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What are third parties good for?

Challengers can force change within the dominant parties

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks during a campaign event in Philadelphia on Oct. 9. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

What are third parties good for?
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In October, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced his independent candidacy for president of the United States. Professor Cornel West also has thrown his hat into the ring, not to challenge sitting president Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination but also as a third-party candidate.

Few people think a third-party challenge has any chance of capturing the White House. That thought is nothing new to the 2024 election cycle. It certainly does not stop the likes of the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution parties as well as independent candidates from launching longshot bids every four years.

Why do third parties never win the presidency? And, given that fact, what good, if any, do they contribute to our political system?

State laws, including those limiting ballot access, certainly favor a two-party system. Depending on the state, candidates must obtain and maintain varying thresholds of support election to election to be on the ballot. We also have a longstanding tradition of only two major parties as well. The first party competition in America, that between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, rose soon after the Constitution went into effect, though it did not last long with the election of 1800 crushing the Federalist Party. A stable two-party system came into being in the 1830s between the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs—the party of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and the young Abraham Lincoln. This system cemented into the Republican-Democrat divide in the 1850s, which continues as the party structure to this day.

However, our two-party system does not rest merely on state election laws and old tradition. It comes out of the Constitution itself. Article II requires that a presidential candidate receive a majority of all possible electoral votes, not just a plurality. In our current numbering, that means obtaining at least 270 of the available 538 electoral votes. This requirement places pressure on parties to seek outright majorities that are national in scope. Every party is composed of various subgroups based on geography, policy preferences, socioeconomic class, and various other factors. The Electoral College system pushes the parties to try to bring in as many of these groups together as coherently possible before an election in order to marshal them to the polls. The pressure that pushes the top of the ticket toward setting up this binary choice affects the party structure overall, down to members of Congress, governors, and state legislators.

Third parties, while never winning, have performed well at particular moments in American history.

Thus, absent a change in our constitutional system for electing presidents, the two-party system seems likely to continue as the dominant model for the United States.

Still, third parties, while never winning, have performed well at particular moments in American history. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt won 27 percent of the popular vote and garnered 88 electoral votes (incumbent Republican William Howard Taft only managed 8 electoral votes). In 1992, Ross Perot, while not winning any electoral votes, received nearly 19 percent of the popular tally.

Despite never winning the presidency, third-party bids do have a role, one born out by these past examples. They serve as an outlet for voters to signal their discontent with the existing major party positions and rhetoric. A successful third-party run can siphon enough voters away from the major parties to force one or both of them to adjust their principles, policies, and rhetoric in an effort to bring those lost voters back in to the major party umbrellas. TR’s run helped move the parties to address the growing Progressive movement. Ross Perot’s runs helped frame the 1990s, especially for the Bill Clinton Democrats. Even smaller showings by the Green Party or the Libertarian Party have forced the GOP or the Democrats to make some policy adjustments.

What would an effective third-party bid look like in 2024? It would accomplish something similar by allowing portions of the electorate whose voice is being undervalued or outright ignored to demand attention. The third party would not replace an existing one but get the major parties to at least work toward bringing the lost voters back in through reforming themselves.

Such an approach might influence the two major parties on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and LGBTQ issues. The latter two examples show that not all possible outcomes of a successful third party would be good and right. Christians must exercise wisdom to seek the most just and righteous results possible given our present circumstances. What that means might vary from issue to issue and even state to state—and certainly from election to election.

Reform is long needed in the way our political parties are composed and how they act in pursuing electoral as well as policy victories. Christians should seek the best way to realize needed reform in the 2024 cycle. Supporting a third party is not the obvious choice. But, as we see the coming months unfold, believers should be open to whatever is the wisest and most faithful way forward.

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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