The So-Called 'Third Parties' and their Effect on Presidential Elections




While this county is, by and large, controlled by the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, most of us are also aware of the 'third parties' that also play a part in American Politics. Third Parties have played a role in American Politics almost since it's inception, and while the part they have played in presidential elections has generally been negligible, there have been times when the impact of a third party candidate has influenced the outcome of a presidential election. I'm going to discuss four presidential elections that occurred in the past hundred years where a third party candidate most probably had a major impact on the outcome of the election, and by doing so may have altered the course of history.


 The first election I will be discussing was the presidential election of 1912.  The candidates were; the Republican Party incumbent, William Taft, the Democratic Party candidate, Woodrow Wilson, and Progressive Party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt.  Because of a difference of opinion on several matters with the Republican Party Theodore Roosevelt, who had previously been President of the United States as a Republican, had decided to run again for the presidency, only this time on the Progressive Party Ticket.  The results of that election are as follows: Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate, received 6,293,152 votes in the popular vote, or 41.84% of the popular vote; Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive candidate, received 4,119,207 votes, or 27.39% of the popular vote; William Taft, the Republican candidate, received 3,486,333 in the popular vote, or 23.18% of the popular vote. Had either Taft or Roosevelt not been running, the presumed results of the election would have been very different. One only has to add up the numbers to determine that had the Republican Party vote not been split between Taft and Roosevelt then whoever was the Republican Party candidate should have won the election. But by Roosevelt's decision to run as a third party candidate he presumably split the Republican vote and virtually guaranteed the election of the Democratic Party candidate, Woodrow Wilson. 


You may very well ask how this election could have made a difference to this country, and to history.   There are several ways that history could have changed if Wilson had not been elected in 1912.  One very obvious one is the deepening world crisis leading up to WWI and our conduct before our entry into WWI in 1917.  Would Taft, or Roosevelt, have acted the same way as Wilson in foreign affairs?  Would they have acted differently in the case of the sinking of the Lusitania?  Would they have been able to negotiate something with the Germans keeping us out of WWI? Or would they have done the same as Wilson, thereby not altering history?  We can only speculate on what another president may have done, we have no real way of knowing. But any change of policy could have changed history forever. 


Another interesting speculation with this election is what either Taft or Roosevelt would have done in the election of 1916.  Remember both men had previously been president; Taft was running for reelection in 1912, and Roosevelt, first elected in 1904, had become president in 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley. While the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the terms a president may hold to two terms, was not yet conceived of in 1916, traditionally a president had only served two terms in office. Would either Taft or Roosevelt have decided to defy tradition and become the first president to run for a third term because of the First World War? 


Again, it's speculation as to what either one of them would have done, but had either one of them run and been elected, the world may be a different place today. Would the US have even entered WWI?  And what would they have made of the Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919? And would either one of them have even considered a League of Nations? We will never know what this world would be like had Wilson not been elected first in 1912, and then again in 1916, but because of Roosevelt's splitting the vote in 1912, Wilson was elected and those questions are now left to the writers of speculative fiction to answer.


The next election is one a bit closer in time; it's the election of 1992. Most of you remember that one I'm sure, it's the first election that Bill Clinton won, and the first one that Ross Perot was in as well.  The results of that election are as follows: William Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won with 44,909,806 votes, or 43.01% of the popular vote; George Bush, the incumbent and the Republican candidate, received 39,104,550 votes, or 37.45% of the popular vote; and H. Ross Perot, the Independent candidate, had 19,742,240 votes, or 18.91% of the popular vote, cast for him. And while 18.91% of the vote is not all that large a percentage, those votes may have cost George H. W. Bush the election.


Conventional wisdom has always held that most of the votes cast for Perot would have been cast for Bush had Perot not been in the race.  Conventional wisdom may not always be right, but letís assume for a moment that, in this case at least, it is and that the majority of votes cast for Perot would have gone to Bush.  What does this actually mean to the final results of the 1992 election?  I'm not going to bore you with all the statistics, but in almost every state that Clinton won in 1992, had the percentage of votes cast for Perot been added to the percentage of votes cast for Bush, Bush would have won that state.  In other words George H. W. Bush would have won reelection.


And what would have a second Bush term meant to this county, and the world?  First of all, we all would have been spared the so-called 'Clinton Scandals' of 1990s.  And let's not forget that the Treasury would have been able to save 70 million dollars on an investigation of a stained blue dress.  The so-called 'Contract with America' may never have seen the light of day, and it's doubtful if the government would have been shut down in 1996 because of budgetary disagreements between the Congress and the Executive Branch.   We also may not have had the largest economic growth this county had seen in 50 years, and who knows if we would have had the deficit reduction we saw under the Clinton years.  We may very well have had a longer, and deeper, recession in 1993 if Bush had won reelection, and we may not have seen a reduction in the federal budget that we did see. Could Bush, because of the high regard he was held in by the Arab world, been able to finally settle the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?  Perhaps he could have, or it's equally as possible that the time for the settlement of that conflict is yet to come.


Because of the Twenty-Second Amendment was in effect in 1996, Bush could not have run a third time, and it's useless speculation on who would have been the candidates in that election if Bush had won in 1992.  Instead we will now turn to the candidates who actually were in that race.


In 1996, Bill Clinton was up for reelection and was running against Bob Dole, the Republican candidate and once again, Ross Perot, only this time as the Reform Party Candidate.  The results of the election are as follows: Clinton won with 47,402,357 votes, or 49.24% of the popular vote, Bob Dole receiving 39,198,755 votes, or 40.71% of the popular vote and Ross Perot only managing 8,085,402 votes, or 8.40% of the popular vote.  8.40% of the popular vote may not seem like much to you, but it could have been enough to change the outcome of the 1996 election.  


While there was not that much commentary about it the time, let's assume that Ross Perot was not in this election, and that Bob Dole received the majority of Perot's votes.  In a number of states; namely Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin, by adding the percentage of the votes Perot received to the ones that Dole had cast for him, those states would not have gone for Clinton but rather for Dole.  By looking at the votes cast in the Electoral Collage with these new and admittedly speculative figures, we see that Bob Dole would have won the election of 1996 by 288 Electoral Votes to Clinton's 250 Electoral Votes. 


What Bob Dole would have done with the presidency is anyone's guess, and I'm not quite sure that even he knows.  But one thing is certain, without a second Clinton term this country, and the world, would have been spared the spectacle of a Presidential Impeachment, and one brought about because of Clinton's lying under oath about an extra marital affair. Much of what was right about Clinton's first term may not have withstood a Dole administration, the economy may not have done as well in the second half of the 90s, and it's doubtful that there would have been a balanced federal budget.  Again, much of this is idle speculation; we will never know what would have happened if Bob Dole had won the election of 1996, except that it seems likely that he wouldn't have done any Viagra commercials.


We will now turn to the most recent election, the election of 2000.  We all remember the outcome; we all know the results, some of us by heart. But could those results have been changed had Ralph Nader not been in the race.  First of all, let's look at the numbers, shall we? George W. Bush received 50,459,624votes, or 47.87% of the popular vote; Al Gore had 51,003,238 votes cast for him giving him 48.38% of the popular vote and finally, Ralph Nader received only 2,882,985 of the votes cast, or 2.74% of the popular vote. The deciding factor in this election was, of course, the number of votes in the Electoral Collage, not the popular vote. And we all know that George Bush won that vote by 271 votes to Al Gore's 266. But with only 2.74% of the popular vote being cast for him, how much of a difference did Ralph Nader's involvement in this election make?  Actually, with the closeness of this particular election, and the deciding factor being the Electoral votes each candidate received, quite a bit.


Again, using conventional wisdom, there are many who believe that most of the votes cast for Nader would have gone to Gore instead, but even if this were true, would it have made a difference in the actual results?  In two states it would have, and changed the final result of the election.  In New Hampshire, Gore received 266,348 votes, or 46.80% of the popular vote and Nader received 22,198 votes, or 3.90% of the popular vote but Bush won New Hampshire with 273,559 votes, or 48.07% of the popular vote. However, by adding the votes that Nader received to the votes that Gore received, Gore would have carried New Hampshire by 14,987 votes and gained its four electoral votes. That state alone would have been just enough to win the election for Gore, giving him 270 votes in the Electoral Collage to Bush's 267. The other state in which Nader's place on the ballot made a difference was Florida. In Florida Gore received 2,912,253 votes, or 48.84% of the popular vote; Bush received 2,912,790 votes, or 48.85% of the popular vote and Nader received 97,488 votes, or 1.63% of the popular vote.  If you add the 97,488 votes that were cast for Nader to the number of votes that Gore received, you have Gore winning Florida, and its 23 electoral votes, by 96,951 votes, and the rest, shall we say, is history.  


I'm not going to speculate about what would have happened to this county if Gore had won the election of 2000. We all have our own opinions on that, and some of the events set into motion by that election have yet to be decided.  But I think that one thing we can all agree on is that, if Gore had won the election of 2000, this country, and the world, would be a different place today. 


Admittedly, my decision to add the total votes cast for a third party candidate to the votes received by the candidate conventional wisdom believes would have gotten those votes, had the third party candidate not been in the race, is a bit arbitrary.  I am well aware of the fact that, in some cases at least, the votes of that third party candidate would have been split between the two major candidates. I am also aware that the results of all of these elections, on the basis I used, are speculation. However, the purpose of this essay is to show how a third party candidate changed a presidential race by his very presence in that race and, by doing so, may have changed the world we live in. In order to do that, some speculation is needed.


Should a third party candidate be allowed to run for national office?  Of course they should be, third party candidate have been running for national office almost since elections were first held in this county.  But here's where you, the voter, come in. You must make a decision about who to vote for, or even who to vote against.  If you choose to vote for a third party candidate, especially in a close election, you may end up setting this country on a course that is repugnant to you, not by who you voted for, but by who you didn't vote against.  I know that, ideally, we all should vote our conscience, we should be voting for a candidate rather then casting a vote against another one, but sometimes that vote of conscience isn't enough.  There are times when you may have to make a decision to vote not for the candidate of your choice, but rather for the candidate that has the best chance of defeating another candidate who you despise and whose election you believe will set this country on a course of action you find despicable. But that vote is also a vote of conscience, for you have made a conscious decision that you don't want a certain candidate to win and acted accordingly. It's your vote that sets this country on its course of action; it's your vote that matters. Use that vote wisely.    


(Note: all the statistics used in this essay come from one web site, Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, which can be found here )