No Other Choices?
In a recently released NY Times/CBS poll, the pollsters told us of what most already are feeling in their gut: the choices for the Oval Office in this coming November are less than compelling. Perhaps, some new faces are what the American electorate needs to reinvigorate the contest.
We think of political battles as waged between two parties. Indeed, for most of our nation's history, two parties have dominated the stage. Today, they are the Democratic and Republican parties; 160 years ago, they were the Democrats and the Whigs. Our perception is the names may change, but the number – at two – remains a constant.
This is true and false. Yes, it is true that in many elections, the two main parties split the vote amongst themselves. But looking back upon our history, there have been many past elections – one within the last twenty years – in which a third-party candidate has garnered a respectable share of the popular vote. This pattern goes in cycles. During times of peace and prosperity, two choices often suffice. In periods of demographic change, cultural turmoil, political tensions, or economic difficulty, we become more receptive to another vantage point or a different message. During such periods, the politics of the fringe moves into the mainstream.
The Progressive Movement in the early quarter of the 20th Century offers an example of how regional or sectarian influences infiltrated both the Democratic and Republican parties and colored their respective Presidential platforms. Robert La Follette is a name some may vaguely recall from high school history. He was a governor of, and then later a Senator from, Wisconsin. During his political career he championed a number of causes, unpopular in his day; most later became accepted policy for both major parties. As governor he championed workmen's compensation, the minimum wage, railroad rate regulation, women's suffrage, and a progressive income tax among other reforms. While not heretical proposals, all encountered stiff political opposition. As a Senator, he persevered in these causes and adopted others as well. Theodore Roosevelt in later years may have decried La Follette as "a skunk" (for his opposition to U.S. entry into World War One), but as President his administration was receptive to a number of Populist and Progressive themes. Williams Jennings Byran, the Democratic standard bearer in the 1896, 1900 and 1908 Presidential elections, was another prominent politician of LaFollette's day who shared many of his concerns and espoused many of his causes.
At the end of his political career, LaFollette made a quixotic bid for the Presidency, running as the Progressive Party candidate in the 1924 election. Although he garnered almost 17 percent of the popular vote, he only carried his native state of Wisconsin.
LaFollette's experience was not unique. In only in a handful of elections in the past one hundred years or so (1892, 1912, 1924, 1948 and 1968) has this enthusiasm for a third-party candidate translated into wins in the Electoral College. Winning a clutch of states in the Electoral College has been a difficult hurdle for most third-party candidates to surmount.
Despite failing in this measure of success, their legacy lingers on. Few today may remember LaFollette, but all Americans benefit from the reforms he championed. So, while he failed in his quest for the White House, he colored the platforms of not just contemporaries but of Presidential contenders in years to come.
Many commentators argue voting for a third-party candidate in a Presidential election is tantamount to throwing away one's vote. They miss the point. Most third-party candidates may have no chance, but they often push the other candidates to a middle ground giving the electorate a better choice. More options often lead to better outcomes.
Results are for Presidential elections after 1832. Prior to 1832, a number of states used other criteria than the popular vote to pick electors to the Electoral College.
Pie chart illustrates the share of the popular vote among the major party and key 3rd party candidates. Map illustrates Elector College results.
(Sources: The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara; David Cushman, US Presidential Elections; AIFS estimates.)
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