Why America Will Never Have a Third Party

Many people clamor for an alternative to the two major parties. “I’m so fed up with both parties,” they say. “What’s the difference between Coke and Pepsi?” Here’s why they’ll never get what they want.

by MATT STOKES | AUGUST 3, 2017

First-Past-the-Post

The United States uses a “first-past-the-post” system of voting. In such a system, a party can win control of a single-member constituency (meaning a congressional district for a congressman, or the entire country for a president) by winning the most votes. In our system, power over single-member constituencies isn’t allocated based on vote share. If, for example, a Republican gets 51% of the votes in a district and the Democrat gets 49%, the Republicans win control of that district, rather than splitting control with the Democrats over the district, 51 to 49. Countries that use proportional representation elections generally do not divide their country into single-member legislative districts, and allocate representation based on party performance in election. If the US used such a system, a nationwide congressional election could wind up with Republicans getting 40% of the votes, Democrats 40%, Libertarians 10%, and the Green Party 10%, and each party would be represented in Congress by that percentage.

Duverger’s law is a political science principle stipulating that first-past-the-post elections generally lead to two-party systems while proportional representation elections give room for additional parties. The barrier for getting a seat at the table is much lower in proportional representation systems, and getting to the table allows marginal parties the chance to grow by attracting more voters and advancing their agendas. With room for only two parties, it becomes nearly impossible for a new party to gain substantial power, especially when the two entrenched parties can alter the rules to further suppress new parties. Even if a third-party candidate won election to Congress, she’d have no same-party colleagues to team up with once there.

The 12th Amendment

The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution requires that presidential candidates obtain a majority of votes in the electoral college to win the election. The difference between majority and plurality is significant here—it means the candidate must receive 50% + 1 of the available electoral votes, which comes to 270. That itself is a tremendous barrier for an upstart third-party candidate, but the way we elect presidents creates another huge barrier. It’s often said that the US doesn’t have one presidential election, it has 51—that’s because each state plus the District of Columbia runs its own election. All but two states (Nebraska and Maine) use first-past-the-post systems for awarding electoral votes, so winning the most votes in a state gets the candidate all of that state’s votes. The most successful third-party presidential candidates have managed to get a huge number of actual votes without it converting into electoral votes—Ross Perot in 1992 won 19% of the popular vote, but it resulted in zero electoral college votes.

But even if a third-party candidate were successful enough to win a significant number of electoral votes, his mere presence in the race makes it likely that none of the three candidates is able to get to 270. And in that case, the Twelfth Amendment says the House of Representatives will pick the winner. Which means that, to win in the House, the third-party will need support from members of Congress who overwhelmingly belong to the two major parties. The third-party candidate wouldn’t stand a chance.

Like Bees

Political scientist Richard Hofstadter famously said, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” A new political party emerges, it develops a popular message, it performs surprisingly well in an election, and then it has trouble repeating that performance in the future because one of the two major parties can easily appropriate the popular message or idea for itself.

However…

Just because there isn’t room for three parties doesn’t mean the United States is stuck with these same two parties forever. Major parties can be displaced, like when the Whig Party collapsed and was replaced by the Republican Party in the 1850s. Granted, 150 years of Democrat/Republican hegemony makes it seem like change is impossible, but there’s no rule that stops one or both of the parties from being replaced by a different party.

To gain that kind of historic traction, a new party would probably have to seize upon a single issue to define itself—especially if that issue is one taken seriously by neither of the major parties. The original Republican Party defined itself by its opposition to slavery. Once again, the problem for any upstart party here would be that its popular policy positions can easily be appropriated by one of the major parties. Take the issue of climate change as an example. If a new party called the Clean Party developed a message and platform devoted entirely to fighting climate change, and this message proved immensely popular with the public, the biggest threat to the Clean Party would be the Democratic Party moving closer to the Clean Party’s climate agenda, siphoning off many if not most of the new party’s supporters. The original Republican Party emerged while the Whig Party was decaying on its own, so a new party would have to combine its popular message with the opportunity presented by either the Democrats or Republicans rotting.

Also However…

We actually kinda sorta already have third parties. They just occur within the existing parties. The Republicans and Democrats each have factions within their ranks, wings of the parties existing on one side the other of the ideological spectrum. The Bernie Sanders ascendancy was, for all intents and purposes, a massively successful third-party presidential candidacy—it just so happened to take place earlier in the election cycle, within one of the parties’ primaries. And what was the Donald Trump campaign if not a hostile takeover by a non-party actor of one of the two parties?

Yeah, it’d be nice if a third candidate actually stood a chance at the final stage of the race. But it’s not as if voters don’t have a number of options throughout the election cycle to support the candidate whose ideas most closely mirror their own.