Ask a Scholar: Third Party Possibilities

Hubert P. van Tuyll

Dear Ask a Scholar,

I'm looking for more information regarding the dangers of a third caucus arising in the American Political system, particularly statistics or historical precedence relating to this topic.

Additionally, I am also looking for statistics or examples that would prove citizens' willingness to vote for a third-party in the event that their respective party voted against party lines [i.e. those in the Republican party voting for the 'Tea Party' if the GOP congressmen were to become 'soft' on immigration, economics, etc.]

- Caitlyn Stenerson, Bethel University

Answered by Hubert P. van Tuyll, professor of history and chair of the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy at Augusta State University. He is the author of Feeding the Bear, America's Strategic Future, The Netherlands and World War I, and Castles, Battles, and Bombs.

Dear questioner,

Thank you for your interest in third party politics.

There are three situations in which people have been willing to vote for a third party.

The first is if there is an issue or viewpoint that the major parties are simply not willing to represent. The Socialist Party under Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas grew to almost a tenth of the electorate early in the twentieth century because neither major party was willing to adopt a Socialist platform.

The second is if there is a charismatic figure who develops a personal following. The most successful was Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election; second would be Ross Perot in 1992. Roosevelt actually came in 2nd; Perot finished third but with a very respectable 20% of the popular vote, probably helping elect Bill Clinton in the process.

The third is if a major party collapses, a new movement arises to replace it.

The interesting thing is that the major parties have not had a fatal challenge to their dominance since 1854, when the Republican Party was founded.

The reason? Because our two major parties are really coalitions, and they naturally shift to absorb the views of major movements, if they can. The Tea Party movement is a good example of this. The Tea Party movement elected numerous followers to be the Republican nominees in 2010, and many of those nominees then were elected to Congress.

Now, suppose, as you suggest, congressmen disappoint their Tea Party followers. Would the Tea Party followers then vote for a third party? What is the historical evidence?

The historical evidence I see, considering such elections as 1912 and 1992, is that about 20-25% of the total electorate would vote for a third party. (This does not account for disappointed voters who simply choose to stay home.)

This could be an influential movement if it could sustain itself. Third parties rarely sustain themselves more than 1-3 elections in American history. The reason is that you have to get a majority of the vote to win a Senate or House seat. The movements that last longer (Socialists, Libertarians, and a few others) typically stay in the 1-7% range.

One last point; a new party (such as the Tea Party) CAN become a long lasting movement by seeking to REPLACE the Republican party; to do so, however, it would have to become a more broad-based movement. In a sense, you become what you are replacing.

Thomas Mann, a Reference Librarian in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress and author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research, adds:

Some of the information needed by the researcher on Third Parties can be found in:

Main title:

The encyclopedia of third parties in America / edited by Immanuel Ness, James Ciment ; foreword by Frances Fox Piven.


Armonk, N.Y. : Sharpe Reference, c2000.


3 v. (xxv, 816 p.) : ill., col. maps ; 29 cm.


0765680203 (set : alk. paper)

The subscription database _Polling the Nations_, available through many university libraries but not on the open Internet, provides polling data on why people say they would vote for third party candidates. 

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