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Breaking the Two-Party Mold: Exploring the Chances of Third Party Presidential Candidates in 2024

illustration of third party presidential candidates
Randy Eccles/Adobe Firefly

COMMENTARY

In the lead up to the November 2024 Presidential election a colorful cast of characters, including Robert Kennedy Jr., Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. Jill Stein, have already thrown their hats into the ring for the 2024 presidential election as third-party candidates. Additionally, an organization called “No Labels” is trying to piece together a “unity ticket” with both a Republican and Democratic on the ticket. With Presidents Biden and Trump both sporting high levels of unpopularity, and about half of American voters expressing openness to third-party options, the stage seems set for some possible political fireworks lit by third party candidates. But let's pause for a reality check. Can any of these third-party hopefuls actually make a dent in the race? Well, history suggests probably not, especially at the national level. But let’s dig into a bit.

Third Party Electoral Success

At the presidential level, since maybe Abraham Lincoln (though that's up for debate), it's been a two-party show. And while third-party contenders like Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992 had respectable showings and Ralph Nader (probably) and Jill Stein (probably not) might have influenced electoral outcomes, their impact has been more like a garnish than the main course of the electoral meal. For the most part, American politics is like choosing between kale and Brussels sprouts for dinner – not exactly thrilling, but you go with what you know.

Now, don't get me wrong – third parties have had some modest wins outside the presidential spotlight. In particular, they’ve seen some successes in the U.S. Senate and House over the years, but not exactly an abundance. In comparison to the federal level, we see a bit more success (loosely defined) at the state level. In state legislatures, there have been around 80 third party legislatures in the past 100 years. Currently, seven states have third party members of their state legislatures and nine more states had third party members in the past decade. At the moment, we only have one third party office statewide office holder: the Lt. Governor of Vermont. However, since 1990, third parties have had some success in statewide races, for example, winning six governorships in that time. Even with these successes, third parties continue to struggle even at the state level as well.

Sources of Third-Party Struggles

What explains why third party candidates struggle in American politics? First up is something called “Duverger’s Law”, which argues that in electoral systems like America’s voters will “maximize their vote” by voting for the “lesser of two evils” (a candidate or party more likely to win than their preferred one) in order to defeat the “greater evil” (the candidate or party they dislike most). A lot of academic work backs this claim up, but there are notable exceptions like Canada and England that have a similar electoral system as America, but also have influential third parties. This “lesser of two evils” logic has a sizeable effect, with some research suggesting as much as 90% of voters who prefer third party candidates vote for one of the two major party candidates instead of their preferred one.

As part of chipping away at third party support, major parties have long used the “lesser of two evils” argument to push voters away from third party candidates. Pro-Gore groups also ran such messages in the 2000 election about how voting for Ralph Nader would elect George W. Bush. More recently, in 2016 supporters of Secretary Hilary Clinton mailed 1.1 million flyers warning that a vote for a third-party candidate “only helps Donald Trump.” We’re even seeing these sort of attacks on third parties from the Biden campaign and surrogates already. Such tactics frequently result in third-party or independent candidate supporters breaking for their second-choice major party candidates despite relatively high levels of support in pre-election polls. When talking about third parties in the 2024 election, understanding how many of their supporters will actually stick with them on election day will be important.

There are also other factors that may help us explain why third parties struggle in American politics. These factors include restrictive ballot access laws and requirements (potentially more a problem for independents than candidates aligned with a minor party), America’s electoral system, participation in debates with the major candidates, being ignored or mocked in media coverage, and major parties adopting a popular policy position of a third party. Some key examples of major parties taking on positions of third parties includes the Republican Party adopting a number of Ross Perot’s positions in 1994, George Wallace’s influence on Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, and FDR co-opting third party policy positions in the New Deal.

Why do some people support third parties?

Research finds that dissatisfaction over failures to address highly salient issues, partisan gridlock, dislike of the major party nominees, and general dissatisfaction with the state of America are all motivators for supporting third party candidates. Considering the widespread dissatisfaction of voters going into 2024, you’d think 2024 might be ripe for a third party. But similar dynamics were at play in 2016 as in 2024 and third parties got a whopping six percent of the vote. Some of that may be President Trump’s strong appeal to these voters who traditionally seemed more likely to support third-party candidate.

The idea of more electoral options makes sense in theory as the American electorate is really around five political parties stacked on top of each other in two partisan trench coats given the policy positions of the electorate. The Republican Party is basically a coalition of a right wing and a center right party while the Democratic Party is a coalition of a left wing and a center left party. In the middle is about 10% to 20% of voters, depending on the survey, that would be in some sort of moderate or compromise party. While it’s likely Drs. Stein and West will draw from those on the political left, it’s unclear who exactly Mr. Kennedy draws from given his combination of policies, but Democrats appear more concerned about him at the moment.

Further, even with an electorate that would be more accurately reflected by a multiple party system, Americans are deeply partisan. At the same time, they’re deeply dissatisfied with both parties that they’re so attached to. That strong attachment means it’s going to be hard for a third-party to break through with voters, despite their dissatisfaction.

Wrapping Up

As much as someone might dream of a more diverse political buffet, the reality is that breaking the two-party stranglehold is easier said than done. As of now anyway (it’s only April after all), we’re largely stuck with kale or Brussels sprouts as our options at the presidential level. Is it possible between now and the election in November something happens to make a third party presidential candidate viable (perhaps with Kennedy gaining more support than his current 10% or No Labels getting their unity ticket, in particular)? Sure, but the odds are probably as high as me convincing my kids to sleep past six AM on the weekend. Instead, at the presidential level, the bigger question is likely to be whether they influence the outcome for one of the two major parties. The half of Americans who want a third option, like a dad hoping to sleep in a bit on the weekend, can dream though.

AJ Simmons is the Research Director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS. He holds a PhD from the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. He likes bowling and discussing politics with people he disagrees with.
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