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posted on 08 August 2016

History Of 'Third Party' Presidential Candidates

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There is a long history of more than two parties running candidates for president in the U.S. In many elections the results of the third party (or fourth, in some cases) do not find a significant percentage of the popular vote going to candidates other than those of the the top two parties, but in some elections there has been a significant number of votes cast for a third party candidate. The largest popular vote was for Progressive Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, nearly 30%.


But even when a third party candidate gains only a few percent they can change the outcome of an election. Most recently, for example in 2000, Green Party Candidate Ralph Nader captured only 2.7% of the popular vote, but many consider that he took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida to swing the election to George Bush. Bush captured Florida's 25 electoral votes by a margin of 537 votes, with Nader receiving more than 97,000. Florida provided the margin of victory for Bush in the electoral college.

The history of 'third party' candidates is given in the following two tables. Only elections when significant numbers of votes were cast for parties other than the top two have been included. Some of the things we note:

  • In the last 50 years there have been five elections with significant votes cast for candidates not in the two leading parties. The average for those elections was 10.0% 'third party' votes.

  • In the first half of the 20th century there were four elections with significant votes cast for candidates not in the two leading parties. The average for those elections was 15.1%'third party' votes.

  • In the 19th century the average for 'third party' votes in the nine elections where they were significant the average for such elections was 8.6% 'third party' votes. Omitting the 1.1% vote for John M. Palmer, which could well have been omitted as insignificant the average is nearly 10%.

We make these observations to suggest the 15% opinion poll threshold for candidates to be eligible to participate in debates is perhaps too high. How about 10%?

Data Sources: Wikipedia and

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