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Guest Post: The Undeniable Influence of Third Parties on American Politics

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Briana Hilton · Jan 3, 2024

63% of U.S. adults currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” of representing the American people that “a third major party is needed,” according to research from Gallup. Representing a seven-percentage-point increase from a year ago (and the highest since Gallup first asked the question in 2003), there’s no question that third parties are becoming more popular. While Republican and Democrat parties have remained the standard throughout history and continue to do so today, it’s imperative to recognize the impact that third parties have had on American politics — from the notable achievements of the past to those of modern history. 

The Influential History of Third Parties

Third parties have a long history when it comes to making significant impacts in American politics. A 2004 PBS article by Kristina Nwazota, for instance, delves into the influences that third parties have had in the past, noting that the most successful of the third parties in any one election involved the Reform Party. In 1992, the Reform Party nominated Ross Perot as its candidate for presidency. 

“Perot ran on a platform that advocated reducing the federal budget deficit, an issue previously ignored in elections but one that would become a major part of almost every presidential campaign since,” PBS explained, going on to point out that Perot received 19% of the vote. The words of historian Michael Beschloss are also cited by PBS, which serves to further address Perot’s influence in the years to come. “[H]e was the first candidate really in a big way to float the idea that the deficit was a bad thing,” Beschloss said. “By the time Bill Clinton was elected that fall, if he had not done something about the deficit he would have been in big trouble and that was largely Ross Perot’s doing.” 

The 2004 PBS goes on to point out additional and significant impacts that third parties have had throughout history, which have led to great contributions in the sphere of American politics. For example, the article delves into the changes driven by the Socialists, which popularized the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s as well as the early 1900s, advocated for child labor laws in 1904, and, in conjunction with the Populist Party, introduced the notion of a 40-hour work week — thus leading to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. 

While third parties as a group have certainly made their mark on history, it’s worth mentioning individuals who have been particularly successful. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, became president in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley, and effectively won reelection in 1904. Roosevelt decided to run for a third term in 1912 on a third party ticket, having grown unsatisfied as Republicans weren’t supporting progressive parties at the time. Running as part of the progressive Bull Moose Party, The Hill notes that Roosevelt did ‘very well,’ receiving 27.4% of the popular vote while William Howard Taft (who was up for reelection at the time) received 23.2%. Due to splitting the Republican vote, the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won with 41.8% in addition to “a landslide” of 435 votes in the Electoral College — thus highlighting the sheer influence that a third party candidate can have on an election. 

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The Third Parties of Today

 When looking at the third parties driving American politics today, there’s no question that there are more than a few that have the potential to leave their mark. According to Newsweek, Libertarian Party activists see “the likely repeat of the last presidential election as an opportunity to shine through in 2024,” despite still needing a candidate to do so. Key issues for Libertarians include pledging to uphold individual freedoms and ending the country’s penchant for war (including seeking negotiated peace in Ukraine). When asked about splitting the 2024 vote, Spike Cohen (who was the Libertarian vice presidential candidate in 2020), told Newsweek: “Libertarians intend to ‘take’ so many votes from the RepubliCrats that neither of their candidates can win, and we can win instead.” Cohen further noted “If we fall short of that, we will still have a major impact.” 

The U.S. Green Party was established in 2001, though with rising concerns surrounding the environment, there’s no question that this third party is bound to be influential in one way or another. In fact, a majority of U.S. adults want the government to play a larger role in addressing climate change, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. The U.S. Green Party’s platform aims to address a variety of stated priorities — to note a few, these include decreasing the U.S. military budget, addressing global climate change via a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, social justice, and democratic reforms (like the public financing of elections), highlights ABC News. 

Bernard Tamas, a political science professor at Valdosta State University, explained to ABC News how third-party candidates don’t need to win elections in order to be influential, noting that they often “sting like a bee” by shocking one of the two major parties into taking up issues they’re passionate about.  “I don’t think anyone in the Green Party has any delusions that they’re going to win anything,” he stated. “This is a way for the progressives, those on the left, to force the Democratic Party to take [seriously] issues that they take seriously.” 

Looking Ahead to the 2024 Election

A year before the 2024 presidential election, 76% of Americans believed that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and the leading Democratic and Republican candidates were viewed ‘broadly unfavorably,’ according to an ABC News and Ipsos poll. It’s further highlighted that across a range of issues asked about in the poll, around a third of Americans say they trust neither party. That said, it’s logical to think that such a statistic can allow for third parties to step in and make an impact — though to do so, certain elements are crucial when cultivating an impactful campaign. 

In addition to a successful campaign strategy, trust is an essential element for a candidate looking to make a positive impact in an election, regardless as to the affiliated party. Much like in the business world where trust plays an integral role among potential partners, building that trust is key, whether it’s between the public and the candidate or the candidate and those surrounding them (such as a campaign manager). While potential business partners can build a trustworthy relationship through aligned values, carrying out due diligence is imperative in order to assess potential risks involved, from corruption risks to those that involve financial concerns. Third party political candidates can do the same — ensuring that a campaign manager’s values align with their own while carrying out due diligence regarding the manager’s past campaigns is just one way to set the stage for success. On the flip side, however, trust built between a candidate and the public can also come to fruition in the same way. For example, a candidate’s past endeavors (such as prior political campaigns) may factor into how the public views that candidate addressing certain issues in the future.

While third parties are unlikely to see one of their candidates as president, their unique ability to draw attention to issues and influence major parties should never be ignored. From the significant impacts made throughout history by notable third parties and their candidates to the influence of the third parties of today, minor parties play an integral role in the landscape of U.S. politics.


Photo by Sawyer Sutton

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By Briana Hilton
Briana Hilton spent a decade working on campaign strategy teams before taking a step back to start a family. She has since rediscovered her teenage love of writing, and enjoys contributing to a range of publications, both print and online.