Sam Smith 2008 – History suggests that running a third party presidential candidate doesn’t do much good. Not only is the electoral system hopelessly rigged against it, but even under the best of circumstances a presidential campaign depends not only on who is leading it but who is behind it. With the except of Eugene Debs, all the most successful third party presidential candidates over the past century have drawn primarily from disgruntled mainstream factions, not radical or progressive movements. Further each of the third parties had only one opportunity to make their point in a big way in a presidential race.
Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates since 1900:
Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
All other third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race.
Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew on Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.
Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.
That does not mean, however, that third parties – like certain insects – are merely born, have sex, and then die. In fact, some of the third parties have had long, remarkably healthy lives, but in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic example, with a history dating back over 100 years. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending as late as 1960. And let us not forget Bernie Sanders.
In fact, some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). An example was the Liberal Party of New York, the longest lived third party next to the Socialists.
As one of the founders of the national Green Party I have tried unsuccessfully to encourage a backyard Green approach, working from the bottom up and emphasizing local rather than national campaigns. But living in a time when it is assumed that all change ultimately emanates from the television screen, the White House or God, such a grassroots view is regarded as somewhat antiquated
There are, however, other models. For example, the Socialist Party describes its beginnings this way:
“From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of ‘reform vs. revolution,’ the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making ‘immediate demands’ of a reformist nature. . . . The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”
You can’t find a single movement on the left these days that could claim such eclecticism.