Third-party presidential campaigns are weak tea

Bill Bumgarner is a retired former healthcare executive from northwest Iowa who worked in hospital management for 41 years, predominately in the State of Iowa.

Few presidential election cycles pass without wishful thinking in some quarters that this is the year to elect a third-party candidate to lead the United States. 

2024 is one of those years—and the outcome will be the same as in the past. Either a Democrat or a Republican will be elected president in November.

In contemporary times, a third-party candidate has not remotely come close to winning the presidency.  In fact, very few have earned a single electoral vote toward the magic number of 270.

Since the 1960 election, the most successful third-party candidate from a national popular vote perspective was Ross Perot in 1992. The Texas businessman won nearly 19.7 million votes—18.9 percent of the total—but not a single state or electoral vote.  Democrat Bill Clinton won his first election to the presidency over incumbent President George H.W. Bush that year with a commanding 370 electoral votes.

You have to go back to 1968—56 years ago—to find a third-party candidate who won electoral votes through the ballot box (versus votes cast by “faithless electors” from time to time). Former Alabama Governor George Wallace captured 46 electoral votes that year, winning the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana as well as one vote from a faithless elector in North Carolina.  

As his state victories indicated, Wallace’s strength was primarily as a regional candidate in the South. Yet, he also enjoyed some support in other areas of the country, collecting 13.5 percent of the national popular vote—likely based on his racist, segregationist views and a populist law and order agenda.  Republican Richard Nixon won the 1968 election with 301 electoral votes to Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s 191, despite a thin popular vote margin of just 0.7 percent.

Perot ran again in 1996, earning a much smaller 8.4 percent of the vote as Clinton cruised to re-election with 379 electoral votes, defeating Republican nominee Robert Dole. The only other third-party candidate to earn more than nominal popular vote support was John Anderson, a former Republican member of Congress from Illinois. He received 6.6 percent of the votes in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan overwhelmed incumbent President Jimmy Carter with 489 electoral votes. 

In the big picture, the limited impact of third-party candidates is best understood by assessing their median performance over the sixteen presidential elections since 1960. In the typical election cycle, third party candidates have totaled about 1.8 percent of the national popular vote and zero electoral votes. 

The facts are clear. Third-party candidacies are weak tea, as most voters support one of the major-party standard bearers in the end.     

There was one year, however, when a third-party candidate may have been a spoiler and changed the outcome of a presidential election. Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by 271 electoral votes to 266. Bush carried Florida, which was the decisive state that year, by an improbable 537 votes out of 5.9 million ballots cast. Bush lost the national popular vote by 48.4 percent to 47.9 percent but won the presidency through the electoral college. Then Vice President Gore conceded the race following a controversial 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted the Florida recount.

Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida that year, while conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan received 17,484 votes. Additionally, there was a ballot design issue in Palm Beach County, that was suspected by some, to result in votes being cast for Buchanan that were intended for Gore. In Duval County, Florida, confusing ballot instructions led to thousands of ballots being disqualified because the voter had marked more than one candidate.

Given such a narrow margin in Florida, it’s not unreasonable to consider—though far from certain—that Gore would have won the election had Nader not been on the ballot. It’s a fool’s errand to predict how a third-party voter may have otherwise voted if their chosen candidate was not in a race. Perhaps they would not have voted at all.  

In my assessment, the historical record is clear. Third-party presidential candidates don’t live up to the hype or hope of their advocates. They simply can’t win, given the country’s national electoral norms. A more likely impact, yet also rare, is to be a spoiler benefiting one of the major party candidates.   

Now, I’ll never contend that a person who votes for a third-party candidate in a presidential election is wasting their vote. No way. It’s everyone’s right as an American to cast their ballot as they wish.

However, I will suggest that third-party voters choose not to add their voice to determine which major-party candidate will be elected president. In times like these—with democracy itself on the ballot—every potential third-party voter should weigh the choice carefully in 2024.

Top illustration by Lana Sham is available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Bill Bumgarner

  • the voice

    Third-party candidates certainly have no chance to win this year. Yet they can voice concerns that the two major candidates are not addressing, from foreign policy to cancer prevention. Speaking of the voice, I heard that Kennedy got sick and permanently damaged his voice. Still, I find it uncomfortable to listen to him for more than a minute or so.

  • More voter suppression by DNC

    Seems to be a lot of nervous people at DNC spending $$$ trying to keep RFK Jr off the various state’s ballots and suppressing the vote. I voted Democrat for president since 1980 but not this time. Perhaps senile Joe isn’t worthy of your vote and you despise Trump? Take a look at voting for RFK Jr, Stein, or perhaps leave that top lever blank to send a message to the DNC!

  • How far we've fallen...

    Democrats in 2008: “Hope and Change! Yes We Can!”

    Democrats in 2024: “We Know He Sucks, But Not as Much as the Other Guy”

  • Assuming for a moment...

    …that I would agree with the comment above that Biden is not the ideal candidate (and I have yet to see a perfect POTUS candidate after decades of voting), Biden does NOT suck as much as the other guy. Not by several dozen country miles.