United States politics is often characterized as a "two-party" system. For much of its history, these two dominant parties have been the Republican and Democratic party, with the Whigs, Federalists, and Democratic-Republicans dominating portions of its earlier years. Nonetheless, third-party and Independent candidates have also at times fared well as well. This is evidenced by the ten men listed below, who each snagged significant numbers of popular votes, and some from the Electoral College as well, in their respective bids for the White House and US Presidency.
10. William Wirt, Anti-Masonic, 1832 (7 Electoral votes)
In the 1820s, an Anti-Masonic Movement flourished in the United States, fueled by public suspicion in regards to the existence of a secret and powerful fraternal order, namely the Free Masons. The movement was triggered with the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan, who was believed to have been murdered by the Masons for breaking his vow of secrecy and preparing a book. The book supposedly revealed many of the close-kept secrets of the Masonic order. During this time, the Anti-Masonic Party became an influential political party, and were the first American third party to hold a national nominating convention. There, William Wirt was nominated as the Anti-Masonic Presidential candidate for the 1932 U.S. Presidential Election. Though Wirt only won 7 electoral votes in the state of Vermont, and his party fell into decline shortly thereafter, his minor victory is still recorded as one of the most successful U.S. third party ventures in the history of the country’s Presidential elections.
9. Millard Fillmore, American, 1856 (8 Electoral votes)
Millard Fillmore was the 13th U.S. President, and the one who served office between 1850 and 1853. He was also the last U.S. President not to be affiliated with either the Democrats or the Republicans. In 1856, former President Fillmore, then affiliated with the American Party, was nominated as a Presidential candidate for the Presidential elections in 1856. The other two candidates, James Buchanan and John C. Frémont, represented the Democrats and Republicans, respectively. While slavery was an omnipotent issue discussed in the election campaigns of 1856, the American Party decided to largely ignore this issue and instead focus on anti-immigration and anti-Catholic policies. Fillmore also focused on the point that the American Party was the only ‘national party’ in the true sense, as the Republicans were fanatically in favor of the North's interests and the Democrats leaned towards those of the South. However, in the end, Buchanan defeated both Fillmore and Frémont to become the 15th President of the United States. Only 8 electoral votes were won by Fillmore, which was still a significant number when considering the historical stance of third parties in the Presidential elections of the country.
8. John Floyd, Nullifier, 1832 (11 Electoral votes)
The Nullifier Party, a short lived national political party based in South Carolina, was founded in 1828 by John C. Calhoun. It was so named as its members felt that constituent US states should have the right to "null and void" certain Federal legislation. This ranged from slavery laws to the imposition of tariffs and embargoes. The party campaigned for states’ rights and supported the related Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In the 1832 U.S. presidential elections, the Nullifier Party nominated John Floyd, an ally of Calhoun, as the Presidential candidate from the party. Though Floyd suffered defeat in the elections, he still managed to grab 11 electoral votes in the election.
7. Robert La Follette, Progressive, 1924 (13 Electoral votes)
In the 1924 U.S. presidential elections, Robert La Follette, a former Governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906) and a Progressive Party-nominated Presidential candidate, won almost 5 million popular votes, equating to one-sixth of the total votes cast, establishing his name in the list of America’s most successful third party candidates in history. Though he won only 13 electoral votes, and carried just his own state of Wisconsin in the end, he is still remembered for his contributions in exposing some of the most glaring corruption cases of the post-World War I years in the country.
6. James Weaver, People's Party, 1892 (22 Electoral votes)
The 1892 U.S. Presidential elections witnessed a significant influence of the People’s Party, led by James Weaver, in the poll results. Though the Presidential position was in the end won by the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, against the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison, and the People's Party candidate, James Weaver, Weaver, with his patriarchal presence and commanding influence, still managed to secure 22 electoral votes and 1,041,028 popular votes in the election that year. Weaver and the People's Party’s platform demanded free and unlimited coinage of silver. The party also supported the government ownership of the railroads. In 1896, however, the influence of the People's Party waned away as Weaver assigned the Party's presidential nomination to William J. Bryan, a progressive, former Democratic candidate. In his later years, Weaver served as a small-town Iowa mayor and local historian.
5. John Bell, Constitutional Union, 1860 (39 Electoral votes)
The Constitutional Union Party was a U.S. political party formed in 1859 by former Whigs and members of the Know-Nothing Party. In the 1860 Presidential elections, the party nominated John Bell for US President. The party sought to rally for support of the Union and the Constitution, and paid little attention to sectionally divisive issues such as slavery in its Presidential campaign. The ignorance of the slavery issue cut down Bell's votership bank significantly, but he still managed to win 39 electoral votes, particularly in the border states of the country who were sentimentally torn between the regional interests of the North and the South. Even though the party had collapsed by the beginning of the Civil War, Bell’s candidature in the elections was able to sufficiently disperse the votes so as to allow the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to more easily come to power as the President of United States.
4. Strom Thurmond, States' Rights Dixiecrats, 1948 (39 Electoral Votes)
James Strom Thurmond was a famous American politician who served in the post of Senator from South Carolina for a period of 48 years. In 1948, he fought in the Presidential elections and, though he did not win, he was largely successful in receiving 39 Electoral votes and 2.4% of the national popular votes in the election. Thurmond was nominated as Presidential candidate by the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or the 'Dixiecrats', which was established after a split from the national Democrats over the issue of Federal intervention in state affairs, especially civil rights and segregation, by the then-ruling Democrats. Thurmond was, however, defeated by the incumbent Democratic President Harry S. Truman, who earned people’s votes for his policies favoring the end of racial discrimination in U.S. Army, the support of the elimination of state poll taxes, and Federal anti-lynching laws, as well as the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. Thurmond served into the new millennium, having had softened, and even condemned, his former racist and segregationist stances.
3. George Wallace, American Independent, 1968 (46 Electoral votes)
The American Independent Party was founded by George Wallace, a previous Democrat, when his racist, pro-segregation policies had been rejected by the mainstream Democrats. In the 1968 U.S. Presidential elections, Wallace represented the American Independent Party as their Presidential candidate in the U.S. Presidential elections. Wallace was a realist who knew their were slim chances of winning the polls, but he hoped to receive enough Electoral votes to act as a 'power broker' in the House of Representatives to decide the election. His campaign, which supported racial segregation, was popular with rural white southerners and blue-collar union workers throughout much of the country, and he managed to capture 13.53% of the popular vote and 46 Electoral votes in the elections. However, Wallace was unsuccessful in capturing enough votes to throw the election to the House and exert his influence on the selection of the President. Like Thurmond, Wallace also later significantly changed his views on race relations, especially after devoting himself as an Evangelical Christian.
2. John Breckinridge, Constitutional Democrat, 1860 (72 Electoral votes)
John Breckinridge began his political career by winning a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1849. His political career soared to its highest point ever when he was elected as the 14th Vice President of U.S. in 1856, becoming the youngest vice president in the country’s history. In 1860, he ran for President himself in the U.S. Presidential elections, representing a Southern fraction of the Democratic Party. His campaigns were in favor of slavery, and he demanded Federal intervention to protect slaveholders in their own territories. His campaigns, however, did not win him much popularity, and he lost the election to the other candidates, namely Republican Lincoln and Democrat Douglas. Breckinridge still earned 72 electoral votes and 848,019 popular votes, accounting for 18.1% of the entire voter pool. His achievements in this election, though not sufficient to let him win, recorded his name in the history of the United States as the second most successful third party Presidential candidate.
1. Teddy Roosevelt, Progressive, 1912 (88 Electoral votes)
In the 1912 U.S. Presidential elections, former President Teddy Roosevelt emerged as the most successful third party presidential candidate in the history of the country when he bagged 88 Electoral votes and 27% of the popular vote in the election on behalf of the Progressive Party of the United States. The party was formed by Roosevelt himself when he failed to receive the nomination from the Republican Party in the 1912 Elections. However, Roosevelt lost, and the election was won by the Democratic Party's nominee, Woodrow Wilson, who went on to become the 28th President of the United States. The 1912 Presidential elections were unique in the fact that this was the last election where a candidate who was neither Republican nor Democrat came second in the election. This occurred as Teddy Roosevelt defeated Republican William Howard Taft and Socialist Eugene Debs.
Who Was the Most Successful Third Party Presidential Candidate?
In the 1912 U.S. Presidential elections, former President Teddy Roosevelt emerged as the most successful third party presidential candidate in the history of the country when he bagged 88 Electoral votes and 27% of the popular vote in the election on behalf of the Progressive Party of the United States.
About the Author
Oishimaya is an Indian native, currently residing in Kolkata. She has earned her Ph.D. degree and is presently engaged in full-time freelance writing and editing. She is an avid reader and travel enthusiast and is sensitively aware of her surroundings, both locally and globally. She loves mingling with people of eclectic cultures and also participates in activities concerning wildlife conservation.
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