank their preferred candidates without fear of wasting votes or helping an opponent win.


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By Jack Nagel
I lead the marketing team at Good Party. After watching Bernie Sanders get squashed by the Democrat party twice, I knew I needed to get involved in giving outsiders a chance in American politics. I bring entrepreneurship and startup experience to our insurgent team at Good Party, helping us find sustainable ways to grow.