Election Special: Third Parties

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The American political system is dominated by two major parties, the Democrats on the left, and the Republicans on the right. However other parties have a long history of affecting the outcome of elections and changing the priorities of the major parties.

Today, we’ll look at the history of so-called third parties in the United States.

The Republican and Democratic parties evolved from earlier parties. The Republicans descend from the Whig Party, which was a combination of the earlier National Republican and Anti-Masonic parties. The Democrats were preceded by the Democratic-Republicans and the Anti-Administration Party, which was formed to oppose the Federalists.

Essentially, any party that we haven’t mentioned so far is known as a third party.

The first third party candidate to earn electoral votes was John Floyd of the South Carolina-based Nullifier party, which held the belief that states could nullify federal laws. He ended up with 11 electoral votes, although the votes were awarded to him by the South Carolina Legislature, as there was no popular vote in the state that year. William Wirt of the Anti-Masonic Party, which eventually became part of the Republican Party, earned 7 electoral votes that same year.

The next third-party success came in the election of 1860. James C. Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan, ran to replace Buchanan as a member of the Constitutional Democrats, which was a group of pro-slavery Democrats. Breckinridge finished second to Abraham Lincoln. A second group of Democrats also split off that year, which led to the main party’s candidate, Stephen Douglas, finishing fourth in the four-man race.

Another unusual circumstance would lead to the only other time a third-party candidate has finished second in a presidential contest.

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, ran for the Republican nomination against his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. Taft had sided with conservatives of his party, while Roosevelt led its progressive wing. The party nominated Taft for re-election. Roosevelt formed his own party, the Progressives, and ran against Taft, Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Roosevelt told reporters he felt as strong as a bull moose, leading to the party nickname of the Bull Moose Party. Some say Roosevelt ran simply to feed his ego and to spite Taft. If that was the plan, it worked, as Wilson won an electoral college landslide, taking all but 96 of the 531 votes available. Roosevelt was second with 88 votes, and the incumbent president was a distant third with 8 electoral votes.

Since then the only third-party candidates to earn a significant number of electoral votes were Strom Thurmond in 1948, and George Wallace in 1968, who both ran as segregationists.

Despite not earning any electoral votes in 1992, Texas businessman Ross Perot did earn the largest share of the popular vote since Roosevelt in 1912.  He earned almost 19 percent, finishing third behind Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

The largest third parties in the United States today are the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Constitution Party.

Ballot access laws make it difficult for third parties to succeed nationally. There is no such thing as a national election for president. The presidential election is made up of 51 individual state and district elections. Parties must meet petition requirements and pay registration fees for each election. This is obviously much easier for the Republicans and Democrats, but proves a challenge for other parties.

In 2012, the the Libertarians were on 48 ballots, while the Green Party wasn’t on the ballot in 15 states.

Another issue are debate rules. The Commission on Presidential Debates states that to be included, a candidate must be on enough ballots to win an Electoral College majority, and must hit 15 percent in pre-debate opinion polls. The last third-party candidates to participate in debates were Perot in 1992, and John Anderson in 1980, however today’s 15 percent rule would have excluded them.

Third-party candidates for president this year include Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, Jill Stein of the Greens, and Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party.

Currently, there are two U.S. Senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Angus King of Maine; and one governor, Bill Walker of Alaska, who were elected as independents.

Our question: Who was the only president elected without a party affiliation?


Today is Armed Forces Day in Equatorial Guinea, Flag Day in Venezuela, and Independence Day in Niger.

It’s unofficially Airplane Crop Duster Day and National Watermelon Day.

It’s the birthday of singer Tony Bennett, who is 90; actor Martin Sheen, who is 76; and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who turns 75.

Because our topic doesn’t have a year associated with it, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1988, the top song in the U.S. was “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood.

The No. 1 movie was “Cocktail,” while the novel “Alaska” by James A. Michener topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

Name the artists from the following five songs that were  played on MTV’s first day.



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