You Gotta Know These American Third Parties

The numerous barriers to third party success in the United States, including the winner-take-all voting system, difficulty getting on the ballot, and limited publicity and funding, all contribute to an inhospitable environment for third parties to become relevant in America’s two-party system. Here are some that managed to leave their mark on United States history.

  1. The Anti-Masonic Party (established 1828) became America’s first third party by riding the tide of anti-Masonic sentiment following the 1826 disappearance of Freemason whistleblower William Morgan. For the 1832 election, the Anti-Masons selected William Wirt in the first presidential nominating convention in United States history. Running against eventual winner Andrew Jackson, a Democrat seeking re-election, and Henry Clay, a National Republican, Wirt managed to receive 8% of the popular vote and 7 electoral votes from Vermont. Vermont and Pennsylvania both elected Anti-Masons as governors, and Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and other states all sent Anti-Masons to the U.S. House of Representatives.
  2. The Free Soil Party (established 1848) was created through a union of anti-slavery factions from the two major parties, the Barnburner Democrats and Conscience Whigs. Its platform, unlike that of James G. Birney’s earlier Liberty Party (established 1840), did not aim to abolish slavery, but rather to cease its expansion. As a result, Free Soilers backed the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the Democratic Party on using popular sovereignty to decide slavery’s status. In its first year, 1848, the party ended up with two Senators and fourteen Representatives in Congress. Free Soil presidential candidate Martin van Buren managed to capture 10% of the popular vote, and his influence may have secured Whig candidate Zachary Taylor’s close victory over Democrat Lewis Cass.
  3. The American Party (established 1843), better known as the Know-Nothing Party, formed from the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativism of early America. Secret societies like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner had been sprouting up since the 1840s, but the Know-Nothing Party was not a unified entity until the 1854 elections, when it won 52 of the 234 seats in the House, including the position of Speaker of the House. The 1856 presidential election was the first one for both the American Party behind Millard Fillmore and the Republican Party behind John C. Frémont. Fillmore received 22% of the popular vote but only 8 electoral votes from Maryland; Frémont won 11 states with 33% of the popular vote. Strong Southern support, however, allowed Democrat James Buchanan an easy win.
  4. The People’s Party (established 1891), better known as the Populist Party, had its roots in the same farmer-labor partnership that created the Greenback Party (established 1874). Opposed to the elites of the banking and railroad industries, the Populist movement promised agrarian and labor reform. Its first presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, captured 22 electoral votes from 6 western states with 8.5% of the vote in 1892 as Democrat Grover Cleveland won his rematch against Republican Benjamin Harrison. Also in the West, multiple Populist governors, Senators, and Representatives held power throughout the decade. The Populists nominated the same presidential candidate as the Democrats in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, because of his stance on a silver bi-metal currency, though the Populist vice-presidential candidate, party leader Thomas E. Watson, differed from the Democratic candidate. Bryan’s failure to defeat Republican William McKinley spelled the decline of the People’s Party.
  5. The Socialist Party (established 1901) is usually associated with Eugene V. Debs, the face of the American socialist movement at its peak. He ran for president five times from 1900 to 1920, and managed to increase his vote counts with each successive campaign. He attracted over 900,000 votes twice: in 1912 with 6% of the vote, almost making it a four-way race, and in 1920, when Debs famously ran his campaign while imprisoned. Starting in 1928, his successor, Norman Thomas, ran for president six consecutive times, though the party was not quite able to replicate Debs’s success.
  6. There were three notable iterations of the Progressive Party in the 20th century, each with its own ideology and goals.
    • Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party (established 1912), better known as the Bull Moose Party, was created after he was unable to reclaim the Republican nomination from his former ally William Howard Taft. Roosevelt pitted his platform of New Nationalism, which promised reforms inspired by the Progressive movement, against Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s more conservative New Freedom. In the most successful American third party campaign ever, Roosevelt’s 27% was still only enough to win 6 states; the split of the Republican voter base between him and Taft ensured a dominant victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson despite only receiving 42% of the vote.
    • Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr.’s Progressive Party (established 1924) was created for him to run for president on his own brand of Progressive ideals different from those of Roosevelt, his onetime rival. Running on promises resembling those of the earlier Populists, La Follette grabbed 17% of the vote in the 1924 election with 13 electoral votes from his home state of Wisconsin. He came close to Democrat nominee John W. Davis in votes, but neither could prevent Republican Calvin Coolidge’s re-election.
    • Former Vice President Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party (established 1948) formed out of Wallace’s disagreements with his replacement as FDR’s vice president, incumbent Harry S. Truman, who had fired Wallace from his position as Secretary of Commerce. In addition to promoting leftist reforms, Wallace also wanted cooperation with the Soviet Union, though his association with the Soviets and Communism hurt his popularity. In spite of this, he still won 2.4% of the vote with well over a million votes in a contentious election that Truman barely won over Thomas Dewey.
  7. The States’ Rights Democratic Party (established 1948), better known as the Dixiecrat Party, was founded by Southern Democrats to oppose president Truman’s re-election bid, in response to his actions advancing civil rights. When Truman was nominated by the Democrats in 1948, members from the South stormed out of the convention, creating a further divide within the party. With South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond as its candidate, the Dixiecrats, while receiving the same amount of votes as Henry Wallace, won 39 electoral votes from 4 Southern states. Though it was a temporary split, the issue of civil rights did not disappear.
  8. The Communist Party of the United States of America (established 1919) or CPUSA is notable mainly for attempts to outlaw it, such as the 1940 Smith Act which criminalized organizations advocating the violent overthrow of the government, the Communist Control Act of 1954, and the inquiries of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senators Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. Though the 1951 Supreme Court case of Dennis v. U.S. ruled that there is no First Amendment right to advocate the overthrow of the government, general concerns about freedom of speech and overreach in investigations of Communists put an end to prosecutions of individuals solely for belonging to the Communist Party by the early 1960s. The CPUSA ran Gus Hall for President four times, but was never a significant force at the ballot box. In 1995, a cache of Soviet documents known as VENONA was published, revealing that the CPUSA was controlled by Moscow. Like the Socialist Party, the CPUSA has splintered into several similarly named successor organizations.
  9. The American Independent Party (established 1967), or AIP, was a sort of spiritual successor to the Dixiecrats from two decades before. In an effort to combat the desegregation being pushed by a pro-civil rights federal government, George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran for president on the ticket of the AIP, led by Bill and Eileen Shearer. Running on a platform of segregation once again proved appealing to the South, as Wallace won 46 electoral votes from 5 states, and 13% of the vote with nearly 10 million votes. Many Wallace supporters, including the organizers of the AIP, later joined the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which was renamed the Constitution Party, and still exists as a small party to the right of the Republicans.
  10. The Reform Party (established 1995) was created to follow up on Ross Perot’s 1992 independent campaign for President, in which he won 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes, making him the most successful alternative candidate by vote count since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Reform Party members agreed on the need for a balanced budget and changes to the electoral process, and were generally opposed to free trade agreements and immigration. The lack of a unified platform on other issues led to constant infighting over the party’s goals and an inability to capitalize on Perot’s initial success. Perot ran under the Reform banner again in the 1996 election, taking 8% of the vote. The Reform Party is perhaps best known for candidate Jesse Ventura’s surprise victory in the 1998 election for governor of Minnesota. In the 2000 election cycle, a conservative faction led by Pat Buchanan took over the party, leading to the departure of many Perot supporters including Ventura, who left the party midway through his governorship, and causing the effective end of the Reform Party. Buchanan received several disputed votes under the Reform Party line on the infamous 2000 Florida “butterfly ballot.”
  11. The Green Party (established 1991) never attracted as large of a share of the vote as the other third parties, but the ticket of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke pulled 2.7% of the popular vote in the infamous 2000 presidential election, possibly influencing Republican George W. Bush’s extremely narrow victory over Democrat Al Gore, the winner of the popular vote. The Green Party continues to nominate candidates for presidential elections, and cites ecological sustainability, social justice, and fair democracy among its goals.
  12. In New York, the state-based Liberal Party and Conservative Party act as ideological checks on Democrats and Republicans respectively, generally cross-endorsing their candidates when they are found acceptable, but occasionally running alternative candidates when they deem the mainstream parties’ nominees too moderate or compromising. James Buckley served a Senate term from 1971 to 1977 as a Conservative from New York after defeating both a Republican and Democrat in the 1970 election.

This article was contributed by NAQT writer James Zhou.

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