Third Parties

Let's think about that time of year when you have to vote for the class president. Usually, the election comes down to two popular kids. Everyone knows that one of the two popular kids will win. However, the other, less popular candidates have decent ideas too, and sometimes their ideas get used by the two popular kids to advance their own election prospects. This is exactly what happens in American politics. Only the two popular kids are the two major parties, while the other candidates are the third parties. Even if the third parties don't win in the end, they can often play an impactful role in bringing innovative ideas to the table.  

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Table of contents

    Major Parties vs Third Parties

    The United States has essentially a two-party political system made up of two major parties. The two parties that dominate the US political system are the Democrats and the Republicans. These two parties have significant sway in the American political system and are the most voted for by the people.

    However, the US also has third parties.

    Third Parties

    A political party that opposes the two major parties in a two-party system.

    Many third parties are formed to address particular issues the major parties have failed to address, for example, the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. However, many of these parties often lack the numbers and electoral support to compete with the two major parties.


    Political parties are not mentioned anywhere in the US constitution.

    Figure 1 Third Parties Abraham Lincoln - Republican Party StudySmarterFigure 1. Abraham Lincoln - Republican Party, Alexander Gardner, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

    Third Parties in the US

    Third parties have a long history in the United States, spanning from the 1820s to the present. The first national third party was the Anti-Masonic Party, founded in 1826 in New York. By 1931 it had managed to select a candidate to represent it in the presidential election. After the Anti-Masonic Party, many more third parties were established, such as the Free-Soil Party, which focused on abolition, and the Constitutional Union Party, which was formed to advocate for slavery.

    One of the most successful parties, if not the most successful third party, appeared in the 1850s. That party was the Republican Party. It was formed to take a stance against slavery and was widely accepted in the North and joined by a few democrats and people from the Whig Party (the major party before the Republican Party). By 1960, its presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, had won the presidency. Ever since then, the Republican Party became and continues to be a major party in American politics.

    Challenges to Third Parties in the US

    Third parties in the United States face several challenges. One of the greatest of them is the voting system implemented during elections.

    Winner-Take-All System

    The US has a winner-take-all voting system. In other words, a single-member district system. In this system, representatives are elected by dividing jurisdiction into sections, and whichever candidate wins the most votes in that section wins it all. This makes it almost impossible for any third party to win any election because they can never garner enough votes to make a difference.

    In presidential elections, states give all of their electoral college votes to whichever candidate/party receives the most votes, regardless of how close the race is.

    Ballot Access

    One of the biggest challenges for third parties is the restrictions on having ballot access. Republicans and Democrats automatically get added to the ballot. On the other hand, third parties need to get past the restrictive ballot laws in existence. For example, they must gather signatures (the amount varies from state to state) to be able to appear on the ballot. Also, election campaigns are extremely expensive, and third parties often don't have the necessary financial resources to compete with the two major parties.

    Third Parties and Presidential Debates

    In order to be able to make an appearance in a presidential debate, third-party candidates have to have a reasonable chance of winning by being on a certain number of state ballots and must have 15% polling support (which is not easily achievable by third-party candidates).

    Culture Bias

    Americans tend to vote for Republicans and Democrats because they are the most prominent and familiar parties. Additionally, many Americans tend to view voting for a third party as throwing away their vote because third parties never win.


    Many believe the winner-take-all system is outdated in today's world.

    Figure 2 Third Parties Ross Perot with Armed Forces StudySmarterFigure 2. Ross Perot with Armed Forces, USASOC News Service, CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

    The Role of Third Parties

    Despite their lack of electoral success compared to the two major parties, third parties can and do affect American politics in several ways.

    Introduction of New Ideas

    Major parties adopt many new ideas coming from third parties that are popular. For example, the National Labor Reform Party, founded in 1872, supported an eight-hour workday. By June 1978, the eight-hour workday was implemented. Another example came during the presidential race of 1992 when Ross Perot ran as an independent. Perot advocated for the balancing of the budget and reducing the deficit. He received 19% of the vote, an amazing accomplishment for a third-party candidate. Due to the number of votes he received, his platform could not be ignored, and Bill Clinton, the winner of the race, submitted a plan to reduce the country's deficit.

    Change the Outcome of an Election

    Sometimes third-party candidates play the role of spoilers.


    Spoilers are candidates who change the outcome of an election by siphoning votes from another party's candidate and dividing the vote.

    One such instance occurred in the 2000 presidential election. Ralph Nader, a Green Party candidate, became a spoiler by garnering votes at the expense of the Democratic Party, whose candidate was Al Gore. Had Nader and the Green Party not received so many votes, the votes would have very likely gone to Al Gore, and Republican George W. Bush would not have won the elections.

    Types of Third Parties

    There have been many third parties throughout the United States history. However, the following are the most prominent in the 20th century.

    PartyYear FoundedMain Platform Past Candidates
    Libertarian Party1971Limited-Government increased civil and individual liberties Gary Johnson; Jo Jorgenson
    Socialist Party1973Social ownership; Equality for all. Sonia Johnson, Howie Hawkins
    Reform Party1995Balancing the Federal budget; reducing the deficit.Ross Perot; Ralph Nader
    Green Party1996 (Officially recognized in 2001 by FEC)Environmentalism; social justice; Jill Stein; Ralph Nader
    Constitution Party1992Strict Interpretation of Constitution; Fiscal conservatismDon Blankenship; Charles Kraut

    Forward Party

    The Forward Party was founded in 2022. It is a merger between the Renew America Movement and the Serve America Movement. It claims to be a centrist party with the goal of reforming elections and building stronger communities. Only time will tell how this third party will fare in United States politics.

    Figure 3 Third Parties Democrats vs Republicans vs Third Party StudySmarterFigure 3. Democrats vs Republicans vs Third Party, StudySmarter Originals

    Influence of Third Parties

    Many third parties have a lasting impact on politics because of the ideas they bring to the table. If there is enough demand, the Democrat or Republican parties will adopt policies that a third party may be advocating for to ensure they get more votes. The following are some examples of some parties whose policies have made a difference in US politics.

    Anti-Masonic Party

    As stated earlier, the Anti-Masonic Party was the first third party, and they were the party to come up with holding conventions to nominate presidents.

    The Populist Party

    By the 1880s, the Populist Party was established and called for shorter working hours, a graduated income tax, a secret ballot, the creation of an initiative, and a referendum, which were adopted by the Democratic Party and are still used in American governance today. The Populist Party is also behind the Interstate Commerce Act, which regulated railroads, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which reduced the power of monopolies.

    Other Parties

    The Workingmen's Party was founded in 1828 and advocated for free public education. The Union Labor Party supported placing limits on the number of lands individuals and companies could purchase. The Equal Rights Party nominated the first woman presidential candidate garnering 4,149 votes at a point in time when women could not vote.


    Out of all of the third parties that have been in existence in the US, only eight have been able to earn more than 10% of the popular vote for a presidential race.

    Third Parties - Key takeaways

    • Third Parties are those that oppose the two major parties in a two-party system.
    • The first third party was the Anti-Masonic Party.
    • The role of third parties is to introduce new ideas and change election outcomes.
    • Some of the more popular third parties in the 20th century are the Libertarian Party, Socialist Party, Reform Party, Green Party, and the Constitutional Party.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Third Parties

    Why are third parties important in a political system?

    Third parties are important in a political system because they bring innovative ideas to the table. 

    What important role do third parties often play in US national elections?

    Third parties play an important part in national elections because they shed light on new ideas and may sometimes become spoilers in a presidential outcome.

    Are third parties encouraged by the constitution?

    Third parties are mentioned anywhere in the constitution. 

    Why don’t people vote for third parties?

    People don't vote for third parties because they believe their vote will be wasted. 

    Why are third parties often short-lived?

    Third parties are often short-lived because they usually arise from single issues, which sometimes Democrats and Republicans take under their own platforms. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader was a spoiler. What party was he from? 

    Which has been the most successful third party?

    Which party came up with conventions to nominate presidents?


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