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In the United States, there are 2 major political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. However, not every vote is cast for one of those parties when other candidates run. In presidential elections from 2004 to 2020 (with the notable exception of 2016), 3rd parties have made up from 0.5% to 2% of the vote combined.

But if you break it down by which 3rd party is being voted for, you find something interesting. In every presidential election from 2008 to 2020, the Libertarian Party (the largest right-wing third party) got significantly more (around 3 times more) votes than the left-wing Green Party. You could even see that in Senate races in 2022.

It seems like since 2008, with the possible exception of 2016 (the right-wing Libertarian Party got half of the third party votes even then when a historic number of left-wing 3rd party votes were cast so it could have held true in 2016 too), third party voters seemed to have a conservative bent. Not all small-l libertarians are conservative, but the Libertarian Party leans right decisively.

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    The question seems to imply that left and right-wing support for third-parties in a given period should naturally be balanced. Why assume this? If you drop that unfounded assumption the question raised here is more clear and straightforward: why has the Libertarian Party been the strongest third party in most recent US elections?
    – Brian Z
    Jan 29, 2023 at 20:55
  • @BrianZ This is exactly my question, people join a party because it supports their beliefs and the question of why the right leaning side has more then the left leaning side can be explained as the main parties don't meet the needs of those people.
    – Joe W
    Jan 29, 2023 at 22:17
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    "3rd party" could mean they're in the middle on most issues, they're too far right for republicans, too far left for democrats, they agree on a mix of policies from both sides, they agree mostly with one side except for one or two issues that they consider to be more important. There seems to be too many possibilities to really have much intuition about how to expect such voters to behave.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 30, 2023 at 14:16
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    Closely related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/1084/…
    – user4012
    Jan 31, 2023 at 6:15
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    One could just as easily phrase this as "Why are left-wingers less willing to split off from the Democratic party, compared to right-wingers?" It's not (just) the behavior of the right-wingers that you need to investigate.
    – Kevin
    Feb 1, 2023 at 17:25

8 Answers 8

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Why do 3rd party voters seem to lean right politically?

Given the growing gap between the two major parties, there's room in the middle for a third party. Third parties on the left tend to be even farther left than the Democratic Party. While some third parties that are more likely to associate with Republicans are even further to the right than is the Republican Party as a whole, some lean a tiny bit to the left compared to the right-leaning Republican Party. The graphic below, from a 2014 Pew Research article, shows how the parties in the USA had split between 2004 and 2014.

This image shows how the two major parties were fairly close in 1994 and 2004. By 2014, the parties had definitely split, each being more ideological than they were in the past.

Note that both parties moved slightly to the left between 1994 and 2004. After that, the Republicans moved markedly to the right. This split has continued, with the Republican Party moving even further to the right than it was in 2014. This leaves a gap in the middle that third parties can take advantage of. The third parties associated with the left in the USA such as the Green Party tends to be even further left than the Democratic Party as a whole. There's not much traction here (particularly in the USA, which is a right-leaning nation compared to other developed countries), and thus not many voters. The third parties typically associated with the right in the USA such as the Libertarian Party have at least to some extent taken advantage of that growing gap between the two major parties. There are voters there.

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    1/2 I am very skeptical of 1-dimensional figures to sum-up the parties positions. They make for a simple characterization, but as Abrahm Lincoln said "don't believe everything on the Internet. And make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". See an example of a more proper representation (in this case for the Norwegian landscape): researchgate.net/profile/Rune-Karlsen-2/publication/285893252/… by the way: I am quite sure that Dem and Rep are [continue]
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 31, 2023 at 10:25
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    2/2 Dem and Rep are coinciding on many aspects regarding their political choices (not their proclaimed "values"), making practically no difference --> therefore a 1d simple plot as the one proposed here is enough to cover them ... but it does not cover the spectrum of the possible political parties/choices, therefore there is always a lot of space for other parties, not simply the gap you see in the plot!
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 31, 2023 at 10:26
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    @EarlGrey Yes, a one dimensional presentation is perhaps overly simplistic. That said, the US with its deeply entrenched two party system is set up to be a bit one dimensional. Why the two party system is so deeply entrenched is a different question, one that has almost certainly been asked & answered multiple times on multiple parts of the StackExchange network. Jan 31, 2023 at 10:36
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    @DavidHammen I'm firmly of the opinion that a political system using first past the post voting will always eventually devolve into a two-party system.
    – Richiban
    Feb 1, 2023 at 13:04
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    @Richiban Countries with multi-member legislative districts and a prime minister selected by the legislature as the chief executive tend to have lots of parties. Duverger's law says that single member districts using first past the post tend to evolve toward two party systems. and a separately elected president also helps result in a two party system. Having the chief executive elected by the people as opposed to by the legislature helps in this evolution. Essentially the coalitions that form after an election to choose a prime minister happens well before an election in two party systems. Feb 1, 2023 at 13:23
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Another explanation is that the Green Party offers nothing new to the conversation that the Democrat Party doesn't already cover (Green Party politics are well adopted in the Democrat party, so people who would vote based on environmental policies first would be strategically served by voting Democrat, because a Democrat will vote pretty similar to a Green, but can win.). The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, actually has criticism against the Republican party AND promote themselves as a middle ground between both parties (The quick summery of their politics is "Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative".). Among their big complaints against the Republican Party is that they value "Minarchist" government approach, which basically holds that they don't favor expansion of Government power, or even a shrinking of government power (though they do not support an anarchist state.). The other big complaint is that they tend to oppose using government as a cudgel against a perceived morality. To them, what two consenting adults do is between them so long as neither party harms another (harms typically include protection of civil rights, property rights, and body autonomy). They also maintain that the sole duty of any government is to protect the people from "harm."

(At this point, it should be pointed out that in the U.S. the Term "Libertarian" was adopted to be synonymous with "Classical Liberalism" which is a major philosophical principal found in the founding documents of the United States and was done so specifically to avoid the term "Liberal" when describing their political philosophy, as by that point the term was synonymous with the American Left. The term was borrowed from the French coined term which was used to discuss Anarchist philosophy when it was illegal to use the term Anarchist in France. American and European Libertarianism are two very different political philosophies, with American Libertarianism viewing an organized government as a necessary evil, but one that should be given enough power to do it's job and no more.).

Edit: It should be pointed out, that there is a Libertarian Wing in the Republican Party (Ron Paul, and to a lesser degree his son Rand Paul, are both self-avowed ideological Libertarians who were elected on Republican tickets.). It should also be pointed out that the spike of Third Party votes in the 2016 presidential elections was largely due to neither Republican or Democrat candidates for that year being wholly beloved by their party's base and some voters who are of the "opinion that it's really a contest between the lesser of two evils decided that both of the big two really were equally terrible options for different reasons.

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    There's likely also a fairly large small-"l" libertarian wing of Republican voters - likely far larger than Libertarian party's voting base and probably far larger than "libertarian" base of R politicians is on the official level. Because most libertarians are sane enough to recognize that in real US political system; any vote for Libertarian party (not R), is effectively a vote to help Democrats win. Thanks to FPTP.
    – user4012
    Jan 31, 2023 at 6:11
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    "...Green Party politics are well adopted in the Democrat party..." - from most everything I have read, this statement is not factual. Do you have a source for this claim? Jan 31, 2023 at 9:29
  • The Democrats are probably more green than the Trump Republicans (issues like oil drilling, environmental protection, renewable generation, support for electric cars, etc), but that doesn't mean much - it requires evidence to show that e.g. voting Democrat would implement any of the main planks of the Green Party platform.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 31, 2023 at 10:56
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    I thought libertarianism was inherently quite extreme, equating taxation with theft and believing oceans should be private property. Am I wrong? Should I rather compare the US libertarian party with, say, the UK Liberal Democrats or the German FDP?
    – gerrit
    Feb 1, 2023 at 7:10
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    @hszmv The reasoning I've heard is "if oceans were private property, the owner would have an incentive to take good care of it so we would not have an ocean pollution problem"
    – gerrit
    Feb 1, 2023 at 18:38
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Is that always true? Ralph Nader's 2000 run is widely believed to have siphoned enough votes from Dems to let Bush win.

Sure, if you count from 2004 on, you have the effect you state.

And, in a way (contentious - see comments below), the Bernie Sanders primaries run in 2016 can be viewed by some to be pretty close to being a 3rd party run: Sanders is not a registered Democrat and many of his supporters reportedly sat out the actual election and 10% voted Trump.

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    This in no way answers the question.
    – Boba Fit
    Jan 29, 2023 at 21:40
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    @BobaFit It certainly does answer the question, in a frame challenge sense of answering the question. Jan 29, 2023 at 21:59
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    @DavidHammen No, it talks dismissively about the period before the OP's time range. Then it takes issue with a comment by somebody else. Then makes irrelevant comments about Canada. There is no attempt to answer the question.
    – Boba Fit
    Jan 29, 2023 at 22:40
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    @BobaFit I see this answer as a frame challenge
    – Joe W
    Jan 29, 2023 at 23:44
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    Sanders was nothing like a third-party run. He's always caucused with the Dems, he's more like a traditional Democrat than the post-Bill-Clinton mainstream of the party, and blaming him or his supporters is a feeble excuse by Hillary and establishment party supporters who don't want to admit they screwed up and lost to Trump. 10% crossover for a losing primary candidate is much BELOW average. A much higher percentage of Kasich supporters voted for Hillary, a much higher percentage of Hillary supporters voted for McCain in 2008. Jan 30, 2023 at 16:02
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Here's a small selection of Libertarian views, and a general look at where their views fall (I offer this as a broad generalization for the sake of argument)

I'm sure we could nitpick this (i.e. there are many Libertarians who are pro-life), and mention issues not in the list (it's purely representative), but it's easy to see that Libertarians overall have more in common with the political Right than the political Left. They are independent-minded, however, and do not wish to pigeon-hole themselves into a particular political party.

The rest of the field is too small

Let's take the 2020 Presidential Election popular vote.

Party Votes Overall %
Libertarian 1,865,535 1.18%
Green 407,068 0.26%
Other 649,552 0.41%

If you add everything below the Libertarians up, you get just over 1 million votes. That's just slightly over half the volume of the Libertarians. It's also flawed to do so, because "Other" almost certainly includes write-ins not necessarily part of any party. Bernie Sanders (who is technically an independent despite running for the Democratic nomination) got 619 write-in votes in Vermont. But it also includes oddball votes like Dr. Anthony Fauci (NIH director), with 20 write-ins. And that's just Vermont.

It's thus fair to say that Libertarians dwarf the rest of the third party field. As such, their right-leaning skews it to the Right.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – JJJ
    Feb 1, 2023 at 21:51
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I think this whole question is based on a false assumption.

But if you break it down by which 3rd party is being voted for, you find something interesting. In every presidential election from 2008 to 2020, the Libertarian Party (the largest right-wing third party) got significantly more (around 3 times more) votes than the left-wing Green Party. You could even see that in Senate races in 2022.

The problem here is the contention that the Libertarian Party is "right-wing." Libertarianism by its nature is not wholly right-wing or left-wing but contains elements of both viewpoints. In the context of American politics, it disagrees with the right on social issues like LGBT and drug issues and disagrees with the left on economic issues like tax policy and market regulation. A libertarian is really only "right-wing" from a purely left-wing perspective.

In the context of American politics, it would make more sense to view the Libertarian Party as "centrist." And the best third-party performances by far in recent presidential elections have been centrists. The Reform Party under Ross Perot for example got 19% of the vote in 1992 and then 8% in 1996, and exit polls showed he drew supporters from both parties equally. But then they nominated firm right-winger Pat Buchanan in 2000 and support cratered to 0.4%.

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  • Perot pretty much tanked himself. I seriously thought of voting for him in '92 but didn't. I had no such thoughts in '96. Almost all he had left in '96 were the what I call the "never serious" voters, those who want to tank the system just to spite it. We've had plumbers running (and getting votes) as Libertarian candidate who never had any intention of winning. I'm not denigrating plumbers. I am denigrating the Libertarian Party for not running serious candidates. Jan 30, 2023 at 21:26
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    @DavidHammen - I'm a small "l" libertarian (heck, the only reason I got onto Politics.SE was because I was subscribed to Libertarian.SE on Area51; and CMs merged that into Politics for some stupid reason). And I have never, ever, entertained a serious idea of voting for Libertarian large "L" party in USA, because tactically, they are a joke in a contemporary political system. I strongly suspect there's FAR more libertarians like me voting "R", than Libertarians voting "L"; and as a result a lot of Libertarians and especially their politicians are a bit of a joke
    – user4012
    Jan 31, 2023 at 6:07
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    Perhaps Libertarianism is neither left nor right but self-described Libertarians and Libertarian Parties are usually part of the right wing for some reason. Jan 31, 2023 at 10:24
  • @user253751 The key reason is "first past the post." This, along with other things such as the Electoral College and barriers in many states to getting a candidate's name on the ballot are why the US has a two party system. These can cynically be viewed as the two major parties colluding with one another to ensure there are only two major parties. While Democrats and Republicans might not agree with one another, they do agree that third parties are bad. Jan 31, 2023 at 11:35
  • @DavidHammen that does nothing to address my comment Jan 31, 2023 at 11:36
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The answer is contained in the time period, for the most part.

Expand to include 2000, and you include the election where voters for the Green Party cost Al Gore the election, at least in the common understanding. (This is not necessarily true, but it is a commonly held belief.) See for example This NYT article after the election.

This led to, among other things, some chaos in the Green Party, and a rejection of the "Boston Proposal" (which was an attempt to unify several diverse groups all laying claim to the Green Party name).

It also led to an incorporation in the Democratic Party of several Green Party elements. Prior to 2000, you had the Bill Clinton presidency, which was seen by many as representing the Conservative, or Moderate perhaps, wing of the party; Clinton was seen as more pro-business, for example, than the more progressive wing of the party would have preferred - hence the Green Party opposition in 1996 and 2000.

However, after 2000, both the progressives voting for the Green Party and the Democratic Party leadership recognized that it was preferable for both for the Democratic Party to incorporate some elements of the Green Party platform in its own platform. Now, instead, you have a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which gives voice to these elements.

Each time period there are differences in the third party balance, largely based on reactions to recent past outcomes. Perot in 1992 (more right wing). Look in the 1960s and you see several third-party or independent movements based on the politics of the time (segregationists).

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There are a lot of different factors that go into this, so I just want to mention some aspects unmentioned by other posters.

Take, for example, the long history of repression of radical politics in the United States. Note that this repression has mainly been aimed leftwards. Obviously there isn't a perfect one-to-one correlation between that repression and the votes of left-wing third parties in the 21st century, but it did mean the movements that would've built those parties were weaker than they otherwise would've been.

Add to that background the ending of the fairness doctrine in the 1980s (unlikely to benefit radical left-wing viewpoints, given how the media is financed), and the fact that the US Libertarian Party is far more established than the Greens (by three decades), it should be unsurprising that third party left-wing candidates may disproportionately struggle.

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Because the USA has moved strongly to the left in the last 20 to 30 years.

Here is a WaPo article giving their theories on this. And the Atlantic. And FiveThirtyEight. That last one kind of focusses on only the Democrats, without worrying about whether the Republicans have also shifted left.

Then there are some high profile people leaving the Democratic party. Tulsi Gabbard for example. Dave Rubin another. And Kyrsten Sinema. They have not all wound up in the arms of the Republicans. As Dave Rubin says now and then, you don't have to be a Republican, but you cannot be a Democrat. The position of these folks is something along the lines that they did not leave the Democrats, the party left them.

Third parties tend to cluster around some few "tent post" issues. They hold these up as the thing that unifies them. The Republicans and Democrats have a much stronger tendency to rally around the party as such. This does not mean the third party types are necessarily more principled or any such thing. More that the position the party takes tends to be slower to move. It's more than possible the issues they hold up are as noisome as either of the larger parties. But they tend to stand still with these positions rather than modifying them to catch numbers of people. They will gain new people and lose others as societal positions shift.

The result has been that the two main parties have both shifted substantially leftward, the Democrats somewhat more. The smaller parties that were already toward the left have tended to get swept up with the move. Thus you see several Congress members attending the Social Democrats convention. Bernie and AOC can be in the Democrats, be on committees, even run for POTUS. The leftward smaller parties can get a lot of what they want while making use of the party machinery of the Democrats. They are also having a not-small influence on the future direction of the party, shifting it even farther towards their desired positions.

The smaller parties to the right have been left behind rather than being amalgamated into one of the two big parties.

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    – Philipp
    Jan 30, 2023 at 9:50

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