Third-Party Reformers

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In this 1912 photograph, Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt campaigns in Boston from a rail car. Although Roosevelt served almost two full terms as a Republican president from 1901 to 1908, he tried and failed to win the Republican nomination in 1912. Frustrated by the approach of his successor, William Howard Taft, he founded the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party and ran as its candidate. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Third-party candidates in US presidential elections have historically presented challenges to America’s two-party system, which has been particularly fixed as Democrat and Republican since the mid-nineteenth century. Falling all along the political spectrum, from conservative to moderate to liberal to radical, third parties and their nominees play an important role by offering voters reform alternatives to more established party politics and sometimes by campaigning on a single issue platform. Although they often struggle to compete with mainstream parties because of their relative lack of financial resources, third party candidates keep the possibility of reform in the minds of American voters and push more mainstream candidates to clarify and shift their political views.

Third-party presidential runs have met with mixed results. Socialist Eugene V. Debs ran five times for president on a workers’ rights platform, receiving 6% of the popular vote in 1912, his most successful election. 1924 Progressive Party nominee Robert La Follette, running on a broad progressive ticket, won 16% of the popular vote and 13 electoral votes from his home state of Wisconsin. Former Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president three times on a states’ rights platform, winning five southern states and 46 electoral votes in 1968. But a few third-party outsiders have had a profound impact inside the traditional two-party system—by shifting votes away from major parties and influencing the outcome of the election, or by achieving a degree of popular vote that threatened or beat that of a major party candidate. This section explores these third-party reform stories.