Third party is a term used in the United States for American political parties other than the Republican and Democratic parties.

What is a fourth party candidate supposed to be?


The Fourth Party System is the term used in political science and history for the period in American political history from about 1896 to 1932 that was dominated by the Republican Party, excepting the 1912 split in which Democrats held the White House for eight years. American history texts usually call it the Progressive Era. The concept was introduced under the name "System of 1896" by E.E. Schattschneider in 1960, and the numbering scheme was added by political scientists in the mid-1960s.1

I've read it in the following articles Third (and fourth) party candidates face challenges for exposure, ballot position , Why Not Third And Fourth Party Candidates For President?.

I can't seem to figure out, from the context what's meant by a fourth party candidate. I guess it's a kind of an overstatement for a candidate from a relatively small third party, as opposed to the bigger ones?

  • 2
    Given that I never heard of the Fourth Party you mentioned, you are probably getting a colloquial third and fourth messed up with a more technical version. In the first article, for example, the third party might be the Libertarians while the fourth might be the Green. – Alonzo Muncy Feb 23 '17 at 21:19
  • 1
    @AlonzoMuncy Okay, so by third party we mean the next biggest party after the Republicans and the Democrats. And the fourth party being the next biggest party. – Mussé Redi Feb 23 '17 at 21:23
  • 5
    Your wikipedia quote is talking about a numbered sequence of relatively stable two party systems in the USA over various historical periods, which differ from each other as to the identities of the two parties in question. This is different from the use orderring the current political parties by size of vote. – origimbo Feb 23 '17 at 21:30
  • @origimbo Spot on. My confusion has cleared up. – Mussé Redi Feb 23 '17 at 21:33

The confusion you have stems from mixing up two absolutely unrelated terms, that are united only in that they have the word "party" in them - as a noun in the first use; and an adjective as a second.

  1. Party lists/counts; and a concept of "Third Party".

    Theoretically, in USA, there can be, and are, many political parties. There are no rules or restrictions on creating a new party.

    Practically, due to FPTP voting, United States has a (mostly) two-party system; in that two main parties (Democrats and Republicans as of 2016) in practice enjoy a nearly unchallenged duopoly on political power.

    E.g., in 2016 elections, while candidates from 4 parties ran for President; the two "main" parties' candidates combined got 96% of popular vote and 100% of electors.

    As such, parties OTHER than the two dominant parties are called "Third party" in aggregate, as in "#1. Democrats. #2. Republicans, and #3. all other minor insignificant parties".

    There's no formal "Fourth" party as a term, or as a concept.

    The expression you saw in those two articles was just some colloquialism that has nothing to do with common political discourse - some writer trying a wise-alec wording, based on word play (correct usage of "third party" as in "all parties other than main two" vs incorrect usage "third" party as in "party #3", which implies that there's also #4).

  1. Totally independently of the first wording, there's a concept of "Party systems" in American political historical analysis.

    Note that in this usage, the word "party" is an adjective used to describe the system, as opposed to a noun as in the usage noted in the first part.

    The concept of "party system" was introduced by English scholar James Bryce in American Commonwealth (1885).

    The "systems" are delineated by a span of years when they are active, for example the Fourth Party System was active in 1896 to 1932

    The "Fourth" here applies to the noun "System", not the adjective "party" - a less confusing alternate expression would be "The fourth system of parties".


The writer's humorous use of "fourth-party candidate" to refer to a fringe-of-the-fringe candidate is similar to how one might refer to a thoroughly obscure or washed-up celebrity as a "D-list celebrity" (or any letter later in the alphabet than about "B").

In the case of the celebrity D-lister, there's really only one (metaphorical) "list" that matters — the "A-list" — and this guy is, like, several lists below that one.

Same thing with a "fourth-party" candidate: this guy's so obscure and hopeless that even the title "third-party candidate" would be high praise.

As user4012 explains very well, the term "Fourth Party System" is unrelated; it means the fourth (in chronological order) "party system", which is a compound noun. It's a term very roughly analogous to the "Fourth Reich" in Germany or the "Fourth Republic" in France.

  • 1
    The Reich numbering system was constructed by the Nazis to legitimize themselves as a successor to previous conquerors. One "reich" doesn't follow the last. The French are simply numbering their formal constitutions. The analogy is too rough to be workable… it might be better to say that the US system allows realignments like parliament/prime minister system, but only much slower. Whereas other democracies can simply elect a new ideology, it takes immense political pressure before Americans implement a new dichotomy. – Potatoswatter Feb 24 '17 at 15:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .