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Many people say that voting for a 3rd party in a presidential election is pointless. And under the rules, this is pretty true as it is a winner takes all system.

The Senate and House of Representatives are different. 3rd parties can arguably make a big difference here - especially if they get the balance of power, they would have tremendous leverage on each vote.

If 3rd parties do want to make an impactful difference, why would they be running for the presidency instead of concentrating all their effort on running for a house or senate seat. It would be an easier ask and cheaper to win just one state race instead of a majority of states across the country.

However, there are 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate, and the House of Representatives is mostly Democrats or Republicans as well. Contrast that to Australia (link); there are 7 parties holding seats in the Senate.

Why aren't we seeing more 3rd parties in the US Congress?

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In many other democracies, where third parties are more common, you tend to get the following sequence:

  • Elections happen.
  • If some party has an outright majority, they take control, nice and easy.
  • But sometimes nobody does. Any change in leadership is a simple majority vote in the chamber. So the parties start negotiating between each other to see if they can form a coalition. Smaller parties essentially promise to support bigger party X (and/or leader Y) as the leader of the chamber/government, and in exchange they get certain positions of power, and/or legislative promises and concessions, etc.
  • As long as an agreement can be struck between a majority of voters in the chamber, the new leading party/member is then determined.

But the US system essentially does this in reverse. Politicians and political hopefuls seek out which group of people they're willing to work with and compromise with from the start. This will form their coalition, either the ruling one if they're in the majority or the opposition coalition if not. As any coalition system devolves into "Coalition that has the majority" versus "Everybody else", two pre-constructed coalitions naturally arise. These are our Democratic and Republican parties. They don't really resemble the parties in other democracies, like the UK and Italy, say. They are assemblages of diverse interests, where members may frequently have strongly divergent opinions on certain issues. If you listen to much of US politics, you may hear terms like "Tea Party Republicans" and "Fiscal Conservative Republicans", etc. come up, which reflect that the Republican party is really a coalition of several parties (the same holds for the Democrats; AOC has been known to say that in any other country she and Pelosi would not be in the same party). They are maintained as a cohesive entity in much the same ways as coalitions are elsewhere: you get a little bit more power and a stronger support network in exchange for compromises and support on certain legislation.

In short, we construct our coalitions first, and then hold the elections to figure out which coalition is going to be in the majority. As such, third parties are rather superfluous, and serve little purpose other than to make it clear to the two main parties that they may need to shift their goals and priorities a bit to achieve a majority. And if they do so, the third party ceases to have a reason to exist, as its core issues and supporters will have been integrated into one of the main two parties. A few are able to make principled stands and sustain a political career as "Independents" (or proper third parties, at the state and local levels), though they are the exceptions. They still end up picking a coalition to side with so that they can have the influence and power necessary to advocate for their constituents; they simply choose to not label themselves with that coalition's name.

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We have a plurality voting system, which makes it harder for third party candidates to win elections. However, third parties have significant power in other countries that use plurality voting systems, such as Canada. I think one of the main explanations for this is how we conduct our presidential elections - the electoral college. While there are 435 US Representatives, and 100 Senators, there's only one president. This is important because control of one congressional district possibly based on third party votes is less important than if a presidency could be decided by third party votes - thus, I would argue, making people more likely to vote for one of the two main parties who have a viable path to winning. I think this continues to perpetuate the close to irrelevancy of third party candidates, because it's very difficult for them to grow to a point of relevancy (this entire answer may or may not make sense.)

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