The recent presidential nomination of former Georgia congressman Bob Barr by the Libertarian Party puts the political periphery on center stage – at least for a few moments - during this already unusual campaign year. While it’s way too early to even speculate about Barr’s prospects for success, we are reminded that our two-party system hasn’t always functioned without would-be spoilers.
Have third-party candidacies ever made much of a difference?
Actually they have – and, what’s more – there’s at least one case where such a candidacy could have made all the difference. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Probably the most famous attempted political end-run in history was made by a former president – that fact itself lending it credibility. When Theodore Roosevelt failed in his attempt to wrest the Republican nomination away from his successor and former friend William Howard Taft in 1912, he bullied his way onto ballots across the nation on the Progressive Party ticket. He lost the election, but finished in second place and ahead of Taft. Of course, he also ensured that the Democrat Woodrow Wilson would receive a plurality and move into the White House.
In 1924, Robert La Follette ran as a progressive, as well. He lost too, and it didn’t make much of a difference to Calvin Coolidge or the country.
The 1948 campaign played out with the kind of drama we are seeing these days as incumbent Harry S. Truman held onto the Democratic nomination in spite of defections from the left and right. Former Vice President Henry Wallace left (far left) the fold to run as a progressive and Strom Thurmond led the segregation-loving Dixiecrats into the fall campaign.
That Truman held on to win a second term is amazing considering the state of his party that year. This should serve as a reminder that party disunity doesn’t necessarily lead to ultimate defeat.
George C. Wallace (no relation to Henry – in fact, no resemblance whatsoever) ran a reasonably effective third-party campaign in 1968, winning five southern states and Ross Perot got a lot of popular votes in 1992 (19% of total) and 1996 (8%). Then there’s Ralph Nader, who captured more than 100,000 votes in Florida in 2000. Few doubt that if he had not run, Al Gore would have received enough of those votes to win the state and therefore the election.
But as I said, there is one third-party candidacy that never actually happened – but could have been very successful if circumstances had allowed it to play out.