Third Parties In The United States Research Paper

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A third party is any political party in the US political system other than one of the two major parties. The term is applied generically to all such minor parties, regardless of reputation or record. There are many third parties in the USA. In 1996, for example, presidential candidates for the Reform and Libertarian parties appeared on ballots in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, the Natural Law Party’s candidate made it onto 45 ballots, the candidate for the US Taxpayers Party was on 41 ballots, and the Green Party’s candidate appeared on 24 ballots. Candidates from 11 other parties were listed on the ballot in at least one state. Moreover, 1996 was not an unusual year. In almost every election many candidates appear on the ballot (Rosenstone et al. 1984, pp. 231–5).

Although there are many political parties in the USA, the US political system is correctly classified as a two-party system. The same two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have held dominant positions since 1860. Third-party candidates win remarkably few elections. In 2000, none of the 100 US senators was elected from a third party, and only one of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives was a member of a third party—Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a socialist elected as an in- dependent. Only two of the 50 state governors were elected as something other than a Republican or a Democrat (Angus King, an independent in Maine, and Jesse Ventura, from the Reform Party in Minnesota), and of the 7,524 state legislators, only 20 were elected from third parties.

The USA has a two-party system for several reasons. The most compelling is the single-member, plurality electoral system used in the vast majority of elections. Under these rules the US House of Representatives, for example, is divided into 435 districts. Each district elects only one representative. The winner in each district is the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes. Third-party candidates almost never succeed under such rules, and a stable two-party system emerges. The generalization that a country with a single-member, plurality electoral system develops a two-party system is called Duverger’s Law after the person who first noted it (Duverger 1959).

The two-party system’s stability has been reinforced over the years by laws passed by institutions controlled by the major parties that limit the ability of third parties to compete successfully for votes. Ballot access rules, for example, virtually assure that candidates from the two major parties will appear on them, but often make it very difficult for candidates from other parties to be listed. Indeed, at times during the twentieth century some states employed laws that, in effect, guaranteed the two major parties ballot listings in perpetuity. A 1949 law in Florida, for example, stated that any party that had elected a president since 1900 would automatically qualify for the ballot, something that only the Democrats and Republicans had accomplished. That law was repealed in 1977. Most states now grant ballot access to parties based on their candidate surpassing some threshold percentage of votes in a specified earlier election, typically a gubernatorial election. The other route to gaining ballot access is through a petition drive. Such petitions require the signatures of some specific number of citizens or, in some states, registered voters. The number of required signatures varies by state. The higher the number of signatures required, the greater the obstacle to getting a third-party candidate on the ballot. As Lewis-Beck and Squire (1995) have shown, the difficulty in getting a third-party candidate on the ballot increases with the political stakes in a state. Thus, the states with the greatest number of electoral college votes are those with the most stringent ballot access requirements.

Most American states ban fusion candidacies, another restriction that hampers the ability of third parties to become competitive. Fusion is the process allowing a candidate to appear on the ballot as the nominee of more than one party. In the state of New York, for example, a candidate can be the nominee of more than one party. Thus, a candidate nominated by the Republican Party also can be the nominee of the Conservative Party. Fusion enhances the prospects for third parties by allowing them to associate themselves with popular candidates, and perhaps increase their vote totals over what they would otherwise have gotten. Increased vote totals can matter because they are often the standard used to determine ballot access in the next election. The United States Supreme Court in a 1997 decision, Timmons vs. Twin Cities Area New Party, upheld the constitutionality of the state of Minnesota’s law prohibiting party fusion.

Finally, campaign finance laws work to the benefit of the two major parties and to the detriment of third parties. In presidential campaigns, for example, the law provides direct financing for the general election campaigns of the Democratic and Republican candidates. Third-party candidates, however, are often in the position of not qualifying for any public financing, or only qualifying after the fact—based on the percentage of votes they receive in the general election. Without the same access to campaign funds as the major parties, third-party candidates find it difficult to make their case to the voters.

There also are informal norms in US politics that work against third parties. Third-party candidates are rarely accorded the same level of news coverage as major-party candidates. Similarly, third-party candidates are often excluded from candidate forums and debates sponsored by civic organizations and the media. Exclusion is usually justified on the basis of the lack of public support for or interest in third parties and their candidates. Such exclusion, however, prevents third parties and their candidates from publicizing their policy positions, keeping them from possibly expanding their meager bases of support.

The first third party was the Anti-Masonic Party, formed in 1827 in response to concerns about the supposed influence of Freemasons on US government. The Anti-Masonic Party lasted only a few years before merging with one of the then major parties, the Whigs, in 1838. During its brief life, the Anti-Masonic Party made one enduring contribution to US politics: they were the first party to hold a national convention, an innovation immediately adopted by the major parties and which they continue to use today.

Third parties became more prevalent on the national political scene during the second half of the nineteenth century. Notable among them were the Greenback Party, the Populist Party, and the Prohibition Party. The Greenback Party existed from 1874 to 1888. It was formed to promote the continued issuance of paper currency (popularly referred to as ‘greenbacks’) as a means to increase inflation and thereby lighten the debt burden carried by mid-western farmers. Although the party managed to win some seats in the US House of Representatives, support for it declined after a different inflationary scheme, one calling for the free issuance of silver coins, came into vogue.

The push for ‘free silver’ resulted in the establishment of another third party in the early 1890s. Formally called the People’s Party, but more commonly referred to as the Populist Party, this group worked to represent the interests of farmers and the emerging industrial working class. Among the policy positions they espoused in their 1892 platform were free silver, government ownership of the railroads, a graduated income tax, the direct election of US senators, and an eight-hour day for industrial workers. The party enjoyed some success in the 1892 election— their presidential candidate, James Weaver of Iowa, won 22 electoral votes—but that proved to be its high-water mark. By 1896 the Democrats had adopted many of the Populists’ positions, and the party ended up supporting the Democrat’s presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The Populists ran their own presidential candidates in 1904 and 1908, but ceased to function as a political party after that point in time.

Although many third parties existed during the twentieth century, they were, in most instances, qualitatively different from those in the nineteenth century. As Rosenstone et al. (1984) observed, third parties in the nineteenth century were organized around specific issues and ideologies. The two incarnations of the Prohibition Party, for example, were formed to push a specific issue, the prohibition of production and consumption of alcohol. In contrast, most twentieth century third parties were centered on particular personalities rather than policies. The three Progressive Parties demonstrate this point. The first Progressive Party was created in 1912 to support Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to recapture the presidency. Also called the Bull Moose Party, this version of the Progressives gave its 1916 nomination to the Republican Party’s candidate, and then, in effect, disappeared from the political scene. The Progressive Party re-emerged in 1924, uniting with another third party, the Socialist Party, in support of Robert La Follette’s campaign for the White House. The last significant appearance of the Progressive Party label was in 1948, when former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace ran as the party’s candidate for president. Although there were some common policy themes across the three major Progressive Parties, there were also significant differences, and there was virtually no organizational continuity. All three efforts were driven by well-known political personalities and after each of them failed to win office, the party, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

The major third-party efforts in the second half of the twentieth century were all personality driven. George Wallace’s impressive performance in the 1968 election led to the formation of what is now called the American Independent Party. But without the former Alabama governor on the ballot the party has never again been taken seriously. Of all the third-party efforts in the twentieth century, perhaps only the Reform Party, created primarily through the efforts of 1992 and 1996 presidential candidate Ross Perot, has any chance to become established as a significant political force independent of the personality around which it was first built.

What role do third parties play in US politics? There is little evidence that significant third-party challenges bring more Americans to the polls. In 1948, for example, voters were offered two serious third-party candidates (Governor Strom Thurmond, of the States’ Rights Democrat (Dixiecrat) Party, and the Progressive Party’s Wallace). Voter turnout that year was almost five percentage points lower than in 1944 when no significant third-party efforts were mounted. Similar patterns held in 1968 and 1980 when important third-party candidates ran, but voter turnout fell compared to the previous election. Only Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign was associated with an increase in turnout, an almost five-point gain over 1988. But his presence in the 1996 campaign failed again to increase turnout. In fact, participation declined more than five points.

There are, however, two important contributions third parties make to the US political system. First, they offer voters a way to express dissatisfaction with the two major parties and their candidates. Second, third parties are vehicles for promoting issues and policies that the major parties may ignore. If the issues raised by third parties resonate with the public, the major parties are apt to embrace them. Many of the policies espoused by the Populist Party, for example, proved popular and were commandeered by the major parties. Thus, although the Populist Party disappeared from the political landscape, a number of the ideas it brought to the political debate were later enshrined in law.


  1. Duverger M 1959 Political Parties. Wiley, New York
  2. Lewis-Beck M S, Squire P 1995 The politics of institutional choice: Presidential ballot access for third parties in the United States. British Journal of Political Science 25: 419–27
  3. Rosenstone S J, Behr R L, Lazarus E H 1984 Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  4. Timmons, vs. Twin Cities Area New Party 1997 520 U.S. 351
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