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.