The Future of America's Third Parties - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Future of America's Third Parties

The Future of America's Third Parties

By Libby Coleman

A man embraces a woman wearing a Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, in Cleveland on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SourceMichael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Because there are more than two visions for America.

By Libby Coleman

Three times. That’s how often America has elected a president who didn’t belong to a major party: George Washington (1789–97), who famously stayed above the political fray as nonpartisan; the unaffiliated John Tyler (1841–44); and Millard Fillmore (1850–53) of the American Party. Some might include Andrew Johnson (1865–69), who was a member of the National Union Party when he assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, but nitpickers note that he reverted to the Democrats later in his unelected term.

So, not much in the way of power plays lately outside the mainstream duopoly. The most successful indie campaign was in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt and his newly minted Progressive Party (aka the Bull Moose Party) won eight states, 88 Electoral College votes and 27 percent of the popular vote. In 1968, segregationist George Wallace of the American Independent Party carried five Southern states and 46 electoral votes with 13.5 percent of the popular vote. Ross Perot, who ran as an independent in 1992, bagged 19.2 percent of the popular vote but carried no states or electoral votes. As historian Richard Hofstadter noted, “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.”

If the candidate of the third party does well, as Ross Perot did in 1992, one of the parties, or both, will co-opt the ideas that seemed to resonate with the public.

Audrey Haynes, political scientist, University of Georgia

But 2016 was supposed to be different, a breakout election for alternatives to the Dems and Republicans. How could it not be, given the unpopularity of both major-party candidates? When RealClearPolitics recently averaged the polls, it came up with a 54.3 percent unfavorable rating for Clinton and 56.4 percent for Trump. “When [third parties] emerge, it generally signals dissatisfaction among a portion of the electorate with the major parties,” says Audrey Haynes, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, “and if the candidate of the third party does well, as Ross Perot did in 1992, one of the parties, or both, will co-opt the ideas that seemed to resonate with the public.”

But let’s not forget the significance of the spoiler effect in this year’s bake-off. Despite the widespread dislike of Clinton and Trump, many voters think that this is no time to make a principled statement by wasting a vote on a third-party candidate. In the 2000 election, Ralph Nader was considered a spoiler after winning nearly three million votes and, perhaps, tilting a tight election to George W. Bush over Al Gore. In March, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited the spoiler effect as his reason for not running as an independent this year, fearing that a three-way race could lead to a Trump win.

Whatever happens on Election Day, it’s safe to say that a third-party candidate is as likely to be elected as Barack Obama this year. The latest polls show former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, which is on the ballots of all 50 states, winning 3 to 4 percent of the popular vote; Massachusetts physician Jill Stein of the Green Party, which is on ballots in 44 states, is coming in at 2 percent. Then there’s Independent Evan McMullin’s insurgent campaign in Utah. If those weren’t enough options, there’s Memphis, Tennessee, attorney Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party, which is on ballots in 24 states with write-in status in an additional 22 states. 

So what lies in store for America’s third parties?


Rising Stars

Libertarian Party

During this year’s primary, party members were introduced to some of the young talent the Libertarians likely will rely on in the future. Missouri’s Austin Petersen, 35, came close to winning the party’s nomination, ending up in second place on the second ballot. A Los Angeles Times columnist described Petersen as “an eager libertarian dudebro on the make.” Doug Craig, who will run as the party’s candidate for governor of Georgia in 2018, singles out C. Michael Pickens, the party chairman of Washington State, and also notes that “people are excited” about vice-presidential candidate and New York City businessman Larry Sharpe.  

Green Party of the United States

Michael Feinstein, spokesperson for the party’s California branch, mentions a pair of up-and-comers: anti-fracking activist Karyna Lemus, from Colorado, and Ursula Rozum, the former campaign manager for Howie Hawkins, the Green candidate for governor of New York. Political scientist Walter Stone notes that gubernatorial races are the most promising contests for third-party candidates of all stripes, given that’s where voters historically are more open to crossing party lines.

Where the Dems and Republicans Are Losing Their Grip 


Perhaps the future of the Green Party is in California’s sure-to-go-blue regions. “In a state with a majority of non-Republicans, will the Democrats get most of the [seats], or will there be a wave of progressive young Latinos who go Green?” Feinstein asks. Some who already have signed up: ethnic studies champion and Pico Rivera School Board member Jose Lara, and LGBTQ activist Jose Trinidad Castaneda.

Nevada and Iowa

For Libertarians, the future looks bright in some old haunts (New Hampshire and Alaska) and new ones like Iowa, where a state representative was just elected. And maybe Nevada: “The home of gambling, legal prostitution — our message resonates a little better there,” Craig says.


It could see a marked shift toward more credible third-party candidacies. The state already has elected an independent senator, Angus King, and now is considering fundamentally changing the way it votes. A ballot initiative would allow voters to rank contenders, which could improve the position of third-party candidates in the state. 

Looking to 2018

Libertarian Craig doesn’t think 2016 will be the best year for his or other third parties. Instead, he’s calling 2018 the real winner, because if all goes well, getting access to ballots will be much simpler, at least for the Libertarians. The first threshold to pass? Just 5 percent of the vote in his state of Georgia. 

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