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The term third party is used in the United States for a political party other than one of the two major parties (Democratic Party and Republican Party). It also includes independents and write in candidates.

The United States has had a two-party system for over a century. Following Duverger's law, the winner take all system for presidential elections and the single-seat plurality voting system for Congressional elections have over time created the two-party system.

Third party candidates very rarely win any elections. For example, such a candidate only won a U.S. Senate election twice (0.6%) since 1990. Therefore, it is very rare to have a national officeholder without having a party affiliation with a major party. Currently, there are two U.S. Senators (Joe Lieberman/Bernie Sanders), who fit this criteria while no Governor or U.S. Representative does. The last U.S. President without a major party affiliation was Andrew Johnson, who switched from a Democrat to independent while being in office.

Although rarely do third party candidates actually win an election, they can have an effect on them. If performed well, they are often being accused of having a spoiler effect. Sometimes they have won votes in the electoral college, as in the 1832 Presidential election. They can draw attention to issues that may be ignored by the majority parties. If the issue finds resonance with the voters, one or more of the major parties may adopt the issue into its own party platform. Also, a third party may be used by the voter to cast a protest vote as a form of referendum on an important issue. Third parties may also help voter turnout bringing more people to the polls. Third party candidates at the top of the ticket can help to draw attention to other party candidates down the ballot, helping them to win local or state office. In 2004 the U.S. electorate consisted of an estimated 43% registered Democrats and 33% registered Republicans, with independents and those belonging to other parties constituting 25%.[1]


Current U.S. third parties


Largest (voter registration over 100,000)

Smaller parties by ideology


State-only parties


This section includes any party that is independent, libertarian, populist, or any other that either rejects right-left politics or doesn't have a party platform.

State-only parties


This section includes any party that supports liberal, socialist, marxist, or communist party platforms.

State-only parties


State-only parties

  • Florida TEA Party

Barriers to third party success

Winner-take-all vs. proportional representation

In winner-take-all (or plurality-take-all), the candidate with the largest number of votes wins, even if the margin of victory is extremely narrow or the proportion of votes received is not a majority. Unlike in proportional representation, runners-up do not gain representation in a first-past-the-post system. In the United States, systems of proportional representation are uncommon, especially above the local level, and are entirely absent at the national level. In Presidential elections, the majority requirement of the Electoral College, and the Constitutional provision for the House of Representatives to decide the election if no candidate receives a majority, serves as a further disincentive to third party candidacies.

In the United States, if an interest group is at odds with its traditional party, it has the option of running sympathetic candidates in primaries. If the candidate fails in the primary and believes he has a chance to win in the general election he may form or join a third party. Because of the difficulties third parties face in gaining any representation, third parties tend to exist to promote a specific issue or personality. Often, the intent is to force national public attention on a such an issue. Then one or both of the major parties may rise to commit for or against the matter at hand, or at least weigh in. H. Ross Perot eventually founded a third party, the Reform Party, to support his 1996 campaign. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt made a spirited run for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, but he never made any efforts to help Progressive congressional candidates in 1914, and in the 1916 election, he supported the Republicans.

Ballot access laws

Nationally, ballot access laws are the major challenge to third party candidacies. While the Democratic and Republican parties usually easily obtain ballot access in all fifty states in every election, third parties often fail to meet criteria for ballot access, such as registration fees or, in many states, petition requirements in which a certain number of voters must sign a petition for a third party or independent candidate to gain ballot access.[2] In recent presidential elections, Ross Perot appeared on all 50 state ballots as an independent in 1992 and the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996. (Perot, a multimillionaire, was able to provide significant funds for his campaigns.) Patrick Buchanan appeared on all 50 state ballots in the 2000 election,[3] largely on the basis of Perot's performance as the Reform Party's candidate four years prior. The Libertarian Party has appeared on the ballot in at least 46 states in every election since 1980, except for 1984 when David Bergland gained access in only 36 states. In 1980, 1992, 1996 the party made the ballot in all 50 states and D.C. The Green Party gained access to 44 state ballots in 2000 but only 27 in 2004. The Constitution Party appeared on 42 state ballots in 2004.[4] Ralph Nader, running as an independent in 2004, appeared on 34 state ballots. In 2008, Nader appeared on 45 ballots and D.C. For more information see ballot access laws.

Debate rules

Presidential debates between the nominees of the two major parties first occurred in 1960, then after three cycles without debates, took place again in 1976 and have happened in every election since. Third party or independent candidates have been included in these debates in only two cycles. Ronald Reagan and John Anderson debated in 1980, but incumbent President Carter refused to appear with Anderson, and Anderson was excluded from the subsequent debate between Reagan and Carter.

Debates in other state and federal elections often exclude Independent and third party candidates, and the Supreme Court has upheld such tactics in several cases. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a private company. [5] Independent Ross Perot was included in all three of the debates with Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, largely at the behest of the Bush campaign.[citation needed] His participation helped Perot climb from 7% before the debates to 19% on Election Day.[6]

Perot was excluded from the 1996 debates despite his strong showing four years prior.[7] In 2000 revised debate access rules made it even harder for third party candidates to gain access by stipulating that, besides being on enough state ballots to win an Electoral College majority, debate participants must clear 15% in pre-debate opinion polls. This rule remained in place for 2004[8][9], when as many as 62 million people watched the debates,[10] and is still in effect for 2008.[11][12] The 15% criterion, had it been in place, would have prevented Anderson and Perot from participating in the debates they appeared in.

Major party marginalization

Sometimes, a third party candidate will strike a chord with a section of voters in a particular election. They can bring an issue to national prominence and amount a significant proportion of the popular vote. Major parties often respond to this by adopting this issue in a subsequent election. After 1968, under President Nixon the Republican Party adopted a “Southern Strategy” to win the support of conservative Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights Movement and resulting legislation and to combat third parties with southern agendas. This can be seen as a response to the popularity of segregationist candidate George Wallace who gained 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 election for the American Independent Party.

In 1996, both the Democrats and the Republicans agreed to deficit reduction on the back of Ross Perots popularity in the 1992 election. This severely undermined Perot’s campaign in the 1996 election.

Third party officeholders

Third party officeholders in the U.S. are very rare at one point of time. Since the end of Reconstruction, there have a total of 31 U.S. Senators, 111 Representatives, and 22 Governors that weren't affiliated with a major party.

Notable elections

Many third party, independent, and even write in candidates have performed well in many U.S. elections.

See also



  1. '^ Neuhart, P. (22 January 2004). Why politics is fun from catbirds' seats. USA Today.,, retrieved 2007-07-11 
  2. ^ See Two party ballot suppresses third party change, by Theresa Amato, Ralph Nader's national campaign manager, Harvard Law Record, 4 December 2009
  3. ^ 2000 PRESIDENTIAL GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS, Federal Election Commission,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  4. ^ (pdf) OFFICIAL GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS FOR UNITED STATES PRESIDENT, Federal Election Commission, November 2, 2004,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  5. ^ Lister, J (September 1980), "1980 Debates", The New England journal of medicine (Commission on Presidential Debates) 303 (13): 741–4, ISSN 0028-4793, PMID 6157090,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  6. ^ What Happened in 1992?,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  7. ^ What Happened in 1996?,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  8. ^ What Happened in 2004?,,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  9. ^ 2004 Candidate Selection Criteria, Commission on Presidential Debates, September 24, 2003,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  10. ^ 2004 Debates, Commession on Presidential Debates,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  11. ^ The 15 Percent Barrier,,, retrieved 2007-12-20 
  12. ^ Commission on Presidential Debates Announces Sites, Dates, Formats and Candidate Selection Criteria for 2008 General Election, Commission on Presidential Debates, November 19, 2007,, retrieved 2007-12-20 

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