The Effect of Third Party Candidates in Presidental Elections

Although citizens of the United States have the opportunity to vote for
many different offices at the national, state, and local levels, the election of
the president of the United States every four years is the focal point of the
American political process. The American political system has maintained a two-
party system since its inception. Political scientists argue that a two-party
system is the most stable and efficient means of running a democratic nation as
a mono-party system leads toward tyranny, and a multi-party system creates over-
diversification and gridlock (Mazmanian 6). The Constitution of the United
States does not in any way limit the structure of the political system to two
parties. In fact, there has been no presidential election where there were only
two candidates; however, third-party candidates are rarely represented in a
majority of the states, and those that were on the ballot in a majority of
states have never been successful. However, on a few occasions, third party
candidates have been able to make a significant impact on the presidential
election process such as George Wallace in 1968 and H. Ross Perot in 1992.
Through nineteenth century there was little deviation from the traditional
two-party system. Until then, political candidates were utterly dependant upon
the political infrastructure of an established party for their campaigns. Until
the development of mass media technologies, including radio and television,
political candidates had no direct means of communicating with the public and
were thus dependant on the communications systems of the major parties. Thus,
third party movements lacked the capabilities to run an effective campaign
against the major parties.
However, mass media has changed the scope of the election process and
brought about the demise of the major political parties (Robinson 147).
Candidates who run a television dominated campaign have hurt their parties in a
number of ways. The media specialists who manage such campaigns tend to be
loyal to a candidate rather than to the candidate's party; as a result, the
campaign supports a single candidate and not the entire ticket of the party. In
addition, the heavy reliance on television allows a candidate to reach voters
directly, thereby weakening the traditional function of the party as an
information and communication body acting as an intermediary between the
candidate and the voters.
Other developments have served to weaken the role of the party in the
presidential campaign. The growth of computerized "direct-mail fundraising
techniques" and "computerized e-mail" have encroached on activities
traditionally performed by the political party (Robinson 150). Also, recent
reforms in the areas of campaign financing and delegate selection to the
nominating conventions have made the party less significant with respect to
fund-raising and candidate selection (Robinson 151). The decreasing role of the
political party in the presidential campaign and the increasing ability of the
candidates themselves to provide their own publicity has brought about the
beginning of a new political era in which the dominance of the major parties is
questionable, and the potential for a non-affiliated candidate to mount a
competitive campaign is very realistic.
In theory, it is possible for a completely independent candidate to be
elected to the presidency, provided the candidate is highly competent,
charismatic, eloquent, and photogenic, and the candidate is running against
relatively weak candidates of the major parties (Mazmanian 21). However, at
this time, political analysts stipulate that the chances of this happening are
slim because a majority of Americans are xenophobic enough to be wary of the
unknown candidate.
An independent candidate can, however, have a dramatic impact on the
outcome of the election without actually winning. Simply by running, a strong
independent candidate can create problems for the major candidate whose views
are most similar his own. First, the independent can either split the vote
causing the opposing major candidate to win, or second, the independent can
withdraw and give their support and potentially a significant voting block, to
one of the major candidates in exchange for a change in the candidate's platform
to include the independent's views. These influences by an independent, third
party candidate were demonstrated in both the 1968 and 1992 elections.
George Wallace, independent candidate of the newly formed American
Independent Party, took 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 election, and won
seventy electoral votes in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas,
Mississippi, and Georgia, and making him the most successful independent to run
for the presidency. The American Independent Party was a "white supremacist . .
. , ultra-conservative" (Mazmanian 130) organization founded in reaction to the
1960's civil rights movement and the Supreme Court's overturning of "separate,
but equal" (Plessy v. Ferguson) statute that forced integration. George Wallace,
then governor of Alabama, was a