excerpts from the book

Third Parties in America

by Steven J. Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr, Edward H. Lazarus

Princeton University Press, 1984, paper



To UNDERSTAND the significance of a third party vote, one must first recognize how difficult an act it is to undertake. A host of barriers, disadvantages, and strategies block the path of would-be third party supporters. So formidable are these hurdles that third party voting occurs only under the most extreme conditions... third parties will never be on equal footing with the two major parties and help explain why a third party vote signifies something very different from a vote for either the Democrats or Republicans.

The two major parties, in Schattschneider's words, "monopolize power" (1942, p. 68). They are able to do so via three routes. First, barriers-powerful constitutional, legal, and administrative provisions-bias the electoral system against minor party challenges and discourage candidates and voters from abandoning the major parties. Third party movements are further handicapped because they have fewer resources, suffer from poorer press coverage, usually run weaker, less qualified candidates, and do not share the legitimacy of the major parties. Citizens do not accord minor party candidates the same status as the Democratic and Republican nominees; they see third party challengers as standing outside the American two-party system. These handicaps, by and large a side effect of the way the electoral system is set up, raise the cost of third party voting. A third party vote, therefore, does not merely signify the selection of one of three equally attractive options; it is an extraordinary act that requires the voter to reject explicitly the major parties.

Finally, just as the Democrats and Republicans try to win votes from each other, they also pursue minor party supporters. By coopting third party issue positions, and pursuing other more devious political strategies, the major parties win over third party voters and delegitimize third party candidacies. Although the United States Constitution does not even mention political parties, through these barriers, handicaps, and political strategies the Democrats and Republicans have attained a privileged position in American politics.


The rules that govern elections in the United States are far from neutral. They form barriers that block the emergence and discourage the growth of more than two parties. These biases help ensure that the Democrats and Republicans retain their position of dominance. The founding fathers created some of these barriers; the two major parties have helped erect others.

Constitutional Biases

The single-member-district plurality system governing most American elections discourages the emergence, growth, and survival of third parties. Under this arrangement, parties compete for an individual office-say, a Senate seat-and the candidate who obtains the most votes wins. The only way for a party to receive any immediate rewards (other than psychic ones) is for it to gain a plurality of the votes. Unlike a proportional representation system where 20 percent of the votes usually yields some seats in the legislature, in a single-member-district plurality system a party can receive 20 percent of the votes in every state and yet not win a single seat. Because citizens know third parties have very little chance of winning, they prefer not to waste their votes on them. Small parties become discouraged and either drop out or join with another party. At the same time, the system encourages the two major parties to try to absorb minor parties or prevent them from flourishing in the first place.

The presidential selection system is a peculiar variant of the single-member-district plurality method and hence poses similar problems for third parties. The Electoral College tallies the number of times each candidate wins one of the fifty-one single-member-district plurality contests held in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, weighting each outcome by the state's electoral votes. A candidate who comes in second or third in a particular state does not win a single electoral vote regardless of his percentage of the popular vote. Short of winning the election, the only way a minor party can hope to gain any power is to secure enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives.

The Electoral College system is particularly harsh in its discrimination against nationally based third parties that fall short of a popular vote plurality in every state. John Anderson, for instance, did not capture a single electoral vote in 1980, though he polled 6.6 percent of the popular vote. The Electoral College does favor regionally based third party candidates who are strong enough in particular states to gain pluralities. For example, in 1948, States' Rights nominee Strom Thurmond obtained 7.3 percent of the Electoral College vote with only 2.4 percent of the national popular vote.

Contrary to popular belief, most current proposals for eliminating the Electoral College would not benefit third parties. The most widely supported plan calls for the direct popular election of the president with a runoff if no candidate receives 40 percent of the votes cast. But as long as a president can be elected with less than an absolute majority of the popular vote, the plan would, for all practical purposes, work like a single-member-district plurality system. To prevent either the Democrats or Republicans from collecting 40 percent of the vote, minor parties would obviously have to poll at least 20 percent. This has happened only three times since 1840. Any direct vote system that allows a party to win with less than a full majority of the popular vote would hinder third parties, though the larger the plurality required to elect a president, the lower the barrier becomes.

The single-member-district plurality system not only explains two-party dominance, it also ensures short lives for third parties that do appear. If they are to survive, political parties must offer tangible benefits to their supporters. Of the forty-five different minor parties or independent candidates that have received presidential popular votes in more than one state since 1840, 58 percent ran just once; 87 percent ran in three or fewer elections {able 2.1~4 Even George Wallace- who as an independent in l968 won 13.5 percent of the popular vote, 46 electoral votes, and had a relatively well-oiled organization in place-ran for the Democratic Party nomination in 1972 and vowed, both before he was shot in May and again at the July Convention, to work within that party.

Third party voters must be willing to support candidates who they know have no chance of winning. Moreover, because third parties wither so quickly, there is little opportunity for voters to grow accustomed to backing them or for this cycle of discouragement to be broken. The single-member-district plurality system is the single largest barrier to third party vitality.

Ballot Access Restrictions

The Democrats and Republicans have constructed a maze of cumbersome regulations and procedures that make it difficult for minor parties and independent candidates to gain a spot on the general election ballot. Whereas major party candidates automatically appear on the ballot, third parties must petition state election officials to be listed. A candidate whose name does not appear is obviously disadvantaged: voters are not cued when they enter the polling booth; it is difficult and at times embarrassing for a voter to cast a write-in ballot.

Ballot access was not a problem for third parties in the nineteenth century, because there were no ballots as we now know them. Prior to about 1890, the political parties, not the states, prepared and distributed election ballots (or "tickets," as they were called), listing only their own candidates. Party workers peddled their ballots, usually of a distinct color and shape, at polling stations on election day. The voter would choose one of the tickets and drop it in the ballot box-an act not commonly performed in secret. Poll watchers, of course, could easily identify how the citizen voted. The voter, unless he scratched names off the party slate and substituted new ones, or combined portions of two or more ballots, was forced to support a party's entire ticket.

This all changed when states adopted the Australian ballot. Under the new system, each state now prepared an "official" ballot listing all the party slates, and voters could mark it secretly. It was both more difficult for parties to intimidate citizens and easier for voters to split their tickets (Rusk 1970).

However, this shift to the Australian method generated an obvious question: which parties should be listed on the official ballot? To keep the list of candidates relatively short, states had to restrict some candidates' access to the new ballot. Laws soon emerged making it difficult for non-major parties to appear. Half the ballots cast in 1892 were governed by these access laws; by 1900 nearly 90 percent of the votes cast were subject to such ...

Because the states determine their own ballot access laws, minor party candidates wishing to place their names before the voters must overcome fifty-one different sets of bureaucratic hurdles. This is an arduous task for third party contenders, even well-financed ones. Petitions must be circulated within a specific time period that varies from state to state. They can be distributed only between early June and early August in California, for instance, and between August 1 and September 1 in Indiana. Filing deadlines also vary by state, and many occur relatively early in the election cycle-before the major parties have held their conventions. Five deadlines had already passed by the time John Anderson announced his candidacy on April 24, 1980 (Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, Maine, and Kentucky). The remaining deadlines were scattered between May and late September. This lack of a uniform petition period or filing deadline means that a third party or independent candidate cannot mount a nationwide effort; instead, he must hold fifty-one different drives at different times during the campaign.

The number of signatures a candidate must gather varies from 25 people (Tennessee) to 5 percent of the state's registered voters (Montana, Oklahoma, and others). A candidate needed over 100,000 signers to qualify in California in 1980 and 57,500 to make the Georgia ballot. To qualify for all fifty-one ballots in 1980, each third party presidential challenger had to gather over 1.2 million signatures (Cook 1980a, p. 1315).

Other provisions define which voters are eligible to sign a candidate's petition. West Virginia forbids petitioners from voting in its primary; New York and Nebraska disqualify signatures of citizens who have already participated in a primary. Some states also have onerous provisions for validating signatures. Citizens in South Carolina must record both their precinct and voter registration numbers exotic bits of information that few people know. New Hampshire requires that signatures be certified. Some states also impose complicated procedures on the distribution of signatures. Petitions must be collected by magisterial districts in West Virginia-a designation with which even most politicians are unfamiliar. New York requires candidates to obtain a specified number of signatures in each county.

Nine states in 1980 had either a sore loser law prohibiting a candidate who ran in the state's primary (but lost the nomination) from running in the general election or a disaffiliation statute forbidding independent candidates from belonging to a political party.

Since their introduction, every state has made at least one change in its ballot access laws. Because nearly all third parties are short-lived, the requirements governing initial access are the pertinent ones. The hostile and suspicious political climate surrounding the two world wars prompted many restrictions on ballot access (American Civil Liberties Union 1943; Bone 1943, p. 524; Schmidt 1960, pp. 31, 125). Between Theodore Roosevelt's run in 1912 and Robert LaFollette's 1924 candidacy, ten states significantly increased the number of signatures required to qualify a candidate; some of these instituted restrictions for the first time. Only one state, Nevada, reduced the number of signatures needed. Although in the years preceding World War II states did not further boost the number of signatures required for a candidate to appear on the ballot, they instituted filing fees, changed filing deadlines, and shortened the length of the petitioning period (Columbia Law Review 1937; Yale Law Journal 1948). The laws were more strictly enforced. In addition, by 1942, nineteen states had barred from their ballots (by legislation or election officials' rulings) Communists or parties that advocated the overthrow of the government by force or violence (Bone 1943, p. 526).

Recent court decisions have reversed this trend. As a result of the lawsuits initiated by George Wallace in 1968, Eugene McCarthy in 1976, and John Anderson in 1980, ballot access laws are now as lenient as they have ever been in this century. Even Libertarian Ed Clark was able to gain a spot on all fifty-one ballots in 1980.7

Despite these changes, which for the most part have been at the margins, it is still no easy task for third party candidates to win access to the ballot. All twentieth-century third party presidential candidates have had to struggle to obtain positions on the ballot. LaFollette found in 1924 that the laws were "almost unsuperable obstacles to a new party" (MacKay 1947, p. 179). He was forced to run under a variety of labels: "Progressive," "Independent," "Independent-Progressive," and "Socialist." Such a predicament can only contribute to voter confusion and the general perception that third parties are temporary and makeshift, not deserving of equal consideration. William Lemke succeeded in getting his Union Party on the ballot in only thirty-four states in 1936 (Tull 1965, p. ]67; Bennett 1969, p. 212). He failed to secure a spot in populous states like New York, where Father Charles Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice had a large following; California, home of Townsendism; and Louisiana, stronghold of the Share Our Wealth movement (Leuchtenburg 1971, p. 2843). Like LaFollette, Lemke could not always run under his own party name: he was forced to run as the "Royal Oak Party" candidate in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the "Third Party" challenger in Michigan, and the "Union Progressive Party" nominee in Illinois. In 1948 Henry Wallace not only confronted provisions that denied Communists a spot on the ballot but encountered capricious administration of other access laws as well (Schmidt 1960, pp. 124-52). George Wallace qualified for every ballot except the one in the predominantly black District of Columbia, but he was forced to run under six different party labels. Eugene McCarthy secured a spot on only twenty-nine state ballots; fifteen of these required court battles to win his position. (He won three additional suits after the election.) McCarthy did not appear on the ballot in crucial states like New York and California. John Anderson won positions on all fifty-one November ballots but only after a costly effort. The campaign spent more than half of the $7.3 million it raised between April and September on petition drives and legal fees (Whittle 1980, p. 2834). While the major parties prepare media ads, buy television time, and plan campaign strategy, third party candidates devote their scarce resources to getting on the ballot.

Although it is clear that, relative to the Democrats and Republicans, ballot access laws discriminate against independent challengers, we are less certain whether this bias is greater than the one that existed prior to the 1890s when the parties themselves prepared the ballots. Obviously, in one sense, the earlier arrangement was less onerous for third parties. They simply printed their own tickets; there was no maze of legal procedures. But, at the same time, the unofficial ballot system disadvantaged third parties in ways that were ameliorated with the adoption of the Australian ballot. First, under the old system, it was difficult for citizens to vote a split ticket since each ballot listed only a single party's slate of candidates. This in effect required voters to abandon their party for every office at stake in the election, even if they were attracted to only the third party's presidential nominee. Compared to an arrangement where split-ticket voting is easier, this probably reduced the likelihood of third party voting. Second, since a bolt to a third party was a public act, the cost of betraying long-standing loyalties was high (Woodward 1951, p. 244; Rusk 1968, pp. 128-30). Moreover, under the unofficial ballot system, a party needed organization and resources to print its tickets and distribute them on election day. But organization and resources are two commodities that third parties have always lacked. The shift to the official ballot eliminated these costs; the ballots were now printed and distributed at public expense. It is not clear that the official ballot adversely affected third parties more than the system it replaced. Nonetheless, these new restrictions still constitute a bias.

Campaign Finance Laws

The 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is the most recent instance of the major parties adopting a "reform" that freezes out third party challengers. Under the law, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) provides the major party presidential nominees a lump sum ($29.4 million in 1980) for their campaigns. On top of this, the Democratic and Republican National Committees can raise and spend as much as they need to pay for legal and accounting expenses incurred in complying with the act. State and local party committees can raise and spend an unlimited amount on voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives, and other volunteer activities. "Independent" committees can also spend freely on behalf of the major parties.

Third parties, on the other hand, are eligible to receive public funds only after the November election, and then only if they appear on the ballot in at least ten states and obtain at least 5 percent of the national popular vote. The exact amount a candidate receives increases with his total vote (assuming the initial ten state provision is met). Given these requirements, only 10 of the 148 minor party candidates (7 percent) that have emerged in more than one state since 1840 would have qualified for retroactive public financing. Although third party candidates are denied the benefits of the pre-election subsidy, they must still comply with the FECA rules on disclosure of campaign contributions and are bound by the ceilings of $1,000 per election from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees.

Because the FECA mentioned only "minor party" candidates, "independent" Eugene McCarthy had to petition the FEC in 1976 to extend its coverage to him. Had a favorable ruling been received, and had McCarthy stayed above 5 percent in the polls, he may have had an easier time attracting contributions and securing loans. But the FEC took six long weeks, until mid-October, to rule against McCarthy on a straight party vote: Republican commissioners supported McCarthy, Democrats opposed him. (It was widely believed at the time that McCarthy would have taken more votes from Carter than from Ford.) John Anderson succeeded in 1980 where McCarthy failed. In early September, by a 5-1 vote, the FEC ruled that Anderson was the functional equivalent of a third party and that he would receive post-election funding if he cleared the appropriate vote and ballot hurdles.

The FECA is a major party protection act. Democrats and Republicans receive their funds before the election, minor parties after. During the primaries, when name recognition is built and legitimacy established, contenders for a major party's nomination receive matching federal funds; minor parties, which do not hold primaries, receive none. During the general election, major party candidates are freed from time-consuming and costly fund-raising activities; minor parties are not. National party committees may accept individual contributions of up to $20,000; independent candidates cannot. In short, this law ensures a large gap between the financial resources available to major and minor parties.


Most of the other constraints that third parties confront are consequences of the structure of the electoral system. Independent candidates are disadvantaged: they have fewer resources, receive poorer press coverage, are usually less qualified, and are not seen as legitimate contenders. Although these handicaps do not result from formal rules that discriminate against minor parties, they have a similar impact: they make voting for a third party an act requiring unusual energy, persistence, or desperation.

Campaign Resources

Without resources, an American political party's struggle is grim indeed. And, as a rule, third party candidates have had fewer resources than the major parties. This was true long before the Federal Election Campaign Act. The major parties grossly outspent Abolitionists in 1840, Free Soilers in 1848, and Populists in 1892 (Morgan 1971, p. 1728; Sewell 1976, pp. 75, 167). Even the most successful minor party challengers amass only a fraction of the resources available to their Democratic and Republican opponents. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, the best financed third party candidate on record, spent only 60 percent of the average major party total in 1912; George Wallace spent 39 percent and John Anderson only 49 percent when they ran. Few minor party candidates achieve anything near even these levels of spending: LaFollette in 1924 only spent 9 percent of the average major party total, and Thurmond only 7 percent in 1948. Almost every other minor party candidate was outspent by at least 50 to 1.

This disparity in resources means that third parties are significantly disadvantaged, if not crippled. Their ability to rent technical expertise, gather political intelligence, and campaign-especially through the media-is obviously restricted. Moreover, because major parties do not have to allocate a huge proportion of their campaign chest to ballot access drives the way third parties do, the disparity in real available resources is greater than the simple proportions reported in table 2.2. After the ballot drives and court battles, Eugene McCarthy had only $100,000 left for media advertising in 1976 ($137,651 in 1980 dollars) (Cook 1980a, p. 1316). The 1980 Anderson campaign could not even afford to conduct polls- an essential weapon in a modern political arsenal. Staff were let go or went unpaid, little media time could be purchased, and campaign trips were cancelled (Weaver 1980a, p. B12; Weaver 1980b, p. D22; Peterson 1980a, pp. A1, A4).

The McCarthy and Anderson experiences are not unique: all third party and independent candidates have been strapped for campaign funds. The 1936 Lemke campaign, despite the backing of the National Union for Social Justice and Townsend Movement, was constantly plagued by financial problems. By mid-summer the Union Party had raised only $20,000 ($121,462 in 1980 dollars) (Bennett 1969, p. 211). LaFollette experienced similar problems, raising most of his money in one-dollar contributions (LaFollette and LaFollette 1953, p. 124). The campaign was in such dismal financial shape that it could not afford to send its cross-country rail campaign farther west then St. Louis (MacKay 1947, p. 156).

This scarcity of resources means that third parties are able to purchase only a fraction of the political advertising bought by the Democrats and Republicans. Even in 1968, George Wallace, the best financed of recent~third party contenders, was able to secure only one-sixth of the radio and television time the major parties bought. In most years the situation is much worse: minor parties, on average, acquire one-twentieth of the television and radio time the major parties do.

Money, although certainly the most important campaign resource, is obviously not the only one. Elite support and a well-oiled, experienced party or candidate organization have always been essential. Here too the major parties are advantaged. As Haynes noted in 1924: "Party machinery has become so complex and requires so much technical skill in its manipulation that there seems less and less chance of its overthrow or seizure by inexperienced workers. It almost seems as though the Republican and Democratic parties must go on indefinitely" (p. 156).

It is easy to see why Haynes reached this conclusion. Few minor parties can compete with the major party organizations. The Liberty Party was "hopelessly outmatched by Whigs and Democrats in organization, experience, financial resources and political savvy," as was the "haphazard" Free Soil campaign eight years later (Sewell 1976, pp. 75, 166). William Lemke's total lack of a regular political organization contributed to his poor showing in 1936 (Tull 1965, p. 167; Bennett 1969, p. 241). Similar problems gripped Henry Wallace in 1948 (Schmidt 1960, pp. 92-123).

There are several reasons why these organizations flounder. Because third parties are short-lived, they have little time to build an electoral apparatus. Moreover, unlike the major parties, most presidential third parties do not run slates of congressional, state, and local candidates, so they have no other campaign organizations to draw upon. And since few third parties win federal, state, or local elections, the party lacks patronage an important political resource through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Some of these organizational problems would be alleviated if minor parties were able to persuade elected officials to join their independent cause. But they rarely can. Even strong Progressives like Senators William Borah and George Norris did not campaign for LaFollette, fearing Republican reprisals. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had the best opportunity for victory of any third party candidate, was unable to maintain his elite support. Most officials who had rallied behind his selection as the Republican nominee, including seven of the eight governors who originally advocated his candidacy, did not abandon the Republican Party (Mowry 1971, p. 2151). William Lemke could not attract the support of progressive or farm state politicians from either side of the aisle (Bennett 1969, p. 205), and few liberal politicians backed

Henry Wallace in 1948 (Schmidt 1960, pp. 37-39, 64-67). Only a handful of officeholders came out on behalf of George Wallace's 1968 presidential bid. Even when John Anderson's level of support in the polls stood at 20 percent, he had trouble finding a running mate, finally settling on former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey.

Despite the many changes in presidential campaigns over the years, the need for superior resources and a strong and effective grassroots organization remains. Few if any major party candidates have won without them. Few if any minor party candidates have had them.

Media Coverage

Media coverage is also an essential component of a successful modern campaign. It supplies legitimacy and generates name recognition, both indispensable in attracting votes. But there is a huge disparity between the amount of coverage the media give minor parties and the attention they devote to the Democrats and Republicans. In 1980 the leading newspapers and weekly news magazines gave Reagan and Carter about ten times more coverage than all eleven third party and independent candidates combined. This disparity showed up in network television news as well: between January and September the CBS Evening News devoted 6 hours, 10 minutes of coverage to Carter, 3 hours, 9 minutes to Reagan, and 1 hour, 46 minutes to Anderson (Leiser 1980).

Despite this imbalance, the media did treat Anderson relatively favorably in the opening months of his independent campaign. Time praised Anderson's intellect, his skills, and his willingness to confront issues. Newsweek pointed out that Anderson's intellectual and oratorical skills had long been acknowledged "even by House foes." They called his 26 percent support in the California Poll a "close third" and his 22 percent standing in New York a "competitive third" (Goldman 1980, pp. 28-38). Time's headline read: "Despite Problems, Anderson's Campaign is Starting to Move" (Warner 1980, p. 21). The reports were upbeat.

But the media's tendency to focus on the horserace soon brought stories highlighting the hopelessness of Anderson's cause. They no longer viewed Anderson as a serious challenger, but a "certain loser" (Lewis 1980). On the front page of the September 26 Washington Star, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover (1980) concluded: "With some exceptions, Anderson's leading supporters and advisors have abandoned their dream of winning the election.... This does not suggest that Anderson's backers are throwing in their cards, but only that they now see the rest of the campaign as a case of playing out their hands against essentially hopeless odds." A similar obituary appeared in the following day's New York Times where Warren Weaver, Jr., pronounced: "The independent candidate no longer has a serious chance of winning." The same day CBS reported that the Anderson campaign was "sputtering," and on September 28 David Broder, in the Washington Post, tossed in the final spade of dirt when he called the candidacy a fiasco and concluded it was going nowhere. From that point on, the press focused almost exclusively on Anderson's decline in the polls, his money problems, and his inability to gain endorsements. By the end of the campaign Anderson was no longer the star orator he was in June, but "fuzzy," "too preachy," "humorless," and "highflown" (Stacks 1980, p. 52).

This sort of coverage is understandable. We doubt that the media intentionally tried to undermine Anderson's cause. Nonetheless, the media can affect voters' perceptions by concentrating on who will win instead of what the candidates are saying. The de facto result benefits the major parties. We cannot unravel how much the media's treatment of Anderson

caused his drop in standing or merely reflected it. But the fact remains that in the final crucial weeks of the campaign, voters saw little of Anderson in the press (not to mention Ed Clark, Barry Commoner, or John Rarick), and what little they did see was about Anderson the loser.

Televised presidential debates also exclude third party candidates. Only Nixon and Kennedy debated in 1960; only Ford and Carter appeared in 1976.l2 Although Anderson did debate Reagan in September 1980, Carter's unwillingness to participate delegitimized Anderson's candidacy and, along with ABC's simultaneous airing of the film "The Orient Express," contributed to a much smaller viewing audience than in 1960, 1976, or in the Carter-Reagan confrontation a week before the 1980 election.

The primary reason third party candidates receive so little coverage is that broadcasters and publishers do not think they warrant attention. Nearly two out of three newspaper editors thought that their readers had little interest in third party candidates in 1980 (Bass 1982, p. 12). As James M. Perry of the Wall Street Journal put it:

We base [our decision] on the simple proposition that readers don't want to waste their time on someone who won't have a role in the campaign. We're not going to run a page-one spread on a fringe candidate. We don't have a multiparty system. Until we do, nobody's going to cover these candidates. (Bass 1982, p. 11)

Marshall Field, publisher of the Chicago Sun Times, echoed this sentiment: "The country is run by a two-party system and those candidates 'chosen by the people' are the ones who deserve serious consideration" (McCarthy 1980, p. 149).14

The press does more than simply ignore minor party candidates; at times they are overtly hostile towards them. Metropolitan newspapers routinely attacked the Populists (Goodwyn 1978, p. 210). The press committed two sins against the Progressives of 1924: one of omission (lack of coverage), and the other of commission (the distorted reporting of Progressive issues and activities, sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional) (MacKay 1947, p. 211). The same scenario unfolded in 1948. The few stories that did appear on Henry Wallace focused on his Communist affiliations (Schmidt 1960, pp. 90-91, 229-31; Yarnell 1974, pp. 47-49; Time, 1948a, p. 16). To discourage support for Henry Wallace, newspapers in New Haven, Pittsburgh, Boston, Milwaukee, and Cleveland published the names, addresses, and occupations of people who signed his ballot petitions (Schmidt 1960, pp. 133-34).

In the past, minor parties have tried to overcome the media's neglect and abuse by relying on their own tabloids to get their messages across. The Union Party had the Townsend National Weekly with a circulation of 300,000; the Prohibitionists had several periodicals such as the Voice, which began in 1884 and rose to a circulation of 700,000 by 1888. In addition to his own publishing house, Socialist candidate Eugene Debs could rely on over three hundred English and foreign language newspapers and magazines with a combined circulation exceeding two million (Greer 1949, p. 271; Bennett 1969, p. 171; Storms 1972, p. 13; Weinstein, 1967, pp. 84-102). But unlike television, radio, or non-party newspapers, party publications allow a candidate to communicate only with the already faithful; they are ineffective at reaching non-supporters.

Although the media are the voter's primary source of information about politics, neither print nor electronic journalists do much to alleviate the voters' dearth of information about third party candidates. The little that voters do learn about these candidates helps convince them that their cause is hopeless. When voters support third party candidates, they do so in spite of, not because of, the media's coverage of their campaigns.

Unqualified, Unknown Candidates

In every presidential election, a portion of the electorate makes their voting decision on the basis, not of issues or parties, but on who the candidates are. Thus another reason third parties generally do so poorly is that they run weak candidates who lack political experience and the credentials to be credible presidential contenders. While it is difficult, particularly in a historical perspective, to assess how voters perceive a candidate's capacity to perform as president, we may reasonably assume that one cue voters rely on is whether the candidate has had prior experience in an important office (like governor, U.S. senator, or member of the House of Representatives). All other things being equal, voters probably view candidates without these credentials as less qualified.

There is a striking difference between the political backgrounds of major and minor party candidates. Nearly all (97.2 percent) of the 72 major party presidential nominees between 1840 and 1980 had held the post of president, vice-president, U.S. senator, congressman, governor, military general, or cabinet secretary. Less than 20 percent of the minor party candidates had attained these positions.

By now the reason for this disparity should be clear. The biases against third parties created by the single-member-district plurality system and ballot access restrictions, as well as their disadvantages in organization, resources, and media coverage, all effectively discourage qualified candidates from running under a third party label. Well-known, prestigious candidates know that a third party effort will be hopeless and can end their political careers. Only extraordinary circumstances will push established politicians (and voters) into a third party camp.

The political obscurity of most minor party candidates, their inability to publicize themselves as major party contenders can, and their neglect by the media mean that many voters simply do not have information on these candidates. An unknown candidate is obviously unlikely to win many votes. Only 3 percent of the 1980 electorate claimed they did not know enough about Jimmy Carter to have an opinion about him; 18 percent said the same about Ronald Reagan. Yet 28 percent of the electorate had no information about John Anderson, 77 percent knew nothing about Ed Clark, and 85 percent knew nothing about Barry Commoner (CBS/New York Times Poll, October 1980). This disparity is even more striking among vice-presidential candidates: 15 percent of the electorate had not heard of Walter Mondale, 28 percent had never heard of George Bush, but 78 percent had never heard of Anderson's running mate Patrick Lucey (Los Angeles Times Poll, no. 35, September 2-7, 1980).15

Negative Attitudes Toward Third Parties

Third party candidates also do poorly because most people think they will do poorly. The prophecy that a candidate cannot win is self-fulfilling: money is harder to raise, political support becomes more difficult to attract, media attention dwindles, and people are unwilling to waste their votes. Few citizens ever think that third party candidates-even strong ones-can win. Only 4.3 percent of the electorate believed George Wallace stood a chance in 1968 (CPS 1968 National Election Study). At the height of John Anderson's standing in the polls, fewer than one in five citizens thought he had a "good chance" to win the presidency; in October less than 1 percent of the electorate believed he would be the winner (NBC/AP Poll, May 1980; CPS 1980 National Election Study). Not only was it clear that Anderson would lose, but two-thirds of the electorate thought he would lose big, trailing far behind Reagan and Carter.

Being perceived as a sure loser costs a candidate votes, though it is hard to say exactly how many. Anderson's 1980 pre-election support was 9 points higher when pollsters asked people how they would vote if Anderson had a "real chance of winning" (Los Angeles Times Poll, no. 35, September 2-7, 1980; ABC/Harris Poll, October 3-6, 1980). Of voters who at one point considered casting ballots for Anderson, 45 percent cited as a reason for their switch his inability to win (CPS 1980 National Election Study).l6

One consequence of a pessimistic prognosis is that citizens will abandon third party candidates for strategic reasons (Brams, 1978, ch. 1; Riker 1982, pp. 762-64). As one Anderson supporter put it, "If at the time of the election a vote for Anderson would cut into Carter's lead, and let Reagan win, I'd probably vote for Carter" (Roberts 1980, p. D22). Of the voters who considered casting ballots for Anderson but did not, over half feared that if they voted for him it would help elect their least preferred choice (CPS 1980 National Election Study). Major parties, of course, play on this fear.

A second prevalent belief is that the two-party system is a sacred arrangement-as American an institution as the Congress, the Super Bowl, or M*A*S*H. Third party candidates are seen as disrupters of the American two-party system. Thus minor parties do not start out on an equal footing with the Democrats and Republicans; they must first establish their legitimacy-something the voters do not demand of the major parties. This two-party sentiment, of course, reinforces itself: minor parties do poorly because they lack legitimacy, their poor showing further legitimates the two-party norm, causing third parties to do poorly, and so on.

Few citizens want to modify the electoral system to aid third parties. A mere 2 percent of the 1976 electorate suggested that the conduct of political campaigns should be changed to give more attention to third parties; just 2 percent thought that the presidential debates should be changed to include third party contenders (American Institute of Public Opinion [AIPO], no. 962, November 8, 1976). Only 3 percent of the 1980 electorate were in favor of more attention being paid to third parties; less than 1 percent expressed this opinion in 1972 (Gallup Opinion Index, no. 183, p. 60).

While nearly all Americans (85 percent) have leanings or outright allegiance to one of the two major parties, less than one in a hundred identify with a minor party (the rest being independent or apolitical) (CPS 1980 National Election Study). If partisanship is a lens through which people interpret politics and evaluate candidates (Campbell et al. 1960), then few voters see the world in ways supportive of minor parties. Even though early in the campaign citizens may flirt with minor party candidates, by election day the pull of partisanship, the inevitable "he can't win-it's a wasted vote" argument, and the wearing off of the third party novelty bring voters home to the major parties. Third party support fades as the election approaches. This pattern of declining support has been apparent since the advent of survey data (figure 2.2). Strom Thurmond, whose regionally concentrated support in 1948 gave him a clear chance of carrying states in the deep South, is the only exception.

Major party loyalties and hostile community reactions often make it tough for voters to support a third party (Gaither 1977, pp. 26-29; Sombart 1976, p. 40). C. Vann Woodward described the difficulties Southern Populists faced:

Changing one's party in the South of the nineties involved more than changing one's mind. It might involve a falling-off of clients, the loss of a job, of credit at the store, or of one's welcome at church. It could split families, and it might even call into question one's loyalty to his race and his people. An Alabamian who had "voted for Democratic candidates for forty years" wrote after breaking with the old party that he had "never performed a more painful duty." A Virginian declared after taking the same step that "It is like cutting off the right hand or putting out the right eye." (1951, p. 244)

The Lynds observed a similar phenomenon in Middletown:

In 1924 it was considered such "bad business" to vote for the third party that no one of the business group confessed publicly either before or after the election to adherence to this ticket. "If we could discover the three people who disgraced our district by voting for LaFollette," declared one business-class woman vehemently, "we'd certainly make it hot for them!" (Schmidt 1960, p. 243)

Parties of the left suffered still harsher repression in the first half of this century. The Socialist Party's opposition to U.S. entry into World War I brought it endless abuse that continued through the postwar Red Scare. The mass hysteria was fueled by memories of Socialist Party opposition to the war, fear of a spreading Bolshevik Revolution, and the belief that Germany (and hence German-Americans) controlled the Bolshevik movement (because of the separate peace the Soviet Union reached with Germany in 1918). Labor unrest and riots spread, the newly formed American Communist Party became more visible, and as war prosperity waned, "the assumption that the country was under serious attack by the

Reds found wide acceptance" (Murray 1955, p. 16). Socialist leaders were prosecuted under the Espionage and the Sedition Acts of 1918. Local chambers of commerce maintained "their fight for 'Americanism' breaking up radical meetings, terrorizing Party members and supporters" (Weinstein 1967, p. 235).

The Red Scare helped neutralize parties of the left. Eugene Debs, who in 1912 had polled 6.0 percent of the presidential vote, drew only 3.4 percent in 1920 when he ran from the Atlanta cell where he had been imprisoned for sedition. The party organization survived in only seven states (Weinstein 1967, p. 235).


The American presidential election system not only discourages third party candidates from running but provides an incentive for the major parties to squelch third party competition. The strategies the Democrats and Republicans employ are, of course, the same ones they use against each other, but because minor parties are handicapped, they are less able to fend off these attacks.


Minor parties often advocate policies not embraced by the major parties. Frequently, the major parties respond rationally to this signal that there are disgruntled voters and adopt the third parties' positions as their own. Often these new positions can be accommodated with relatively little discomfort to the party. Indeed, a major party's very survival depends on its ability to build a broad, heterogeneous coalition. Only third parties with the most extreme beliefs or narrowest of constituencies are immune from these raids.

As we shall see in detail in the next two chapters, the major parties successfully coopt third party votes through a variety of methods-campaign rhetoric, policy proposals and actions, political appointments and patronage. It is ironic that third parties bring about their own demise by the very support they attract. Although adopting their issue clearly steals the thunder from third parties, this is how minor parties have their impact on public policy. Third parties usually lose the battle but, through cooptation, often win the war.

Delegitimizing Tactics

The major parties also undermine third parties by delegitimizing them. It is common for major party candidates to argue that a third party vote is wasted, or that third party challengers are "fringe" candidates who stand outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse. As President Truman argued before a Los Angeles audience in 1948: "The simple fact is that the [Progressive] third party cannot achieve peace, because it is powerless. It cannot achieve better conditions at home, because it is powerless.... I say to those disturbed liberals who have been sitting uncertainly on the outskirts of the third party: think again. Don't waste your vote" (Ross 1968, p. 189). The major parties also try to undermine third party challengers by raising fear that a "constitutional crisis" would result from an Electoral College deadlock. This cry is heard whenever it looks as if a third party will capture some electoral votes, as in 1912, 1924, 1948, and 1968 (Hicks 1960, p. 101; Burner 1971, pp. 2485-86).

The major parties have employed a full array of dirty tricks against independent challengers. Populist speakers in 1892 spent a good part of the campaign contending with hecklers and dodging rocks, rotten eggs, and tomatoes, all courtesy of the major parties (Morgan 1971, p. 1727). The Omaha Tribune, which endorsed LaFollette in 1924, changed its mind and threw its support to Coolidge after receiving $10,000 in advertising from the Republican National Committee (MacKay 1947, p. 191).

The Nixon White House employed a host of devious tactics to sabotage George Wallace. As Watergate confessions later revealed, Nixon strategists contributed $400,000 to Wallace's 1970 gubernatorial primary opponent (Hersh 1973, p. 1; Rosenbaum, 1973, p. 1). They also leaked a story about an IRS investigation of Wallace's brother (Shanahan 1974, p. 1) and sent federal registrars into Alabama to sign up blacks. The Committee to Reelect the President paid a California Republican official $10,000 in 1971 to purge names from the state's American Independent Party rolls (Franklin 1973, p. 27).

On several occasions John Anderson's 1980 campaign was subjected to Democratic pranks. Carter forces tried to disrupt Anderson advance men (Peterson 1980b, p. A2), and administration officials distributed anonymous derogatory campaign literature to discredit Anderson's independent challenge (Associated Press 1980, p. 30).

The major parties also do not sit idly by as third party candidates battle state election laws. Instead, they actively fight to prevent minor parties from securing spots on the ballot. As Robert Neumann of the Democratic National Committee candidly boasted in June 1980: "We don't know how much it's going to cost [to keep Anderson off November ballots] but we'll probably spend what it takes" (Associated Press 1980, p. 30).18

Anderson's treatment was not unique. The major parties mounted comparable assaults against William Lemke in 1936, Henry Wallace in 1948, and Eugene McCarthy in 1976 (Tull 1965, p. 131; Schmidt 1960, pp. 151-52; Schram 1977, p. 286). The New York Democratic Committee alone spent over $50,000 successfully battling to keep McCarthy off its state ballot (Alexander 1976, p. 440). Lemke was unable to run under his Union Party label in Pennsylvania in 1936 because the state Democratic chairman had already registered that name to undercut Lemke support. As a result, Lemke was forced to run on the "Royal Oak" ticket (Tull, 1965, p. 131). There are powerful constraints against third party voting in America. Barriers like the single-member-district plurality electoral system discourage minor parties from running and encourage major parties to coopt their policy positions and supporters. Ballot access restrictions make it difficult for third parties to get their names before voters and require candidates to devote huge sums to signature drives and court battles.

Limited resources, poor campaign organization, and a lack of elite support further handicap third parties. They are able to purchase only a small fraction of the advertising bought by the major parties, and to make matters worse, the media pay little attention to them. Minor party presidential candidates are likely to be inexperienced and less well known than their major party counterparts. The belief that a third party cannot win and that the two-party system is a sacred arrangement delegitimizes minor parties and discourages voters from supporting them. The two major parties play on these beliefs to subvert third party challengers.

All of these constraints, of course, are interrelated. The single-member-district plurality system discourages high caliber candidates from running outside a major party; if a weak candidate runs, he will attract few campaign resources, ensuring that most citizens will learn very little about him. This in turn reinforces the belief that the third party candidate cannot win, so citizens will not waste their votes on him. The weak electoral performance is self-perpetuating. People expect third parties to do poorly because they have always done poorly, so only weak candidates run-and the cycle continues.

Together these barriers, handicaps, and major party strategies raise the level of effort required for a voter to cast his ballot for an independent candidate. A citizen can vote for a major party candidate with scarcely a moment's thought or energy. But to support a third party challenger, a voter must awaken from the political slumber in which he ordinarily lies, actively seek out information on a contest whose outcome he

cannot affect, reject the socialization of his political system, ignore the ridicule and abuse of his friends and neighbors, and accept the fact that when the ballots are counted, his vote will never be in the winner's column. Such levels of energy are witnessed only rarely in American politics.

Political Reform page

Index of Website

Home Page