In the United States, because of the two party system, it is infeasible for somebody who isn’t an incumbent president to win an election without being part of either the Democratic or Republican Party.

A political independent might choose to try and run as a member of that party using their platform to gain attention and increase chances of winning the election, while not having any of the same principles as the party itself. Is there anything the political party could do to prevent this?

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    "it is infeasible for somebody who isn’t an incumbent president to win an election without being part of either the Democratic or Republican Party" – There was a guy named Donald Trump who tried it five years ago. Anybody know what happened to him? Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 2:06
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    Democrats? Trump seems like the answer to this Q. He was a lifelong democrat/independant up to 2012 with non-Republican views. Nothing prevented him. Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 5:27
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    @yay he ran as a republican... but, like Bernie Sanders and other independants... he wasn't really a "republican" or a "democrat". The reason so many republicans don't like him is precisely this question - his "republican" ways are strong in some areas... and very tenuous or non-existant in others.
    – WernerCD
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 5:39
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    Something I see being missed in a lot of the answers is that ideoglical polarization in parties is a very recent thing. For about a century until the 80s/90s parties in the US were mixes of all sorts of different beliefs and nobody cared. Dems being "left" and Republicans being "right" and basically every issue falling into one of those two ideas is very new thing -- this question wouldn't have made any sense in say, 1965.
    – eps
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 12:59
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    @eps that sounds pretty interesting, can you list a source so I can read up some more on this? Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 13:06

6 Answers 6


Primaries. Each party (usually - exact election mechanics vary depending on election locality and office; the rest of this answer assumes Presidential election) has its own primary "election" in the lead-up to the actual election where they decide which candidate they will endorse in the upcoming election. Typically, they choose to back someone who is a known and established member of their party. Generally (although not always), once the party has held a primary and chosen a single candidate to support, all other candidates affiliated with that party will withdraw from the race and publicly voice support for that candidate. (Note that this sort of makes American elections look like sports tournaments, where you must win in the first round(s) to proceed to the championship game, even though winning, or even participating in, a party's primary is not required for election to any office)

There are currently only a couple very large and influential parties in the US. Winning support from one of them in this fashion is a highly effective way to increase your chances of getting elected. For this reason, candidates who are not members of a party will sometimes do exactly what you have proposed, with varying degrees of success. For example, in 2016, there were two high-profile examples of this. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders attempted to run on the platform of one of the major parties and campaigned in their primary, although they ended up backing a different candidate. Businessman Donald Trump did the same with another major party, and actually got their backing. In both these cases, the rest of the candidates largely cooperated and supported their parties' preferred candidates.

As far as running in an election without official support from the party, a candidate usually just needs to register as a member of the party and promote themselves as such. Likely they would try to win any primary that may happen. If they lost such a primary but chose to continue campaigning for office rather than backing down, the only thing the party can really do is enthusiastically support their preferred candidate, and make it clear who it is they actually endorse.

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    I do believe that some states disallow people who lost a primary to run in the general, I think California is one. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 16:13
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    @AzorAhai-him- Yep. As a category, they're called "sore loser" laws. This page has a state-by-state list.
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 17:01
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    Note also that, for example, California's primaries work differently: Every candidate can declare whatever party affiliation they like, all candidates appear together on a single ballot, and then the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election. This is not done for Presidential elections, but it is the rule for all other statewide elected offices in California.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 20:51
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    Well, as a well-known Senator Bernie Sanders has long caucused with the Democrats and had ideas that "aligned with the Democratic Party". Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 5:34
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    You answer "primaries", but there are also caucuses, which tend to have voters who are more loyal to their party than those of primaries. Don't forget that the first contest of the presidential race -- which often weeds out many candidates -- is the Iowa caucus.
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 13:10

What prevents them is voters, which is an imperfect mechanism and occasionally leads to embarrassing things like ultra-conservative Lyndon Larouche candidates winning the Democratic primaries for Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State in 1986. In this instance, it was speculated that it was a consequence of low-information voters picking the simple-sounding Anglo-Saxon names of Fairchild and Hart over Sangmeister and Pucinski. More recently, a Holocaust denier won the Republican primary in Illinois's 3rd district.

On the flip side, it's arguable that Trump's campaign for president was a successful instance of someone taking over the party apparatus for something counter to the party's values. One could claim that Trump's nativism and racism are aligned with the party, but other policies, most notably trade, but also on many international relations issues, were directly counter to what the party believed in.

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    The last sentence could be more prominent? R's are for free trade, Trump was for tarrifs and cancelled the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement. R's like NATO, Trump mocked them. R's like overseas military bases, Trump pulled out. I think he started out for gun control. R's are tough on crime. Trump jumped on commuting sentences. R's like balanced budgets. Trump didn't think it was a big deal. Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 5:49
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    @OwenReynolds yet the R's started following whatever Trump said after he said it. Weird. Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 10:21
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    @user253751 What if politicians put principles over opportunism? There were only a handful of those in the Republican Party. In the UK (which has a different system), Labour Party elite opposition to Corbyn remained strong throughout his leadership.
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 11:42
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    @gerrit Corbyn never had anywhere near the in-party polling that Trump had, which was basically 90+% his whole presidency. It was really obvious exactly what would happen to you if you opposed him, meanwhile corbyn was never feared in that way. In both cases politicians were responding to incentives that were given to them. What is the point of principals if you have no power to enact any of them, just the opposite in fact -- by falling on the sword you lose your seat at the table and have actually eliminated any chances of even having the chance to guide policy more to your liking.
    – eps
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 12:46
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    Art Jones only "won" the IL 3rd District Republican Primary spot in 2018 because he was completely unopposed. He was also thoroughly denounced by that same party at that time and has lost every election he's been in since the 1970s that actually had an opponent. As much as political parties deserve grief, at least make sure it's factual and fully informed grief.
    – CitizenRon
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 21:16

Generally speaking there is nothing that physically or legally prevents this. However, the whole point of primaries and other nominating processes is, in part, to perform exactly this filtering.

Primary elections are frequently contested affairs with candidates campaigning directly against each other - including doing opposition research on each other. To the extent that someone runs as a 'Democract' and espouses things that the local party constituency finds ideological abhorrent or even just incoherent, they will fail to attract votes in the primary which favors more ideologically severe outcomes (usually, some states have primary election laws that distort the concept of 'primary').

This leaves someone keeping their actual views secret and basically flat-out lying as to what they believe in order to garner votes. Setting aside for the moment that such a person is basically the only-half-sarcastically-held archetype of 'politician' in the US, it is extremely hard for someone like this to succeed in the deception without literally having lived their entire life up to that point with that goal in mind: sooner or later someone will discover the parts of their past that tell the story of their beliefs and put that in a campaign ad.

It is important to note, however, that the ultimate gatekeeper here is the constituency itself. For example: Joe Manchin is the Democratic senator from West Virginia, but his political positions would put him squarely in the Republican party's sweet-spot in California. What passes as a Democrat in West Virginia doesn't necessarily match what someone in Massachusetts thinks of as a Democrat. This happens even at the state level. I live in Massachusetts, and while our legislature is nominally a Democrat supermajority, the truth is many of the elected Democrats are politically extremely Conservative. But the simple act of identifying as Republican in Massachusetts means you have an uphill fight to win a general election at all.

Political identity is a weirdly fluid, and often incongruent thing. But to the extent that it exists and can be defined, it's policed by the constituent body that does so. Could someone fool everyone? Sure. Is it likely? No. And their political support would evaporate the instant they dropped the charade, so there comes a point where you have to ask: how would this materially change anything, even if they did?

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    How about someone who historically doesn't appear to have any personal political philosophy, but is willing to espouse the platform of a party that will have him. They couldn't get elected President, could they?
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 15:10
  • They could, but it would be much harder for them to do so. Generally speaking, voters are skeptical of people who have no personal philosophy - but there's nothing mechanically preventing them. It's hard to sell voters on a platform of "you don't hate me" unless the field is desperately underpopulated. Someone with a history of doing/saying the right things is much more likely to prevail against them. And if they go against the platform they espouse once their in office? They will not be reelected. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 15:15
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    @Barmar I see what you did there...
    – Caleth
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 16:03
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    @Caleth Yes. Recent events have made me cynical of traditional assumptions about the voters.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 16:06
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    One other question you could add to the final point: If someone does manage to successfully fool everyone, and they don't drop the charade, is that any different from genuinely holding those beliefs?
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 17:09

A party is different from the individuals that comprise it. And the platform of a party is often different from the platforms of the politicians that lead the party. A party allows a spectrum of opinion whilst subscribing to some basic essential principles.

It is part of politics to learn the art of compromise and the art of not compromising, this is part and parcel of a political education. This takes time as one needs to learn how institutions work. It is also part of the art of leadership.

What you are specifically asking about is the role of gatekeepers in the party machine. They in effect vet politicians to see that they conform to the basic principles of the political party in question. This is not generally a formal vetting procedure but works in often quite complex and opaque ways but also in some clear and public ways when for example, a recognised politician or respected figure in the party endorses another, especially an upcoming figure, in a public and transparent manner.

This is why Trump was such an abberation, as he was catapulted into politics on the back of his tv reality show without taking the trouble of working his way up through the usual gauntlet of gatekeepers that politicians have to run.

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    This is the correct answer, i.e. that the whole question is based on a false premise that parties comprise some actually coherent view/platform instead of being an aggregation of individuals with only somewhat overlapping agendas. Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 9:51

Nothing prevents this, other than the likelihood that the candidate will not get enough support, and ultimately votes, to win the primary & general elections. But it can happen, if the candidate can muster enough resources. We really don't have to look further than the election of Donald Trump, despite many of his positions being opposed to long-held Republican values.

Or if you must insist on Democrats, consider Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and others who would be unlikely to be supported by most Democrats, given a reasonably palatable alternative.

  • It's difficult to see how someone competing in a primary against a 10 term incumbent can be described as lacking a "reasonably palatable alternative".
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 10:39
  • @Jontia: No? Being a "a 10 term incumbent" is enough by itself - why else is there such great public support for term limits?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 16:23
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    Not enough public support to remove the 50 congress members with over 20 years served.
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 16, 2021 at 18:14

It isn't impossible for a third-party or independent candidate to win a Presidential election. However, it is very unlikely for several reasons.

First, a candidate needs lots of media attention in order to win. If the major news media organizations (Fox News, CNN, CNBC, NBC News, etc.) don't mention a candidate frequently, most voters won't know he exists. As a result, he will not be able to gain even a fraction of the votes needed to win.

So how does a candidate win media attention? By running advertising. When a candidate runs television, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube advertisements, voters hear about the candidate and wonder who he is. As a result, they expect media organizations to discuss his candidacy.

Because of this, the media will discuss him or her. They may discuss the candidate negatively or positively. But it makes little difference. As long as the media talks about the candidate, he or she will be considered "serious" and will get more votes.

This leads to the second problem: money. A candidate needs millions of dollars to run the advertising needed to be considered "viable" and to get media coverage. If a candidate is a third-party candidate or independent, most big businesses and PACS will consider her to be "unviable" right off the bat. As a result, they will not contribute to her and she will not have money to run ads. Because of this, the media will not report on her. This lack of media reporting will be seen by donors as confirming that she is "unviable" and therefore should not be contributed to.

This will result in a vicious cycle that prevents her candidacy from ever gaining traction.

You might assume that a candidate could get around this by possibly having one big donor with lots of money. However, campaign finance laws prevent this from happening because donations from a single donor are capped. This ensures that only major party candidates with lots of business connections can run successfully.

This leaves only one possible avenue for an independent candidate: be rich. If a candidate is personally wealthy, he can get around the single donor limits. This is because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a limit on personal contributions to one's own candidacy is a violation of freedom of speech.

However, a third party candidate who uses his own wealth to run will encounter extreme opposition from the established businesses and political institutions. Donors of both political parties will spend tens of millions of dollars on ads claiming that the independent will cause the other party's candidate to win. So Democrats will engage in an all-out propaganda campaign to tell voters that a vote for this independent candidate will result in the Republican winning. Meanwhile, Republicans will engage in an all-out propaganda campaign to tell voters that a vote for this independent candidate will result in the Democrat winning.

As a result, most of the media coverage will revolve around the question of whether a vote for the independent candidate is a "wasted vote," and the candidate will be unlikely to win.

Its important to remember that the U.S. does not have run-off elections like France. So if no candidate wins a majority in a particular state, there is not a second round of voting to determine who the voters wanted to win. Instead, 100% of the electoral votes go to whichever candidate has a plurality.

For example, if the vote count in Ohio is 40% for the Democrat, 41% for the Republican, and 19% for the Independent, the Republican gets 100% of the electoral vote from Ohio. This is true even though 59% of the voters in Ohio did not prefer the Republican when polled.

Extrapolate this result to the entire country and you can easily end up with a President winning who has 41% of the national vote (or less). For this reason, voters are understandably fearful of voting for a candidate if the media says that he or she will definitely lose. They don't want the President to be elected by a statistical accident.

Still, an independent candidate can win if he 1. is independently wealthy and 2. can convince voters either that the Democrat absolutely can't win or that the Republican absolutely can't win.

This is pretty tough to accomplish though because, unlike the independent, the Republican and Democratic candidates have been subjected to a grueling open primary season in which they have proven that they can win over and over again across many different states.

For this reason, a Presidential win by an independent or third-party candidate is unlikely, although still not impossible.

  • Note I didn’t say “impossible” I said “infeasible.” Also, this answer, while being quite helpful and interesting, doesn’t actually answer my question (not trying to be mean, just providing constructive criticism for the future), you might want to check out politics.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 2:23

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