Major historical third-party results, and the shift in major-party platforms that followed

prohibition

biggest bang for the least votes?

The following comment from the January open thread is edited slightly and re-published here as its own article at paulie’s suggestion.

I was challenged about my frequent assertion that “strong third-party results always presage shifts in major-party policy” so I compiled the following list which I thought I’d share. It includes, near as I could tell, every major third-party Presidential result, as well as a couple of parties that consistently had a lower-single-digit showing over multiple elections, and the corresponding shift in that direction by one or both of the big-two parties that followed.

Some of them are a bit of a stretch I’ll concede, and many of the details or which way the cause-and-effect goes can be debated, but the general pattern does seem to have an underlying validity to it. It’s also of relevance to the discussion paulie and I were having about if getting 3rd place in the Presidential campaign is important for the LP, which is why I’ve included two LP campaigns (1988 and 2012) even though they are the lowest percentage-wise third-place finishes on the list. Any suggestions or corrections are welcome.

1856: John C. Fremont gets 33.1% of the vote as the nominee of the new anti-slavery Republican Party. Four years later Lincoln is elected, nine years later the 13th Amendment is ratified. (The Lincoln’s-GOP-was-a-third-party meme is questionable, since they never actually placed third prior to winning in 1860, and were formed from a coalition of existing parties, including most of an existing major party, but worth including anyway)

1888-1916: The Prohibition Party runs a Presidential nominee every four years, usually getting between 1% and 3%. The 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol in the US is ratified in 1919. Probably the most dramatic example, since many historians now conclude that Prohibition never actually had majority support in many of the states that ratified it, and possibly not even in the nation at-large.

1892: James B. Weaver gets 8.5% of the vote as the nominee of the Populist Party. The Democratic Party adopts most of the Populist platform over the next decade, most notably free coinage of silver and an inflationary monetary/fiscal policy, as well as the creation of the I.C.C.

1912: ex-President Theodore Roosevelt runs as a Progressive (“Bull Moose Party”), comes in 2nd defeating the incumbent Republican President. Eugene Debs also gets 6% as a Socialist, the most of his several Socialist Party campaigns from 1900-1920. Over the next few decades, the Democratic Party takes a hard-left turn on economic issues, culminating in FDR and the New Deal.

1924: Wisconsin Senator ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette runs as a Progressive, wins 16.6% of the vote. Repeal of Prohibition, condemning WWI and interventions in Latin America, and a more radically progressive economic agenda become major-party policy within a decade, all of which were opposed by both 1924 major party nominees.

1948: Strom Thurmond runs as a segregationist “States Rights Democrat” (aka Dixiecrat) and gets 2.4%. Former Vice President Henry Wallace also runs to the left as a Progressive, tying Thurmond with 2.4% of the popular vote (but unlike Thurmond no EVs). By 1964, the GOP would nominate a states-rights conservative, and the Democrats had firmly entrenched their modern position as the party for progressive/left-leaning politics.

1968: George Wallace, segregationist Governor of Alabama, runs as the first American Independent Party candidate, and gets 13.5%. Over the next four years, Nixon implements his ‘Southern Strategy’. By 1980 Ronald Reagan, though no segregationist, has made socially conservative localism a key GOP plank.

1980: John Anderson, a liberal Republican Congressman, ran as an independent and gets 6.6%. In a year where Reagan won in a landslide, Anderson’s campaign presaged the final defection of moderate/liberal Northeastern Republicans to the Democratic Party.

1988: Ron Paul comes in third place as the Libertarian nominee, with less than 1% of the vote. You all know the rest of the story, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it here.

1992: Ross Perot, running as an independent, gets 18.9% after appearing in the televised debates. Makes a strong focus on the balancing the budget, which became major-party policy (briefly) by the late 1990s, and an ongoing feature of GOP rhetoric. Also opposes gun control and supported abortion rights, which respectively became more firmly entrenched planks of the GOP and Dems.

1996: Perot runs again as the nominee of the new Reform Party, gets 8%, unlike 1992 is excluded from debates. See above.

2000: Ralph Nader gets 2.74% of the vote as the Green Party nominee, after having polled much higher at one point, and is widely blamed for costing Gore the election. Anti-corporate rhetoric, increased regulation of big business, consumer protectionism, and a greater focus on environmentalism all sweep the Democratic party over the next decade, in part fueling Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and more-liberal Obama’s defeat of more-centrist Clinton in the 2008 primary. Nader also runs, less successfully, in 2004 and 2008, as he had in 1996.

2012-2014: Gary Johnson pushes the Libertarian Party back into third place with 1% of the vote, as Libertarian candidates across the country begin to break into the mid-single-digits in several close Senate and Governor races. Efforts within the GOP to push the party in a less-socially-conservative, more free-market and fiscally-conservative direction increase, not just from the Paul faction but from some ‘establishment’ voices as well, while some Democrats begin to signal a renewed focus on socially-liberal issues such as marriage equality, drug policy reform, civil liberties, and police reform.

I realize the last of these is probably the most contentious, but whether or not any of that can be attributed to the increase in Libertarian vote totals isn’t so much the point, as is the general observation that being “the” main third party during any period when the total non-Democratic/Republican vote exceeds some minimum, possibly as low as 1-2%, is a powerful lever to reshape the direction of major-party politics over the coming years. More succinctly: third-party performance is generally a leading indicator of broader shifts.

We can’t really say yet whether Libertarian results in 2012 (and 2014, and 2016) will show such a shift in a libertarian direction, and the worthiness of any such concessions would be hotly contested by Libertarians, but any long-term impact would mostly still be in the future at this point so it’s mostly speculative.

Not satisfactory to those of us who want to see third-party candidates win outright, of course, but I think this an important partial explanation of what any third/minor party is realistically trying to accomplish short of winning major offices. It’s an explanation that doesn’t sound as implausible as “They can really win.” (even if it is important to campaign on that message) and it avoids the much-dreaded “They’re spoilers who just hurt the closer major-party and waste votes.” These are often debated as the only two possible interpretations, but I think both miss something about the reality of third-party efforts in a two-party system.

So I offer this as an explanation of why a third-party vote can be a rational strategic long-term vote in a two-party system, even if it is overwhelmingly likely that a major-party nominee will win that particular election.

-Andy Craig

33 thoughts on “Major historical third-party results, and the shift in major-party platforms that followed

  1. George Phillies

    In 1916, the election was extremely close in New Hampshire and California (though only the latter mattered in the end). Wilson barely beat Hughes in both states. The Prohibition party team of Hanly and Landrith got well more than the vote total difference in both states. The Republicans were absolutely positive that without the Prohibition Party, they would have won the 1916 election, with radical results for future history. The Democrats reasonably noted that if there had been no socialists on the ballot, they would have won regardless.

    Whither their beliefs were right is unclear. However my father remembered Republicans saying that they had acted on them, giving us Prohibition.

  2. Richard Winger

    I agree with George about 1916 and the Prohibition Party. In early 1917, the Republicans in Congress (together with southern Democrats) passed the prohibition amendment, which had been in Congress since 1875 but which hadn’t made any headway until 1917.

    Another example is the 1892 presidential election, when the Peoples Party did so well, that in 1896 the Democratic Party completely revised its stance on monetary policy to agree with the Peoples Party.

    Still another example is the 1992 presidential election, when Ross Perot’s number one issue was federal government debt. President Clinton had three or four years (in his eight years) of no federal deficit.

    Yet another example is the 1968 presidential election, when George Wallace did so well, that influenced the Republicans to imitate Wallace’s pitch on certain incindiary issues, especially denunciation of anti-war protesters.

  3. paulie

    “1912: ex-President Theodore Roosevelt runs as a Progressive (“Bull Moose Party”), comes in 2nd defeating the incumbent Republican President. Eugene Debs also gets 6% as a Socialist, the most of his several Socialist Party campaigns from 1900-1920. ”

    Another interesting counter-example to the idea that if there is a strong 3rd, 4th and below necesarily suffer as a result.

  4. Robert Capozzi

    ac: 1988: Ron Paul comes in third place as the Libertarian nominee, with less than 1% of the vote. You all know the rest of the story, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it here.

    me: Actually, not so much. What was the consequence of this campaign, please?

  5. NewFederalist

    “1912: ex-President Theodore Roosevelt runs as a Progressive (“Bull Moose Party”), comes in 2nd defeating the incumbent Republican President. Eugene Debs also gets 6% as a Socialist, the most of his several Socialist Party campaigns from 1900-1920. ”

    Another interesting counter-example to the idea that if there is a strong 3rd, 4th and below necesarily suffer as a result.

    Even the Drys polled nearly one and a half percent.

  6. Richard Winger

    Ron Paul saved the Libertarian Party in 1988. The party had its worst electoral showings in history (not counting the years it was an infant) in 1984 and 1986. In 1986 the party was only on the ballot statewide in eleven states. It went off the ballot in Alaska in November 1986, and Alaska had been the party’s best state. But Ron Paul, a former member of Congress, brought new life and attention to the party in 1987 and 1988.

  7. paulie

    The original version of this as a comment in open thread:

    1988: Ron Paul comes in third place as the Libertarian nominee, with less than 1% of the vote. Later returns to Congress as a Republican, seeks the GOP nomination in 2008 and 2012, then endorses third-party general election candidates both times. The libertarian/paleoconservative-leaning faction within the GOP grows to become a distinct but active minority within the party, with roughly a dozen members of Congress by 2014.

  8. Andy Craig Post author

    “Another interesting counter-example to the idea that if there is a strong 3rd, 4th and below necesarily suffer as a result.”

    True, but most of Deb’s other campaigns did place 3rd, albeit with a lower percentage. And 1912 was still effectively a two-party race where support for the Republican (incumbent Taft) had collapsed and mostly transferred to Roosevelt/Bull Moose or Wilson. The closest modern parallel, would probably be Tancredo 2010 for Governor of CO.

    I edited out the part about Ron Paul, because I was uncomfortable with how to summarize it, and few actually credit much influence on broader politics to Paul’s 1988 campaign anyway, or even draw much connection between it and his 2008/12 campaigns. It’s by far the smallest percentage result on the list. Though Richard makes a good point about that year’s importance to the LP.

  9. Martin Passoli

    Taft was still stronger than a normal “third party” candidate, as was Roosevelt. It’s interesting that Debs’ best result in pecerntage terms out of six different times was when he came in 4th, while he came in 3rd a bunch of other times with lower percentages.

    Ron Paul’s 1988 race was important to building the mailing lists that formed the basis of his subsequent runs for congress, efforts to make himself known to a national audience, and the nucleus of his subsequent presidential campaigns. I agree that it was also important to the LP, although Russell Means would have also revived interest in the LP as well I would think.

  10. Robert Capozzi

    mp: Ron Paul’s 1988 race was important to building the mailing lists that formed the basis of his subsequent runs for congress,

    me: This doesn’t ring very true. RP had mailing lists before 88, and there was a big embezzlement scandal during the 88 campaign. He built his mailing list base up more, I think, in the 90s, in not such attractive ways, e.g., by cozying up to the hard right with hate messaging. You may have heard about his newsletters….

    Do you have data that suggests that his 88 campaign built his list significantly?

  11. Martin Passoli

    Data? No, just what I recall hearing/reading. A national presidential campaign on the ballot in most states which comes in 3rd is a good way to build a list. It’s true that the list was built in other ways as well.

  12. Andy

    Robert Capozzi said: “me: This doesn’t ring very true. RP had mailing lists before 88, and there was a big embezzlement scandal during the 88 campaign. He built his mailing list base up more, I think, in the 90s, in not such attractive ways, e.g., by cozying up to the hard right with hate messaging. You may have heard about his newsletters….”

    This is an exaggeration. I’ve already posted the Ben Swann report that debunks this. There were like 8 or 9 newsletters that contained the offending passages out of over 240 newsletters put out under Ron Paul’s name. The offending passages were written by a guy named James B. Powell who was hired as an independent contract writer.

  13. Dave

    Interesting article, thanks for posting. 1912 would have to be my favorite election from a third party standpoint, just because five candidates getting at least 1% is ridiculously awesome to me, dork that I am.

  14. Robert Capozzi

    A, it’s not just the overt hate that I refer to. It’s prospecting list selection. It’s the apocalyptic and survivalist messaging. It’s that staff that allows multiple hate messages.

  15. paulie

    Correct. Ron Paul built his lists in whatever ways he could, whether it was by receiving the existing LP national list as the presidential nominee, getting whatever inquiries an LP presidential campaign gets, renting the list from Willis Carto/Liberty Lobby/Spotlight fascists, etc.

    As for the newsletters, rather than repeating the same things over and over, see the last time we discussed it in the comments here: https://independentpoliticalreport.com/2014/09/william-saturn-third-party-rushmore-2013

  16. Jill Pyeatt

    So, survivalist and apocalyptic messaging is “hate speech”? That is most certainly a stretch, RC.

  17. paulie

    It was just a piece of the puzzle. The original question was whether the LP lists that Ron Paul got were important to his return to congress and his later presidential campaigns. I would say yes. But, it’s true, so were the lists he got from Willis Carto et al.

  18. Robert Capozzi

    jp: So, survivalist and apocalyptic messaging is “hate speech”? That is most certainly a stretch, RC.

    me: Sorry, no. I suspect that there are large overlaps when targeting, say, survivalists and haters, though. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that ALL survivalists are haters, some are just paranoid, some just cautious, etc.

    Frightened people seem to have a tendency to fear “others,” and that unfortunately can lead them to drink the haterade. But certainly not all of them.

    I sometimes wonder what the readers of the RP newsletters thought when the overt hate articles came out. Did they miss/skip over the hate? Did they rationalize the hate they did read? Did some of them cancel? Write letters objecting to the hate? Or did some of them agree with the hate?

    I surely don’t know for sure. Probably all of the above.

    What’s your take?

  19. paulie

    I think most of the readership would not have reacted too negatively. That kind of exaggerated and racially tinged rhetoric was pretty common in those types of newsletters in those days, and on the talk show right in general. The newsletter audience, as well as the lists much of it was drawn from, pretty much self-selected for people who were largely OK or fully on board with that. Many others just glossed over it and kept reading. It’s possible that a few cancelled their subscriptions, but probably not very many, as they may have found other things in the newsletters to be more useful. I don’t think they published LTEs.

    I think the lists Ron Paul acquired, both from the LP and from the paleo/far right side, were a lot more useful to him than just for his newsletters, since most people on the lists did not subscribe to the newsletters but did go on the fundraising mailer list. I know I was on the latter, but not the former, as of the mid 90s.

  20. Robert Capozzi

    pf, disquieting.

    I’d never really given much thought to the READERS before, but it actually makes NewsletterGate 1 and 2 all the more of concern. Presumably, some sub-set — likely a substantial one — ate that shit up, like red meat to the wolves, or something.

    Hell, Stormfront dug it.

    While RP and/or his handlers may not have approved of the hate themselves, but whipping those sorts of flames is exactly the wrong direction, in my estimation.

  21. Andy Craig Post author

    I like how the thread managed to find its way back to debating the newsletters, even after I all-but removed Ron Paul from the original post because his 1988 campaign doesn’t really fit the topic. 😉 No identifiable shift in major-party platforms/ideology/governance can really be attributed to the influence of Ron Paul for President 1988 and his <1%. Rather, the question is to what degree that campaign contributed to a chain of events that culminated in his 2008/12 campaigns, but then you're talking about the influence of a major-party primary effort, not a strong third-party candidacy.

  22. paulie

    I like how the thread managed to find its way back to debating the newsletters, even after I all-but removed Ron Paul from the original post because his 1988 campaign doesn’t really fit the topic. 😉

    It’s all part of the Capozzi agenda of vengeance against the Rothbard political family 🙂

    No identifiable shift in major-party platforms/ideology/governance can really be attributed to the influence of Ron Paul for President 1988 and his <1%. Rather, the question is to what degree that campaign contributed to a chain of events that culminated in his 2008/12 campaigns, but then you're talking about the influence of a major-party primary effort, not a strong third-party candidacy.

    I think it did contribute, for the reasons stated above, i.e. it’s not likely that the 2008/12 efforts would have happened otherwise. It contributed to other chains of events as well. I doubt the Gary Johnson LP campaign(s) would have happened otherwise either, which you also include in the article as an example of something that may be forcing some policy changes:

    2012-2014: Gary Johnson pushes the Libertarian Party back into third place with 1% of the vote, as Libertarian candidates across the country begin to break into the mid-single-digits in several close Senate and Governor races. Efforts within the GOP to push the party in a less-socially-conservative, more free-market and fiscally-conservative direction increase, not just from the Paul faction but from some ‘establishment’ voices as well, while some Democrats begin to signal a renewed focus on socially-liberal issues such as marriage equality, drug policy reform, civil liberties, and police reform.

    Supposing you are correct that Johnson and/or the LP is having this effect – and I think you are – it can be traced back to, as Richard Winger points out, Ron Paul rescuing the LP in the 1980s as well as to the Ron Paul presidential campaigns in the Republican primaries spreading the popularity of small l libertarianism. That’s what drew Johnson to run for the nomination, what caused him to switch to the LP (because Ron Paul was running again and there really wasn’t a place for two libertarians in the quest for the Republican nomination), and where a lot of the general election Johnson support came from.

    It all works together, in ways that are often not directly visible on the surface.

  23. Andy Craig Post author

    Agreed on all those points, and good to know some more of the backstory on the state the LP was in the late 80s, way before my time. It’s just not an example of what I was talking about: third-party results motivating a change in major-party platforms. Nobody in the big-two parties spent the ’90s worried about appealing to Ron Paul ’88 voters. In 2012-15, there is much hand-wringing in the big-two about winning libertarian-leaning swing voters, as evidenced by both their attacks and their pandering. Today we even have the spectacle of Republicans trying (not very successfully, but trying nonetheless) to sell themselves as a better choice for libertarian voters than the LP nominee, cf. Cuccinelli bringing in Rand to implicitly campaign against Sarvis, Justin Amash publicly criticizing Gary Johnson’s libertarian credentials in 2012, etc. They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t think there were crucial, potentially election-winning votes in it. There is, in other words, the beginning of actual competition for lowercase-l libertarian voters, which is a good thing.

  24. Gene Berkman

    The reference to the 1924 campaign of Sen. Robert Lafollette as an Independent Progressive leading to repeal of Prohibition is not supportable.

    For his part, Sen. Lafollette took no stand on prohibition; I have a read a quote in which he says the prohibition issue never concerned him, he and his family had no trouble acquiring liquor.

    Lafollette supporters were divided on the issue. Then Wisconsin Gov. John Blaine, close Lafollette ally, was a militant opponent of Prohibition; elected to the Senate in 1926, he introduced the 21st Amendment, to repeal Prohibition, in 1932. Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York was also anti-Prohibition; he brewed beer at his desk in Congress in an attempt to be arrested, to show how absurd the law was.

    Sen. Norris of Nebraska was a supporter of Prohibition, and Sen. Smith Wildman Brookhart of Iowa was a militant supporter of Prohibition; both supported Lafollette in 1924.

    Many progressive supported Prohibition for the same reason they supported other nanny state laws. A good source on the whole issue is “Last Call:the Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by Daniel Okrent.

  25. paulie

    Rereading this now for unrelated reasons. My point 2015/01/03 at 18:01 wasn’t that Ron Paul ’88 caused the establishment to sit up and notice per se. It was that it accomplished several things such as

    1) Rescuing the LP from the big mid-80s slump it took with the Koch money exit and the lackluster Bergland campaign, dysfunctionality of the national organization with the move to Texas and back, etc.

    2) Helped build the Paul family lists that along with other things formed the bedrock of his 2008 and 2012 runs, which

    3) In turn contributed to Johnson deciding to run for 2012 and then switching to the LP and the rest of the things AC mentions happening more recently in his comment 2015/01/03 at 20:02. In other words as I said Jan 3 at 18:01,

    It all works together, in ways that are often not directly visible on the surface.

    The second, third, etc order ripple effects are where we really make a difference most of the time. In one sense that’s OK, because we can have an impact even if we don’t get the credit for it. But in another sense it’s too bad that we don’t get the credit, because fewer people are persuaded that we are anything other than a waste of time or a net negative since they don’t see the ripple effects we have.

  26. Andy Craig Post author

    A slightly condensed and edited version of this article will appear in the next edition of LP News.

  27. George Phillies

    The recent Republican interest in Libertarian votes arises in significant part from their need to win.

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