One major difficulty in winning election as a third party candidate is the first-past-the-post , winner-take-all system of allocating votes in the electoral college. It tends to support a primary candidate and one challenger, but third party candidates have less ability to get elected.

If the electoral college were proportional by state, however, would that increase the likelihood of electoral success for third party Presidential candidates?

4 Answers 4


In a word, no.

The mechanics of the Electoral College are still designed to give a single candidate a mandate, and a necessary result of that is to marginalize third party candidates. An analysis of third party candidates will show why this is so difficult - Simply put, the margin to achieve an electoral vote anywhere is simply still very high.

Let us look at the 2010 allocation of electoral votes. The minimum amount of votes needed to even get 1 electoral vote, outside of CA, TX, FL, and NY, is still pretty high:

  • (State / Votes / % needed for 1 electoral vote)
  • California 55 2%
  • Texas 38 3%
  • Florida 29 3%
  • New York 29 3%
  • Illinois 20 5%
  • Pennsylvania 20 5%
  • Ohio 18 6%
  • Georgia 16 6%
  • Michigan 16 6%
  • North Carolina 15 7%
  • New Jersey 14 7%
  • Virginia 13 8%

To put this in perspective, let us look at "the 10 most successful third party candidates ever," according to this link. The top four entries, in my mind, do not apply:

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1860) – 39.8% Predates the 2 party system

  2. Theodore Roosevelt (1912) As a former President from a major party, 1912 was really just an intra-party fight that went to the general election.

  3. William Jennings Bryan (1896) – 45.8% My personal hero, alas, he was the nominee of a major party and of two third parties.

  4. Millard Fillmore (1856) A former president who also competed before the two party system.

As such we really have:

  1. Ross Perot (1992) – 18.6% Probably would have earned votes in several states. Assuming equal support in all states, would have only received an electoral vote in states with more than 6 – That’s Utah & up, so, yes, Perot would have gotten several electoral votes, but nowhere near a majority.

  2. Robert LaFollete (1924) – 16.6% Did win 13 electoral votes from Wisconsin, and yes, if support were more even distributed, could have received votes.

  3. George Wallace (1968) – 13.5% Did win 46 votes, mostly in the South. That said, his popularity was concentrated, which in the end, over represented his popular vote.

  4. Strom Thurmond (1948) – 2.4% Did win 39 electoral votes in 4 southern states. Also, w/Harry Byrd in 1960, 14 of 15 votes. Had his support not been so concentrated in the South, however, he wouldn't have gotten any.

Now, we get to the also-rans, and the ones people generally think about:

  1. Ralph Nader (2000) – 2.74% Assuming equal distribution, could have only gotten 1 electoral vote in California. And that would be it.

  2. Ron Paul (2008) – 0.3% Would have gotten no electoral votes, even under this system.

Now, arguably, you would have more of an incentive under a proportional system, but the numbers still bear out how exceedingly difficult being a third party candidate is in a Presidential election. The Electoral College ensures that a President is both deeply and widely acceptable. That's the point - and #3 will always find it difficult to do either, let alone both.

  • 2
    How ever currently voters are deincetivised to vote third party since their is basically no way the vote would matter. If there was equal distribution the deincetivision is much reduced. This could lead to a greater third party vote. Meaning that more people could vote third party, and potentially increasing the total popular vote for the third party. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 19:19
  • 1
    And FYI Lincoln was a 3rd party candidate that broke through the 2 parties that were in power. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 19:20
  • @Chad - I directly stated what you said about disincentives in the summary paragraph! Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 20:05
  • That is not how I read that last paragraph at all. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 21:14
  • 4
    In states that are decidedly red or blue, you should vote 3rd party. Any other vote is a wasted vote.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 3:30

It depends how you define fare better. Most third party candidates are not truly viable candidates but a good third party candidate might pull enough electoral votes to prevent either of its competitors from achieving a majority of the electoral votes as is required by the constitution.

This may be enough to spur the major parties to field good candidates for the country instead of fielding candidates that will be good for the party. Ross Perot, Gary Johnson, and Ralph Nader all had one thing in common. They were running because the major party candidates were (in their opinion) not good for the country. If their potential candidacy spurs better leaders to be chosen by their party, then many of the candidates , and their supporters, would say they fared better.

Another potential is that the third party candidate may play spoiler getting just 30 or so electors. The electoral college will be required to get a majority (270 votes currently) vote for a single candidate. The electors are not required to vote for the person whom they elected to vote for. The electors could decide that since they will never get a majority of the votes for their candidate; and the third party candidate being preferable to the opposition candidate; the third party candidate could get elected despite having the last place total from election day.

  • Also, the third party candidate could direct his electors to vote for one of the two major party candidates in exchange for policy concessions and/or a Cabinet position. Perot in 1992 might well have negotiated with Bush and Clinton - perhaps for the position of Secretary of the Treasury? Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 18:02
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    @RichardGadsden - Which would have turned 90%+ of his supporters against him. The reason Perot had support he did was that people were fed up with the politics as usual. Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 0:58
  • @Chad Yes, it would have cost him - much like the coalition has cost Nick Clegg in the UK. But, also like Clegg, he'd have gained something too, ie the ability to implement some of the policies he ran in the election to promote. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 11:58
  • @RichardGadsden - But it would have basically destroyed the third party. Those of us supporting perot and the reform party were not doing so because we thought the crazy little man needed to be in government. But because he was a real chance to stand up to the elites that run the DNC and RNC and pick basically all of our government now. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 13:16
  • @Chad Destroyed? Yes. And? Have you noticed the state of the Reform Party now? It would have achieved something before its destruction. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 14:09


It's a side effect of the presidency and first-past-the-post voting for Congress. Because you can only vote for one candidate, people tend to pick one of the two most viable candidates. If you pick a less viable candidate, then you can be almost certain that your vote won't count. This is called Duverger's Law.

It would be possible for regional parties to develop. For example, the California Democrats could fracture into moderates and liberals. The moderates might replace the current Republican party in California. However, in some states, this would mean choosing between voting in the primaries for a presidential candidate and local candidates (Congress, state legislature, etc.).

Note that other countries with first-past-the-post voting have parliamentary systems where it's easier for parties to compete regionally. Alliances can be made after the election to determine a prime minister. Whereas in a presidential system, the president is elected as part of the election.

If you wanted to change this behavior in the US, you would want to either eliminate the presidency or implement ranked voting. Either of those things would make it less important that there are only two viable candidates.

Note that proportional electors without ranked voting would increase the chances that the House of Representatives would choose the President. That's the backup plan if no one gets a majority of the electors (270). Obviously three or more candidates with electors increases the chance that there won't be a majority winner. With just two, that can only happen with a tie.


The constitution requires that a candidate gets a majority (not just a plurality) of the electoral college. If no single candidate has a majority, then the president is chosen by the House of Representatives from among the three candidates who achieved the most votes in the college. Each state delegation in the House gets 1 vote.

Several times in recent history the winner of the electoral college has not achieved a majority of the popular vote, and so might not have got a majority in the electoral college.

  • 2016: Trump gets 45%. (He would likely have been elected by the Republican majority in the House)
  • 1992: Clinton gets 43%. (He would probably have won the election in the House, which had a clear Democrat majority)
  • 1968: Nixon gets 43.4% (The House had a small Democrat majority, but the Democrat party was split, and Nixon could have benefitted. The result is unclear.)

So what would the effect be on third parties: If the US system went fully proportional, with proportional election to the House of Representatives, then it is is conceivable that a third party could more easily become a major political force. It would change the whole process of election, giving much more power to the House. The effects would be unpredictable, but one possibility would be a very large number of presidential candidates, with the electoral college acting to reduce these to 3, and the House always being the final decider. This is arguably closer to what the founders envisaged.

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