The Democratic and Republican Parties have been the two most dominant political groups within the United States as both sides have done everything in their power to ensure that they are the only options the American people have when comes to presidential elections. However, they have been a number of 3rd Party Presidential Candidates who’s made an attempt to run as most of these candidates tend to focus on important issues ignored by the two major parties. 3rd Party Presidential Candidate
Whilst many of these candidates don’t stand much of a chance of winning the election, they do end up shocking people by winning not only some of the popular vote but also a few electoral votes as well and in this list, I will be mentioning those 3rd Party Presidential Candidate who did far better than most would have expected
I’m excluding George Washington from this list because he ran in elections where he was the only candidate, this list will focus on those who ran against multiple challengers in a presidential election.
- John Bell
- William Wirt
- John Floyd
- Henry A. Wallace
- John P. Hale
- Gary Johnson
10. Martin Van Buren: The Free Soil Party (1848)
While some may know him today for his outlandish muttonchops, the former VP to Andrew Jackson turned 8th president in American history is also partly responsible for the creation of the Democratic Party as well as another political party but for that, we have to back somewhat to the 1840s.
After losing his bid for reelection to William Henry Harrison and the Whig Party in the election of 1840, Martin Van Buren would try on numerous occasions to get back the nomination for the party that he created but to middling degrees of success.
In 1848, Van Buren decided to leave the Democrats after losing to the nomination to Michigan Senator and former Ambassador to France, Lewis Cass and instead joined forces with other like-minded politicians to create ‘The Free Soil Party’ with one of the biggest issues the party ran on in the 1848 election was stopping the expansion of slavery in western territories.
Van Buren was chosen to be the nominee for the newly created party and even though they didn’t win any electoral votes as the party wasn’t on the ballot in all states, they did however win about 10% of the popular vote and Van Buren also split the Democratic votes so much that it led to the Whig Party candidate and Mexican American war hero, Zachery Taylor becoming the 12th President in American History.
9. Millard Fillmore: The American Party/Know-Nothing Party (1856)
Speaking of the Whig Party, Millard Fillmore much like Martin Van Buren was the vice president before inheriting the role of commander and chief with the only difference being that Fillmore’s old boss and U.S. President, Zachery Taylor died just a year and a half into the office so Millard was then sworn as the new president.
Fillmore had hoped that he would get the nomination from the Whigs to run officially as their candidate in the up and coming 1852 election but he was denied this and soon after the election the Whig party would cease to exist.
Fast forward four years later, the staunchly nativist and xenophobic American Party also known as The Know-Nothing Party decided to run Millard Fillmore as a candidate for the 1856 election despite the fact that he wasn’t associated with the party in any way and was in fact out of the country when he got the nomination, but even still he went along with and ran on the idea of promising to keep unity within the U.S. as the issue of slavery was continuing to divide the nation.
In the end, Fillmore received only 8 electoral votes from the state of Maryland and 21.5% of the popular vote and much like the Whigs, the Know-Nothings would come to an end soon after this election.
8. Eugene V. Debs: The Socialist Party (1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 & 1920)
One of the most well-known names to run in multiple presidential elections in U.S. History, Eugene Victor Debs was a charismatic union leader and union activist before he adopted the ideas of socialism.
By the turn of the 20th century, Debs made his first bid for the presidency under the Socialist Democratic Party of America where he received less than 1% of the vote, however, his luck would turn around as his next two runs in 1904 and 1908 saw Debs receive around 3-2% of the popular vote but still no electoral votes.
In 1912, Debs and the Socialist Party had their best chance to win with Debs coming in second place in terms of getting the electoral votes in Florida but ultimately Debs didn’t win any electoral votes but pulled away with 6% of the popular vote which was the best performance for the party in a presidential election.
Eugene Debs would run for office one last time in 1920 while he was serving time in prison…You heard that right, As you can imagine Debs didn’t get any electoral votes but ended up getting 3.4% of the popular vote which was still a good showing for someone campaigning whilst locked inside a prison cell.
7. Strom Thurmond: Dixiecrats/The States Right’s Democratic Party (1948)
Long before Barack Obama was elected president and Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Democratic Party was a party whose key support came from the South and as such many Southerners were not too keen on the idea of racial equality, so much that it leads to a gosh darn Civil War and even the Democratic Party getting fractured on a number of the occasions.
A prime example of this would have to be the election of 1948 when incumbent Democratic President Harry S. Truman supported the idea of civil rights for African Americans and integrating them in the military; This decision led to many southern Democrats leaving the convention before going on to create their own party to prevent the reelection of Truman.
This party was called The States Rights Democratic Party or The Dixiecrats, with the party’s platform focused mainly on keeping segregation within the South; The party’s nominee was a South Carolina Governor named Strom Thurmond, who’s best known for delivering a pro-states rights/segregationist filibuster which is still the longest filibuster in all of American History.
Thurmond and the rest of the Dixiecrats knew that their party wasn’t strong enough to get the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election, but instead, they decided to play spoiler by attempting to run in southern states that had mostly voted for the Democrats with the aim being that if they could deadlock the election to where no one gets that many votes, the Democrats and the Republicans would then have to come to the Dixiecrats to make deals with them that would satisfy the party to the point that they would support the candidacy of either Harry Truman or Thomas Dewey.
The plan ultimately failed as Truman was able to get reelected although Thurmond did win 39 electoral votes from the states of South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and one faithless electoral vote from Tennessee.
6. John B. Anderson: Independent (1980)
A forgotten name when it comes to presidential election history, John B. Anderson ran for the Republican Party’s nomination in 1980 and was defeated by a B level movie actor and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Anderson however, garnered a lot of media attention due in large part to his performance during the debates where he mentioned that issues like lower taxes, increasing the amount of defense spending and balancing the budget couldn’t happen all at the same time while also supporting the Equal Rights Amendment that would allow equal rights for people (mostly women) regardless of their gender.
He then decided to run as an independent candidate who felt that Ronald Reagan was too conservative and Jimmy Carter was too liberal; Anderson’s polling numbers went about as high as 22-26% and after managing to build up his third party campaign from the ground up and getting the necessary qualifications to get on the ballot in all 50 states, Anderson also became the first 3rd Party Presidential Candidates in American History to take part in a presidential debate.
When it was all said and done though, Anderson didn’t receive any electoral votes but he did get 6.6% of the popular vote which was the best 3rd party performance since 1968.
5. Robert La Follette Sr: Progressive Party (1924)
A legendary figure in politics and the progressive movement as a whole, Robert La Follette Sr spent the majority of his career fighting against the special interest in Washington while also fighting for the people who’ve been disillusioned by the ideals of the Democrats and the Republicans in previous years.
Much like the previously mentioned Martin Van Buren and John B. Anderson, La Follette ran and failed to get the nomination of his party for the 1924 election and so therefore he along with the support of others ran as a 3rd party under the newly revived Progressive Party.
The progressive party under La Follette pushed for the ideas of regulating the railroad industries along with other monopiles, the enforcement of child labour laws, reducing the amount of political corruption (which was a big deal following the revelation of the Teapot Dome Scandal under the Warren Harding administration) and taxing the wealth…so pretty much this guy was the Bernie Sanders of his era.
By-election day, La Follette got only 13 electoral votes from his home state of Wisconsin and 16.6% of the popular vote which was an impressive performance from the progressive party in quite some time.
4. George Wallace: American Independence Party (1968)
Before Donald Trump, there was another race-baiting, populist sounding candidate running for office and his name was George Wallace, who much like Strom Thurmond before him was too not pleased with the idea of ending segregation especially in the South; After doing well in the primaries in 1964, the former governor of Alabama decided to leave the Democrats and began running under a third political party.
Wallace got the nomination for the newly created ‘American Independence Party’ and ran against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in the chaotic election of 1968; While the former southern governor continued to fan the flames of racial tensions with his speeches and many rallies on the campaign trail, he also appealed to many blue-collar workers who were getting sick and tired of having their problems tossed aside by the two major parties…Are you starting to sense a theme here?
When the dust settled, George Wallace ended up with 13.5% of the popular vote whilst getting 46 electoral votes from some of the places that had voted for Thurmond in 1948 while also getting votes from the state of Georgia and Arkansas.
Since the election of 1968, no third party has been able to receive any electoral votes in a presidential election making George Wallace the last 3rd Party Presidential Candidate to achieve this feat!
3. James B. Weaver:
People’s Party/Populist (1892)
The term ‘Populist’ describes those politicians who focus on issues that are affecting the middle and poor classes in America due to the established elite ignoring the concerns of the common man for many years.
This can be traced all the way back to the 19th century when a man by the name of James B. Weaver ran in two presidential elections hoping to bring these issues to the forefront of American politics.
Back in the election of 1880, James Weaver first ran with the Greenback Party, a party whose main focus among other things was the redistribution and usage of paper currency referred to as ‘Greenbacks’ to reduce the inflation that was occurring within the country; Sadly the party was only able to get 3.4% of the popular vote but there Populistic ideals would carry for years to come.
Upon officially creating the People’s Party aka the Populist Party in 1891 and winning several local elections, The Populists nominated James B. Weaver as their candidate in the 1892 presidential election against former Democratic president, Grover Cleveland and incumbent Republican president, Benjamin Harrison.
By the end of the election, Weaver did far better in his second outing getting 8.8% of the popular vote and receiving 22 electoral votes in the states of Nevada, Idaho, North Dakota, Colorado, Kansas and a faithless electoral vote from Oregon.
While the Democratic party would soon adopt the populist ideas in the following elections, the performance by Weaver and the People’s Party in 1892 made them the only third party to get electoral votes between 1860 and 1912.
2. Ross Perot:
Independent and Reform Party (1992 & 1996)
In February of 1992, a Texas billionaire and businessman named Henry Ross Perot appeared on Larry King Live and announced his decision to run as an independent candidate in the upcoming 1992 election, provided his supporters could be able to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states.
Perot may have been a conservative but he ran on a mostly Populist agenda which included things like opposing NAFTA and the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas, balancing the federal budget, gun control and the implementation of what is now referred to as Digital/E-Democracy in town halls.
At one point Perot was polling around 39% of the vote compared to Bill Clinton and George HW Bush who had 29% and 31% respectively, but in July Perot made the unexpected decision to withdraw from the race over the belief that the Bush administration would release doctored photos that would ruin his daughter’s soon-to-be wedding.
However, Perot got back into the race in October just a month after he got qualified to be on the ballot in all 50 states. Perot became the first and only 3rd Party Presidential Candidate to participate in the Presidential Debates alongside his Democratic and Republican opponents and by the end of the 1992 election, Perot didn’t get any electoral votes but did pull a tremendously large amount of the popular vote for a 3rd Party Presidential Candidate, getting 18.9%.
Perot would run again in 1996 as the first candidate for the newly created “Reform Party”, but due to ballot laws being changed to stake the deck against the 3rd Party Presidential Candidates, his support wasn’t as strong as before but he did get 8.4% of the popular vote which is still high for someone not running as a Democrat or Republican.
1. Teddy Roosevelt:
Progressive/Bull Moose Party (1912)
While many of the names I’ve mentioned on this list many have done well for themselves either from a popular or electoral vote perspective, the undisputed gold standard of a successful 3rd Party Presidential Candidate can be seen with Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912.
Following his decision not to seek another term, the former POTUS chose his protégé and the Secretary of War, William Howard Taft to continue his progressive ideals following Taft’s decisive victory in 1908 however many progressives and Roosevelt himself were disheartened by Taft’s more conservative ways of governing as the commander and chief which lead to Teddy challenging Taft in the 1912 Republican Primaries.
Despite winning more primaries and getting more of the delegates, the GOP establishment at the time controlled the convention so much that it was seemingly obvious that William Howard Taft would get the party’s nomination; This led to Roosevelt and his supporters to create ‘The Progressive Party’ also known as ‘The Bull Moose Party’ after a response Teddy gave to the newspapers claiming he felt as strong as a Bull Moose.
Roosevelt and his progressive Bull Moose Party went up against not only Taft and the Republicans but also Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson and Socialist Party nominee, Eugene Debs in an exciting four-way race for the presidency.
While Roosevelt didn’t win the election, his performance set a record that will never be broken in the history of presidential elections as Roosevelt came in second place with 88 electoral votes and 27% of the popular vote making Teddy the only 3rd Party Presidential Candidate to ever come in second place in a presidential election as Taft came in third with 8 electoral votes and 23% of the popular vote.
Roosevelt’s shocking success as a 3rd Party Presidential Candidate in the 1912 election can be seen as one of the greatest by a politician not running with either of the two major parties and for that, Theodore Roosevelt easily takes the top spot on this list.