Saturday, April 6, 2024

Third party candidates for president

Part of an ongoing, occasional series looking at the state of democracy and the political process in the United States in light of the 2024 presidential election.

In light of the 2024 independent bid of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for president of the United States, we take a look at a sampling of other noteworthy independent and third-party presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history. How did these candidates fare? What were their impacts on the elections they ran in?

The impact of independent and third-party presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history

Throughout the annals of American political history, independent and third-party presidential campaigns have emerged as formidable disruptors, challenging the dominance of the two major parties and injecting fresh ideas into the political discourse. While many of these candidates have faced significant hurdles in their quests for the presidency, their campaigns have often left enduring legacies, reshaping the political landscape and influencing the trajectory of future elections. In this post, we will examine some of these noteworthy campaigns and their impacts on the elections they ran in.

1. Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party) - 1912:

Theodore Roosevelt

Perhaps one of the most famous third-party candidates, Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican president, launched the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party) in 1912 after failing to secure the Republican nomination. Running on a platform of progressive reforms, including labor protections, women's suffrage, and conservation, Roosevelt garnered an impressive 27.4% of the popular vote and won six states for a total of 88 electoral votes. While he ultimately lost to Woodrow Wilson, his candidacy split the Republican vote, paving the way for Wilson's victory and highlighting the growing influence of progressive ideals in American politics.

2. George Wallace (American Independent Party) - 1968:

George C. Wallace

George C. Wallace, the former, as well as future, Democratic governor of Alabama, ran for president in the 1968 election as the candidate of the American Independent Party. Wallace's campaign centered on a platform of segregationist and law-and-order policies, appealing primarily to white voters disaffected by the civil rights movement and social unrest of the 1960s.

In the end, Wallace captured a significant portion of the popular vote, winning 13.5%, along with five states in the Deep South for a total of 46 electoral votes. Wallace's campaign had a profound impact on the election that year. By tapping into racial anxieties among white voters in the South and parts of the Midwest, Wallace effectively split the Democratic vote in many states, contributing to the election of Republican candidate Richard Nixon, the former vice president under Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961).

3. Ross Perot - 1992 (Independent) and 1996 (Reform Party):

Ross Perot

Business magnate Ross Perot's bids for the presidency in 1992 and 1996 shook up the political establishment with his focus on fiscal responsibility and opposition to free trade agreements like NAFTA. Despite lacking major party affiliation, Perot captured 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992 and 8.4% in 1996. While he did not win any electoral votes in either election, he managed to take several counties across the country and even placed second in two states in his 1992 campaign against Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. It's widely assumed he most likely would have secured an even greater percentage of the popular vote in 1992 had he not dropped out of the race for several months. In any case, both of Perot's campaigns forced the major parties to address issues such as the federal deficit and government spending, leaving a lasting impact on the national conversation surrounding economic policy.

4. Ralph Nader (Green Party) - 2000:

Ralph Nader
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party candidate in the 2000 presidential election, campaigning on progressive policies such as environmental protection, corporate accountability, and universal healthcare. While Nader only received 2.74% of the popular vote, his candidacy was widely seen as a spoiler for Democratic nominee and incumbent vice president Al Gore, particularly in the closely contested state of Florida. Many Democrats blamed Nader for siphoning off crucial votes that could have tipped the election in Gore's favor, leading to George W. Bush's narrow victory and sparking debates about the impact of third-party candidates on electoral outcomes.

5. Jill Stein (Green Party) - 2012 and 2016:

Jill Stein

Physician and activist Jill Stein ran as the Green Party candidate in both the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, advocating for progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and student debt forgiveness. While her share of the popular vote was relatively small (0.36% in 2012 and 1.07% in 2016), Stein's campaigns attracted attention to issues often overlooked by the major parties, such as environmental justice and corporate influence in politics. Stein is running again in 2024.

6. Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) - 2012 and 2016:

Gary Johnson
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson's libertarian-leaning campaign in the 2016 presidential election focused on issues such as drug policy reform, government spending cuts, and civil liberties. Despite being excluded from the presidential debates and facing limited media coverage, Johnson, who served as a Republican when governor of New Mexico, sealed 3.3% of the popular vote, making him the most successful Libertarian Party candidate in history. While he did not significantly alter the outcome of the election, Johnson's candidacy highlighted the growing appeal of libertarianism among certain segments of the electorate and contributed to discussions about the role of third parties in American politics.

On a side note, Johnson ran for president as the Libertarian Party's candidate four years earlier, in 2012, as well. He originally sought the Republican nomination for the 2012 election before joining the LP. While he only secured 1% of the popular vote, which amounted to some 1.3 million ballots cast for him nationally, his total represents more votes for him than all other third-party candidates combined that year.


In conclusion, independent and third-party presidential campaigns have played a significant role in shaping American politics, often serving as catalysts for change and challenging the dominance of the two major parties. While many of these candidates have struggled to achieve electoral success, their campaigns have nevertheless left indelible marks on the political landscape, influencing policy debates and electoral outcomes for years to come. As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s 2024 independent bid for the presidency demonstrates, the tradition of independent and third-party activism remains alive and well in American politics, offering voters alternative visions for the future of the country.

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