Huston: The Woeful History of Third Parties

March 16, 2016

by Tom Charles Huston

Third-party campaigns can have an effect in national elections. The Populist uprising west of the Mississippi cost the Republicans control of Congress in 1890 and Benjamin Harrison his bid for reelection in 1892. The Progressive insurgency in 1912 which led to a three-way race among President William Howard Taft (R), New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson (D) and former president Theodore Roosevelt (R) gave the Democrats their first presidential victory in 20 years.

The most recent election in which the outsider played a decisive role was, interesting enough, in the centennial year of Harrison’s failed reelection effort. Self-funded and erratic, the wild-card candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 was enough to oust George H. W. Bush from the White House. The extent to which the contest for the Republican nomination launched by Patrick Buchanan in the early primaries influenced the outcome of the general election is unclear, but the deep division in the party resulting from Bush’s breach of his promise not to raise taxes undoubtedly contributed to the sharp falloff in the Republican vote from four years earlier.

The three-party elections of 1892, 1912 and 1992 involved reelection bids by a sitting president, and in two of them the third-party candidate was motivated in some measure by personal spite. Theodore Roosevelt was the only one among the challengers to win votes in the Electoral College. He humiliated Taft by winning six states with 88 electoral votes to two states for Taft with a paltry eight electoral votes. Those results were, however, the sideshow. Wilson carried 40 states with 435 electoral votes thanks to the division within Republican ranks.

Other third-party candidacies have not had a demonstrable effect on the outcome. Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was the Progressive candidate for president in 1924. His opponents – incumbent president Calvin Coolidge (R) and former Ambassador John W. Davis (D) – were both conservatives. The progressivism of La Follette rang hollow with an electorate enjoying the good times of the Roaring Twenties. He won his home state, Davis carried the states of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma, and Silent Cal won the remainder with 54 percent of the popular vote.

Twenty-four years later, former Vice President Henry Wallace led the Progressive ticket to an ignominious defeat in a four-candidate race. He carried no state and won a little more than two percent of the popular vote. The fourth candidate – South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond – running on a State’s Rights platform carried four Deep South states. Incumbent Harry Truman won slightly less than half of the popular vote, but that was good enough to win 303 electoral votes.

The third-party candidacy of George Wallace in 1968 did not tip the election, but it did set the terms of much of the debate in the campaign and generate plenty of angst in both major parties. The five states that Wallace carried – all in the Deep South – would by most accounts have gone to Nixon in the absence of the Wallace candidacy. Be that as it may, President Nixon didn’t leave that to chance four years later.

Of the six presidential campaigns in which third party candidacies played a role, all but that of 1892 were a result of fissures within the governing party. Although Benjamin Harrison had been challenged for renomination by James G. Blaine, the unsuccessful Republican candidate in 1884, his loss in the general election was not so much a reflection of party division as it was of the populist rebellion which crossed party lines and led four years later to the disruption of the Democratic Party and the nomination of William Jennings Bryan.

On first glance, the election of 1968 is the only one of the six contests that did not involve a challenge to a sitting president from within his party. Probing deeper, however, it may be argued that the candidacy of Democrat George Wallace was initiated in anticipation of a reelection bid by the sitting Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. On this analysis, the Wallace challenge conformed to the historic pattern.

A serious third-party challenge by either Donald Trump or a rump element of anti-Trump neoconservatives would be the first of its kind since the days of Andrew Jackson. If history is any guide, it would likely assure the election of Hillary Clinton and engender a level of intra-party bitterness not seen since the election of 1912. The odds are, however, that it would not change the trajectory of the political forces that have led us to this point. Of course, those waging the battle will see it as a pivot point of History, a noble struggle for the good of humankind. Teddy Roosevelt set the tone for such ennobled challenges when he closed his address to the Progressive national convention of 1912 by assuring his followers,”We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

He lost, the country survived, and the Lord seems not to have noticed.

Tom Charles Huston, J.D., a history buff and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review residing in Indianapolis, is a former associate counsel to the president of the United States.


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