Third Parties

Third Parties: A Beginner's Guide

As disgruntled Republicans ponder the possibility of bolting from the GOP, here's a guide to the world beyond the two big parties.


Political reporters love to speculate about bizarre and fanciful scenarios, with a particular focus on anything that sounds like it would be fun to cover. That's why you see a spate of stories every presidential primary season arguing that one party or the other might be headed for a contested nominating convention. This year, in an unexpected twist, we might actually get a contested convention, a possibility that has sent spasms of joy through certain sectors of the press.

Vote the Shoegaze ticket!

Meanwhile, the prospect of a Republican split has set off a second speculative frenzy: What if the losing side of the GOP's civil war bolts to a third party? Donald Trump periodically ruminates about running under his own banner if the Republicans refuse to nominate him, and several anti-Trump conservatives—most prominently Erick Erickson, who calls the idea the "ultimate fallback"—are talking about starting an alternative party of their own. At the North Pole, where a committee of elves is tasked with reviewing the wishes of children and pundits, a request for both a brokered convention and a major third-party challenge probably sounds ridiculously greedy. Yet here we are.

America's third parties and independent campaigns generally fall into three categories. The first and most famous are those temporary storms that break out for one election cycle and then dissolve. Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party did remarkably well in 1912, outpolling even the Republican, but by 1916 Roosevelt was back in the GOP and refusing the party remnants' request that he run again. After John Anderson polled a solid 6.6 percent as an independent in 1980, he started to set up a new National Unity Party, but the group failed to launch. Occasionally you might see an aftershock in the next election, as when Ross Perot followed up his strong showing in 1992—he got about 19 percent of the vote—with a smaller 8.4 percent in 1996. But by 2000 Perot was endorsing the Republican, his Reform Party was nominating someone else, and that someone else received less than half of one percent when the country voted in November.

When the president says the secret word, scream real loud.

The second category consists of ideological clubs running protest campaigns: the Libertarians, the Greens, the Socialist Laborites, and so on. Some of these groups disappear quickly and others last for decades, but they all tend to poll poorly, especially on the federal level. Occasionally, one will flare up for a year, in the manner of one of those temporary storms in category one—think of Ralph Nader's Green campaign in 2000, or the Libertarian Party's relatively strong performances in 1980 and 2012. Yet even then, their nominees don't do as well as Perot did in his second, weaker run. (Not every ideological party has been a mere protest-vote society. The Populist Party was very popular in some parts of the country in the 1890s, for example. But it's been a long time since a group like that has been able to sustain itself.)

From time to time, a personality-driven party created as a vehicle for one of those one-man storms will stick around after the storm dissipates, evolving into an ideological sect. George Wallace got 13.5 percent of the vote running with the American Independent Party in 1968. Four years later, Wallace was a Democrat again, but his old party nominated someone else, and that man collected a million votes; four years after that, the party had split into two rival groups, both of which continued to chug along for years afterward, each nominating candidates that few people noticed and even fewer voted for.

Our party is very progressive. We use only locally sourced liquor.

Finally, there is our third category: parties that operate at the state or local level, sometimes with considerable success. There have been more of these than you probably suspect: America's a big country, with room for all kinds of curious variations. Occasionally a third party will run a whole state for a while, as when the Wisconsin Progressive Party controlled the governor's mansion for a chunk of the 1930s. In Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor Party became so powerful for so long that the Democrats decided it would be better to merge with its rival than to compete with it; that's why that state's Democrats have been officially known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party since the '40s. Some parties have functioned as ideological clubs on the federal level but turned into genuine political players in certain states or towns—the Socialist Party, for example, was once known to elect mayors in Milwaukee, Bridgeport, and several other cities.

Sometimes a major-party politician will borrow one of these regional parties' ballot lines. In 1990, a former Republican governor, Wally Hickel, was returned to office as the candidate of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose platform calls for a statewide referendum on secession. Hickel wasn't a separatist, but the AIP was a convenient vehicle back to power; partway through his term, he rejoined the Republicans.

Locked in deadly struggle with the American Capital Party

And then there's New York. The Empire State allows more than one party to nominate the same candidate, who is then listed on multiple ballot lines; this has allowed several small parties to punch above their weight. The Conservative Party, for example, will endorse Republicans when it considers them conservative enough to support, but it punishes the GOP by running its own candidate if it thinks the Republican standard-bearer is too liberal. (The underlying threat here is to be a spoiler, but at times the Conservative actually wins.) This system is called ballot fusion, and sometimes it leads to delightfully odd places. The strangest may be the election of Rep. James G. Donovan in 1950. One of those state-level niche-party candidates—Vito Marcantonio of the leftist American Labor Party—had spent several terms in Congress, where his radical voting record alarmed the leaders of each major party. So the Democrats and Republicans both gave Donovan their ballot lines, allowing him to beat Marcantonio as the establishment's unity candidate.

Where does that leave this year's potential splitters? Any effort to launch a new party or an independent ticket, especially this late in the game, will run into enormous and perhaps insurmountable ballot-access barriers. (The two-party cartel has set up a lot of laws to limit competition.) You could always try to pull a Hickel and borrow an existing party, but that's hardly a sure thing either. Over at The Federalist, Ben Domenech suggested today that anti-Trump conservatives colonize the Libertarian Party; the chances of the Libertarians going along with that are pretty slim.

Think of the girl as Erick Erickson.

So if the losing side of the Republican crack-up tries to go third-party, the cards will be stacked against it. But what sort of political writer would I be if I couldn't spin a theoretically possible but extremely implausible scenario? In the spirit of all those brokered-convention forecasts of years past, here is a route the splitters could try to take:

1. If you can't get on the ballot in all 50 states, don't let that stop you. Just aim for some states where a lot of electoral votes are in play. At the very least, that could allow you to play spoiler. And if you do well enough—remember, we're being pie-in-the-sky here—you could deny any candidate a majority of the Electoral College and throw the election into the House of Representatives. Who knows? Maybe there you'll have a chance.

2. The national third parties like the Libertarians may be out of your reach, but you could still try to conquer some state parties. Maybe the Conservative Party will back you in New York. Several states have right-wing parties that might be ripe for takeover: There's still an American Independent Party in California, for example. Wouldn't it be funny if a party created so George Wallace could run for president ended up as a vehicle for an anti-Trump effort? (Think of the columns we could write!)

3. You could try to peel off a national party's state affiliates, too. A few cycles ago, the Libertarian Party of Arizona ran its own presidential candidate rather than endorse the national nominee. Perhaps you could find some sellout Libertarians somewhere. Or maybe there's a state Constitution Party affiliate you could buy off. Hell, maybe you could do something really sneaky and stack some delegations at a Green convention somewhere. Be creative!

Will such machinations get your candidate elected? Almost certainly not. But they'll make a weird year weirder—and really, what more could a journalist hope for?

NEXT: Confiscating Guns, More Costly and Difficult than Legislators Think

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  1. Well, I guess we have to start coming up with ideas for names for this new third party.

    1. Whatever the name, an industrial wood chipper should certainly be the logo.

      1. Not a log splitter?

        1. A stool pusher?

          1. A Stool Sample?

    2. I say we create the FYTW Party. The Party’s platform will be every horrible thing we can think of. Let’s help this bad boy reach critical mass.

  2. As expected, Erick Erickson and others of his ilk, after lecturing Libertarians and Ron Paul supporters for years about the dangers of voting third party or running a third party libertarian candidate, are rapidly drawing up plans to run a third party candidate of their own, now that one of the unapproved Republican nominees might actually prove popular enough with Republican primary voters to steal the nomination from a pro-war corporatist candidate.

    1. Well, goddamn, its Trump.

    2. By what bizarre stretch of the imagination is Trump not “a pro-war corporatist candidate”?

    3. I’m looking forward to seeing “The Cuckservative Party” on the ballot…

      1. They usually run as “Republican” but some independent 3rd party type has colonized that party and may yet steal the nomination

      2. Can anyone explain to me the fascination with cuckolding by the Trump fanatics?

    4. now that one of the unapproved Republican nominees might actually prove popular enough with Republican primary voters to steal the nomination from a pro-war corporatist candidate

      I paused and tried to fit names to these nominees and that candidate. And they all matched.

  3. REPUBLICAN SPLITTERS: “We’ve had it, let’s form a third par…hey, who put up all these ballot access restrictions?”

      1. If we can stop even one libertarian….

  4. Just aim for some states where a lot of electoral votes are in play. At the very least, that could allow you to play spoiler. And if you do well enough?remember, we’re being pie-in-the-sky here?you could deny any candidate a majority of the Electoral College and throw the election into the House of Representatives.

    A brokered Electoral College? I love it.

    +1 John Quincy Adams

    1. Electrical college? That’s a sound career path.

      1. You’re one well-grounded individual.

        1. Watt the hell are you going ohm about?

            1. I refuse to play this game.

              1. way to break the circuit!

                1. We’re just discussing current events.

                  1. I thought you were talking about Washington, D.C. Sorry, I’m just irritable because my A/C is broken down here in Florida.

                    1. AC in March? That ain’t right. Mid-fifties here.

                    2. Libertarian already used AC; you need to generate your own

                    3. An AC/DC party might appeal to both the genderfluid and hard rock constituencies.

  5. GO AHEAD, THROW YOUR VOTE AWAY! – Kodos/ Kang (Whichever one it was)

    1. Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

  6. Nobody needs more than two parties.

    /Democratic socialists

    1. What’s the extra party good for?

      /democratic socialists after a few vodkas

      1. Hey we got rid of the guns, where did you guys…arrrrrgh

        /menshevik democratic socialist at the platform committee with the bolshevik wing the day after getting rid of the other party

    2. Nobody needs more than two parties one party.

      /”Democratic” socialists

      1. In Soviet America, party always finds you.

  7. No mention of the NY Conservative Party is complete without this.

    1. That area is full of crazy Polacks, like the Gronkowski’s.

      1. +1 Dyngus Day

  8. amusing =

    A profile of the “anti-trump” movement, its track-record of failure, and its flailing attempts to find some new direction

    Notable is that some of them have spent more money trying to HURT trump in states where he has spent almost nothing, and walked away undisputed victor.

    And this is mostly from the POV of the “GOP establishment” so far; efforts to derail trump from the democrat side have just gotten started, and if the M.O. of Chicago is any signal of how things are going to go…. 8 months of non-stop outrage and hyperbole is likely to numb the wider population rather than motivate democrat “opposition” voters.

    1. If the GOP bigs were serious about dumping Trump, they’d just file paperwork with the all the state Elections Commissions to have Trump’s name stricken from the ballots, say he’s committed a fraud on the Republican Party. If you’re gonna negotiate you gotta negotiate from a position of strength, what better position are the GOP head honchos in than declaring who is and who is not eligible to run on the ticket? The GOP declares Trump ineligible to run under the GOP banner, they’ve got more lawyers and more money than Trump – what’s he gonna do? Negotiate?

      Trump has said he doesn’t like that rule about the winning candidate is the one who gets a majority of the delegates (“a random number” according to Trump, but it’s the rules you agreed to, asshole) and not the one who gets the biggest plurality – and you’re out of your mind if you think that come convention time it turns out Cruz has a bigger plurality than Trump that Trump isn’t going to be doing a 180 on that. Of course, that’s just Trump’s opening bid on the negotiations as to what rules need to be followed and which ones can be ignored. Deals are only deals insofar as both parties agree to abide by them and breaking a deal if it’s beneficial to you is just good business sense as far as Trump is concerned – follow his rules. (Yeah, if the GOP had the kind of balls it took to just whack this guy we wouldn’t be here so it ain’t gonna happen.)

      1. “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is exactly the same as “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” – you see them getting away with shit that no normal person would be able to get away with and it makes you crazy trying to figure out how the hell they do it. They do it because they aren’t normal people and you can’t beat them following normal people rules. They have no shame, no decency, no regard for the rules, they have absolute faith that they can do whatever they want and get away with it – and so they do do whatever they want and they do get away with it.

        It’s like some prank show; a guy walks into a restaurant, plops down at your table and just starts eating the food right off your plate – what the hell do you do in that situation? You don’t know what to do because that’s just not something that normal people expect to ever encounter, you have a hard time even wrapping your head around what’s going on. Why’s this guy just eating the food off my plate? You can’t do that! What do I do now with this crazy thing that’s happening? As long as your operative social training is “um, excuse me, sir? I believe that’s my food you’re eating there, perhaps you’ve mistaken it for yours?” he’s going to continue. He isn’t acting normal, you gotta stop acting normal. Stab him in the eye with your dinner fork. Sure, it will horrify the smart set that knows the rules of etiquette say to use the salad fork when one is stabbing someone in the eye, but fuck the rules.

        1. They have no shame, no decency, no regard for the rules, they have absolute faith that they can do whatever they want and get away with it – and so they do do whatever they want and they do get away with it.

          The proper term is ‘sociopath’.

          1. The proper term is ‘sociopath’.

            +1 … even though I laughed, anyway.

  9. The Libertarian party is more than a protest party … it is a self-defense party 🙂

    1. Mostly we are a sit around grumbling party, except when we are partying, cause we are a party party about party supplies.

  10. Yeah, but what’s the point of being a libertarian if you can’t invade Iraq every once in a while?

  11. I always kind of assume that split off third parties are the result of agents provocateur. They usually just hand the election to the other party.

  12. Personally, I blame homosexuals and the blacks.

    1. What the hell did Rupaul and Meshell Ndegeocello do to you?

      1. It’s not that, it’s what they disgustedly refused to do to me.

        I will have my revenge.

        1. Be careful – they travel in packs.

    2. Did they form a party to grab guns?

  13. Also, hasn’t the Libertarian party accomplished a few things on the state and local level? Why no mention of this? The article seems incomplete.

  14. Voting for more of the same, gets you exactly that. For me I voted for Obama in 2008, and after he showed himself unworthy of my vote(Patriot Act, NDAA articles 1021,1022, and got us into more wars) I looked elsewhere. Ended up voting for Gary Johnson in 2012 because the Libertarian Party resonated with me. My point? My point is that right now both the Republicans and the Democrats are leaving many of their party members behind, now is the time to vote third party. Your choices are likely to be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, and neither of those individuals are worthy of my vote.

    So yeah go ahead and throw your vote away by voting for one of them, or you can actually find a candidate that is worthy of your vote, and scare the establishment. I recommend the Libertarian Party of course, and you can see the three main candidates debate on John Stossel’s show, April 1st. Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, John McAfee.

    1. There’s something oddly fitting about having the Libertarian presidential debate on April Fool’s day.

      1. I thought the same exact thing.

      2. Not with McAfee. That’s going to be fun.

    2. Voting for platforms is what changes the law of the land. I will be a yellow-dog libertarian until the constitution is purged of those initiation-of-force amendments, so the Bill of Rights may be restored to proper functionality.

  15. Anyone else watch the 30 For 30 called Fantastic Lies?

    1. I thought it was very well done, and it is disappointing that Nancy Grace is still employed.

  16. Is this the libertarian moment?

    1. It could be a tipping point if we play our cards right. All we have to do is distance ourselves from lynch mobs intent on stringing up female individual rights. Those worthies will always swim to the Prohibition, Tea and Constitutional antiabortion parties. Ask women voters to point to the planks they despise in the LP platform and that’ll tell you why we lack support from the fair sex.

      1. Oh really? How do you explain women who support the Republican party then I wonder?

  17. So I missed the PM Linx due to having adult-with-a-real-job kind of shit to do, so I’m posting my modest proposal for the next H&R contest here instead…

    Help write Melissa Click’s OKCupid profile.

    SugarFree, I am unambiguously looking at you.

    1. Ha! But I think she’s married. OTOH, maybe an open relationship sort of thing….

    2. Home girl is just looking for a little muscle.

      1. She wants a c-lick.

    3. Carrot Top impersonator ISO SJW.

      1. Wait that isn’t Carrot Top? I just assumed all those articles were about someone getting mad at Carrot Top at a college show. Did something else happen?

    4. “Melissa Click’s OKCupid profile.”

      Now that’s what I call clickbait

      1. Beautiful soft spoken intelligent woman seeking Pinball Wizard.

  18. Half OT, half on – I’m reading Trump’s campaign manifesto, Crippled America.

    It’s interesting. It uses short sentences. It’s not a lengthy tome. It doesn’t use fancy words like “tome.”

    Perhaps I’ll report back on what I read. But if that plan doesn’t work, I’ll do something else.

  19. So this third party would stand for what? Social conservative morals, crony capitalism, open borders, and George Bush style nation building? Who would be the audience for this party? It would be a party of hacks and corrupt insiders in search of voters.

    Ah good luck with that.

    1. Social conservative morals, crony capitalism, open borders, and George Bush style nation building

      Everything but the first. If the GOP splinters, the Crony Insiders Branch will finally get to stop pretending it gives a shit about socon issues.

    2. Finally, a party smaller than the Libertarian Party!!!!!!!!!!

      1. Not for long!

  20. The Bible-Beaters always needed their own third party. They are fine with Big Gov Bush style as long as Jeeby got his due.

  21. And the Far Left BernieBros want their own party after eight years of a centrist Obama they despise.


  22. Fun Fact for you Peanuts.

    Reagan landslide victory in 1984 he got 56% of white voters.

    Romney’s big loss in 2012 he won 59% of white voters.

    Trump Chumps are doom.

    1. Are you relying on the same 2012 exit polling that shows basically the opposite of what you tell us about income and voting? Namely, that “more money = more Democratic”?

    2. Reagan got a lot of anti-communist voters of all colors.

    1. That’s a shame. He was in one of the greatest movies ever made.

      1. Yup, that’s where I remember him from.

        I’d watch Dr. Giggles if it came to a cable channel or streaming service I get.

  23. OK, I scanned. None of you word-smiths did a thing with “Pee Wee for President”?
    ‘Nothing hidden here!’
    ‘What you see is what you get!’

  24. Mr. Gorbachev, unroll those sidewalks!

    We really need mass transit, since it works much betta than cars on roadz:
    “BART chaos expected to go on indefinitely”
    “On each of the broken-down cars, the surge caused a semiconductor device called a thyristor to fail. BART said the parts ? which are critical to each car’s propulsion system ? cost $1,000 to replace and must be specially manufactured. That will take months, and riders should expect delays and shorter, more crowded trains in the meantime.”…..895501.php

    Think there might be a lesson here for monnbeam’s choo-choo?

    1. Not the lesson I’m hoping for.

      1. Yeah, it’ll be ‘We need more union techs!’
        Instead of ‘We need to design to make a profit from the riders we can attract.’

        1. And we’ll keep hearing how we need more “transit oriented development “, i.e. condos above suburban BART stations.

    2. We really need mass transit, since it works much betta than cars on roadz

      I dunno, do you think the existing road infrastructure can handle the disappearance of BART? I doubt it.

      1. I have no doubt it would. People would move if required, they’d alter work scheds, etc. The presumption that people will keep living and working in unworkable arrangements is the justification for things like BART.
        Bart is a classic example of gov’t intervention which distorted the market, most all for the union jobs involved. It is every bit as reliable after 50 years as AOL was in year, oh, two.

        1. Not only have we not been adding new road capacity, but SF is planning on getting rid of 1 of the 2 freeways that we have running through here. They have set their sights on getting rid of the 280 extension, and even though it is a monstrously super idea I fear they may actually do it in the next decade.

          1. “Get rid of” part of 280? How stupid! Probably not the section near me, though, which is very handy.

          2. As an Oaklander, I will add on that they are talking about getting rid of 980 as well.

        2. People would move if required

          Out of the region, I guess. When I lived there I noticed that SF’ers didn’t like a lot of people around.

          1. “Out of the region, I guess. When I lived there I noticed that SF’ers didn’t like a lot of people around.”

            Uh, let’s make it clear:
            People will live in paces they find desirable, period. If enough people live in a certain locale, it will become undesirable to a marginal number of others who will move or not move into the area.
            What “SFers” think about it is irrelevant.
            Back to the original question, yes, the Bay Area would do find without BART; people would find a way to deal with the traffic or leave.

  25. What frightens me is the fourth category: An old party gasps its last, a new party is being born, and the other party splits, giving us a serious four-way race. That’s what happened in 1860, with the Consitiutional Union party being the last remmanant of the Whig party, the Republicans being the new party, and the Democrats splitting between northern and southern factions.

    The aftermath was… unpleasant.

    So if the GOP establishment is the old party, the Tea Party is the new party, and both of them nominate candidates while the Democrats split between Hillary and Bernie…

    1. I see no home for Trump in your four parties. Maybe this is the solution we need? A four-way split between Cruz, Sanders, Clinton, and a reactivated Rubio.

    2. What happened in 1860 was mainly the resurrection of a Tariff of Abominations (way before Abe was elected) to inject money into the Political State. The nullification reaction had been tried with mixed results so reverting to the Articles of Confederation was the make-it-stick antitariff option left standing. Claiming it was about slavery makes as much sense as pretending the Revolution was pro-slavery because of Lord Dunmore’s 1775 Emancipation Proclamation intended to raise troops. The Tea party is another mask for the Prohibition Party, and an admission that that cause is a liability thanks to the LP’s persistence and integrity. If GOP stockholders need to lose some more to make that sink in, so be it.

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  27. Jesse’s equivocation here is on the term “winning.” To the communists of 1848, winning meant getting men with guns to collect an income tax for the expansion of the political state. To the prohibitionists of 1869, “winning” meant setting mens with guns, hatchets and lit torches onto saloon owners and the bibulous in general, while to the Liberal Party of 1930 to “win” was to repeal alcohol prohibition and as many blue laws as possible–removing guns from fanatical fists. None of these parties cared a whit whose teeth would reflect sunlight over the bully pulpits of power. They wanted to change the laws. Communist and mystical persistence–not electoral victories–put the income tax and prohibition amendments into the Constitution, and Liberal Party determination forced the Dems to shoot one of those amendments down or lose government jobs. CHANGING LAWS is the purpose of running a third party, and the LP has done admirably so far.

  28. I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the Rent Is Too Damn High Party now…

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  30. I represent the American Independent Party of California. As one of the 6 ballot-qualified parties in California and its 3rd largest with almost a half million registrants, our State Convention has the authority to place anyone it chooses on the General Election ballot for President.

    One thing for sure we are not putting the foreign born son of a foreign father on our ballot line! 8 years of a “President ” like that are more than enough for us.

    If the Republicans commit an injustice at their Convention and fail to nominate the candidate with the plurality of delegates, we will seriously consider placing the cheated Republican presidential nominee candidate on our ballot if we think he could win California’s Electoral College votes.

    So not Cruz and maybe Trump. Trump?! How could we, a Constitutional conservative party, even consider such a thing? We we are also an American Nationalist, Populist party. We are for secure borders and for “inviting the best in the world” to join us in freedom. So pro merit-based immigration and anti-unsafe & incompatible immigration, such as of Muslims whose religion contains instructions to conquer the world for Islam. We are also for admitting persecuted Christians into our country as asylum-seekers. We are for free, fair & safe trade that is based on fair bilateral deals that do not subject American sovereignty to international institutions.

    Markham Robinson, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the AIP State Central Committee

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  33. Small parties should create a caucus to upend the two party system.

    Libertarians, Greens, Constitutionalists, and the like.

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