9

Background

In the history of the United States presidential election, it is exceedingly rare that a third party candidate does anything other than split votes from one (sometimes two) main parties, thus essentially ceding the majority of electoral votes to a candidate most opposite their ideology. You can see this in numerous elections. While occasionally a realignment occurs, statistics are not on the side of the candidate running third party. And this is separate from the phenomenon of little known candidates trying to win a major party's primary. Namely, that winning a primary is an entirely different step from winning a general election.

Question

Given that all modern candidates of note for a third party are aware of the above likelihood of their impact as described above, what is the next main motivation for running as a third party candidate?

  • This question is different from politics.stackexchange.com/questions/9597/… because this question refers to third party candidates, who do not have NO chance of winning, but rather little chance. The other question refers to minor people in a primary who have a little change of winning their party's primary. My question refers to a phenomenon in the general election, not internal to a party. – isakbob Jul 10 at 13:09
  • That's why in other countries there are several voting rounds unless a candidate gets an absolute majority right away. – Trilarion Jul 11 at 21:13
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Here are some reasons for third-party candidacies:

  1. Demonstrate that there is a politically viable ideology that neither of the top two parties is close to. For example, "Socialism" during the 1910s, "Libertarianism" and "Constitutionalism" during the 1970s.

  2. Focus the mandate of whoever wins the election on particular issue(s). The top two parties are broad coalitions with many planks in their platforms. Ross Perot focused the 1992 and 1996 elections on two issues: Getting the federal budget deficit under control, and NAFTA. He wildly succeeded on the first point, and utterly failed on the second.

  3. Demonstrate that there is a path for people with similar identity or ideology to win a party's primary and then win a general election. This strategy hopes to win future elections. By the 1930s, the Socialists had great influence on Roosevelt's New Deal; 1990s Libertarians became the 2000s "Liberty Caucus" within the Republican party.

  4. Demonstrate that an identity or ideology is no longer capable of winning elections at the overall level, and that people who support that party need to secede. The 1860 election was spectacular in this regard: there were 4 candidates, who all claimed to support the Union. Even if all 3 of his opponents' votes had been combined, Lincoln still would have won with less than 40% of the popular vote. The Deep South responded by seceding.

  5. Deliberately throw the election to the opposite party, because the nominee of one's own party is "too extreme", or out of spite at the nominee of one's own party. Such spite can be due to failed negotiations on specific topics, or personal reasons. In the mid-1980s, Bush Sr. and Perot had a falling out over the fate of American soldiers Missing In Action during the Vietnam War. Disputes between Gore and "Greens" over an Ohio incinerator and a proposed airport near the Everglades were important to Nader's success (and Gore's failure) in the 2000 election.

  • 3
    Could you edit this answer with links to the credible sources of these reasoinings? Some I recall offhand from history courses and browsing, but not everyone may be as historically fluent. – isakbob Jul 10 at 17:41
  • @isakbob -- I don't know if the two also-ran Democrats in the 1860 election were deliberately following strategy #4, but it worked out that way. Many countries have secessionist parties that make argument #4. – Jasper Jul 10 at 17:52
  • Regarding point #5: Anderson's 1980 campaign drew support from people who thought that Reagan was "too extreme"; similar dynamics have occurred in recent European elections. There were rumors in the 1990s that Perot's 1992 run was partly motivated by distaste for the Bush clan, and a wish to protect some privileges that were threatened by NAFTA. There were also rumors in 2000 that Nader's run was partly motivated by Gore not supporting a particular environment proposal. – Jasper Jul 10 at 17:59
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Besides nudging the public's window of discourse a bit, (i.e. item #1 in Jasper's answer), there's always the rare hope of:

  • A cascade effect. Just as Internet Memes go from one person's late night mirth, to ubiquitous virality, it's possible that a good political orator, (if any exist nowadays), might become a viraly famous wildcard.
  • A public problem reaching a minimum tipping or breaking point. Some social forces take a while to build up pressure, before which those forces remain invisible and ignored. Prior to that tipping point, a 3rd party candidate who speaks wisely against that specific problem might be easily ignored, but should that candidate happen to be the one voice campaigning about that problem when the problem reaches its breaking point, the public might feel compelled to listen.

Ironically, either of these rare things would soon after the fact seem in public hindsight both obvious and inevitable.

2

There are a few reasons that haven’t quite been mentioned.

Tilt one of the major parties in your direction

One of the features of the two party system in America is that successful third parties or movements that might become a successful third party tend to get incorporated into the coalitions that form one of the major parties. Nobody wants to have a situation where a third party can tip an otherwise-winnable election to the other big party. The easiest way for big parties to prevent that is to give the third party a seat at their table. This is good for the big party because it neutralizes competition, and good for people interested in what the third party wants to achieve because they’ll be vastly more likely to succeed at accomplishing policy goals being part of a big party instead of a third party.

Same reasons as anyone runs a hopeless Presidential campaign

It can be personally profitable to run for President of the United States even if you have no chance of winning. Notable Presidential candidates who gain enough public attention can find themselves in a position to become successful media personalities or are able to pursue other business ventures that otherwise would not be available to them. A notable recent example of this would be Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson, who after obtaining 1% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential election went on to become the CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc.

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