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Griffin Kaye Blog,  Our Writers,  Politics

Kaye’s Political Debates: Third Parties – Irrelevant in US Politics? 

The great political historian Richard Hofstadter once remarked: “third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die,” espousing the idea third parties sit on the margins and have only temporary influence. In order to effectively scrutinise the idea that third parties are “irrelevant”, it is important to look at factors such as their role in the media, electoral results, and big tent politics. The following essay will analyse and evaluate the role of third parties in American politics and if they are truly “irrelevant.” 


The lack of US third party relevance is reflected by the difficulty of such outsider groups to state ballots.

Green Party
A map reflective of the lack of ballot access for the Green Party (Photo courtesy of the Green Party)

Ballot access in the US is, depending on the state, restrictive for third parties. Parties may have to meet a barrier for ballot placement – such as the signature of 5% of all registered voters in a candidate’s district in Georgia – which can often hinder the chances of third parties being eligible. An example of the limits upon third-party ballot access can be seen in 2020, where some states such as Alabama and Virginia only had three parties on the ballot with individual votes for third parties not recorded. Moreover, despite their vital role in the 2000 election, the Green Party were only on the ballot in just over half, 27, states in 2004, illustrating how much of an afterthought third parties are in the US, finding it an arduous task to get on electoral ballots.

Comparatively, in the UK some parties such as the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru only stand in their own nations. These aside, it is far easier for citizens to stand for office in the UK. A member of the public only needs a nomination by 10 constituents to stand and a £500 deposit, with the ease reflected by commonplace satiric and comedic candidates such as Lord Buckethead and a record 15 candidates standing for the Sedgefield constituency against Tony Blair in 2005. The ease of access in the UK stands in contrast to the USA, where Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist remarked in 1997 that “states need not remove all the many hurdles third parties face in the American political arena today.” 

In addition, third parties are peripheral in nature as shown by their lack of funding.

In recent years, the amount spent in US elections has skyrocketed whilst third parties are left with a minute slice of the monetary pie. For example, in 2008, candidates surpassed individual spending of over one billion dollars for the first time, a figure that had reached a combined $2 billion by 2012. In 2020, the overall cost of the election was an eye-watering $14 billion, more than double that of 2016, showing the immensity of US spending.

With such a staggering figure in 2020, the total raised reflects Noam Chomsky’s description of both parties as “the Business Party,” with the figure eclipsing the Green Party’s numbers which failed to reach $500,000; Joe Biden raised a record $6.3 million in his first 24 hours. Only those third parties who are rich enough can embark on wide-reaching campaigns, such as billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 or independent candidate Michael Bloomberg who was able to win re-election as New York mayor in 2009, in doing so spending over $100 million of his own money; a ratio of 11:1 against his opponent. This arguably leads to an elitist system where only those with money can win, making applicable the phrase Senator Edward Kennedy’s comments, even if meant in a different context, that America has “the finest money Congress can buy.”

In the UK, campaign finance is far more regulated under the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 and subsequent revised Acts of Parliament which restrict foreign and excessive donations. According to government statistics from 2019, third parties still have a strong ability to attract donations; that year, the Brexit Party attained over 14% of all donations whilst the Liberal Democrats got over £1 million of donations. The two main parties did still get 80% of all donations, however, with the Conservatives getting just under two-thirds of the total.  Similarly, third parties are hindered in US politics by the lack of prominent media coverage. 

Third parties too suffer from a shortage of a major platform compared to the Democrats and Republicans, eroding their chances of gaining greater media attention towards their policies and ideas.

FOX 32 Chicago
The last third-party candidate to compete in a presidential debate was Ross Perot back in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Fox 32 Chicago)

Debates, for example, can be extremely important as a testing ground for third parties for the few who have participated; John B. Anderson started dwindling after a 1980 debate whilst Ross Perot proved his worth in his televised debate, with a CNN/USA Today poll finding 47% of those watching saw Perot as the winner of his first debate against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush – helping his figures rise form 7% before the debate to 19% on election day. Yet these aside, very few get to display their political wares.

In more recent years, a 15% margin for opinion polls has been put in place, shutting out any third parties debating on a large scale since 1992 (had the 15% rule been in place, neither Perot nor Anderson would have been able to participate). In 2016, a record-setting 84 million watched the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debates as a demonstration of the scale and influence presidential debates can have. In comparison, in the UK, third parties too suffer from less spotlight than major parties.

One of the biggest victims is Britain’s perennial third party the Liberal Democrats, who were shunned out of a one-to-one 2019 debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn that drew 6.7 million viewers.; Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson subsequently lost her seat. Only one major national paper supported the party, The Economic Times, and even then the endorsement was less than encouraging, writing:

“there is no good outcome to this nightmare of an election. But for the centre to hold is the best hope for Britain.”

The USA meanwhile had no major weekly or daily newspapers that backed any serious candidate beyond Joe Biden or Donald Trump in 2020. Yet, on BBC debates or programmes such as Question Time, third parties such as the SNP are commonplace on the debate stage. The prevalence of third parties has benefitted third parties, such as UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage beat both the Conservatives’ David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband according to YouGov, who too noted Farage’s 39% margin of supremacy in debates on the topic of immigration. This hints that the UK has a more open platform for third parties, who have more of an opportunity to break out.  

Fourthly, third parties are arguably not politically pertinent due to their consistently poor electoral performances.

Undoubtedly harmed by the US’s majoritarian, ‘winner takes all’ Electoral College, third parties will find it incredibly difficult to make a splash in US general elections, questioning the success and thus the importance of such third parties. For example, the lack of third-party success can be easily seen in the most recent election, with 2020 seeing the two main party hegemony of Democrats and Republicans picking up a combined total of over 98% of the popular vote. Moreover, no third party has won any Electoral College Votes since George Wallace in 1968. You have to go back all the way to 1848 for the last occasion neither the Democrat nor Republican Party won an election – a time before the Republicans were even established.

Comparatively, in the UK, in 2019, the two leader parties totalled 75% of the vote, far less than in the USA the following year. That year, the Liberal Democrats won over 10% of the vote whilst over 10% of seats were held by third parties, reflecting how third parties have marginally greater electoral success in the UK, perhaps indicating more relevance. It should be noted however that like the US, the UK’s electoral system is nonetheless rigged against outsider groups, represented in 2015 when UKIP earned the third largest share of the popular vote at 12.6% but won just one seat (0.15%). When looking at the lack of US electoral success of third parties, the metrics of their lack of success alone have been cited by many as evidence that independent groups are of insufficient bearing in US politics.   


Despite some evidence backing up the statement, in order to create a balanced assessment, it is fair to look at the other side of the argument.

On the other hand, third parties do hold relevance, with some notable wins third parties have achieved in modern years.

USA Today
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is the longest-serving independent in Congress in US history and twice runner-up to a major party presidential nominee. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Despite not having significant success in US elections, as referenced in the previous paragraph, it would be remiss to discount third parties as a whole. For example, in 1998, Reform Party candidate and former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won the gubernatorial race in a result that The New York Times stated:

“reflects a desire among voters for something different, something outside the traditional political establishment.”

Plus, in 2006, ex-Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman ran for Connecticut, running on the Lieberman for Connecticut ticket after losing his primary; he was able to win, utilising his high-profile and Republican support to garner election to the Senate.

As of the 118th Congress in 2023, there are three sitting independents, the tied-most since the 94th Congress in the 1970s. Yet, the level of such success is questionable, take the current independent Senators: Bernie Sanders, Angus King, and Kyrsten Sinema. Sanders, for example, has run unopposed by Democratic candidates during his runs for the Senate and has even run for the Democrat nominee for President in both 2016 and 2020 whilst King caucuses with the Democrats, feeling he would be excluded from the committee process if remaining non-affiliated with a major party.

Kyrsten Sinema’s situation is different: she was elected a Democrat in November 2022 but, having long been at odds with the party on a number of issues, shortly thereafter declared her independence in December. If we were to compare with the UK, we can still see the struggle of third parties. Select candidates have seen success in the 21st century, with the first UKIP and Green Party MPs elected albeit remaining solidly in the single figures in Parliament. Notable individuals include Richard Taylor, who won his seat in 2001 on a single-issue campaign to keep open the A&E department of Kidderminster Hospital, and George Galloway, who was able to use the Iraq War to push Labour loyalist Oona King off of her perch.

Both, however, come with their own caveats: Taylor – who was the first independent re-elected over a quarter of a century after 2005 re-election – was arguably aided by the Lib Dems not fielding a candidate whilst Galloway already had a high profile as an ex-Labour MP. In the US, the success of some independent and third-party candidates proves to undermine the argument that third parties are redundant, even if their success is in a somewhat limited fashion. 

Secondly, third parties are able to sometimes affect the outcome of an election.

Although not solely electorally successful, it would be remiss to state that third parties have no electoral impact as they can have a key role in deciding who wins and who loses an election. For instance, the most notable recent example was in 2000 when the Green Party won 100,000 votes in Florida, a state Democrat Al Gore lost by just 537 votes – had Gore won just a few hundred votes instead of those that went to the Greens, he would have won the Electoral College and Presidency.

Instead, due to the Green Party’s popularity in Florida – and with a little help from the Supreme Court – the Republican Party’s George Bush triumphed.  Moreover, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party run on the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party) ticket was important in the outcome, splitting the Republican vote to allow Democrat Woodrow Wilson to ascend to the Presidency by a significant margin, the first Democratic election win in two decades. Problematically, the consequence of acting as a ‘spoiler candidate’ by splitting the vote can actively disincentivise citizens from running.

In 1864, Radical Democracy candidate John C. Fremont stepped down to prevent Confederate-sympathetic forces to win and in Michael Bloomberg has commented:

“the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the president in 2020. That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016 and we can’t afford it now.”

In comparison, in the UK, although no third party has been in power since 1918 (even if Liberal David Lloyd George was prime minister until 1922), the Liberal Democrats played a key role after 2010’s hung parliament, creating a coalition government from 2010-2015. Another third party playing a sizable role in the UK election was in 1983 when the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Liberal Party won over 25% of the vote. The SDP, which had broken off from the increasingly left-wing Labour Party in 1981, established an alliance with the Liberal Party which is thought to have taken many votes away from Labour, helping push the party to its worst result in post-war Britain to that point.  

Thirdly, third parties can be seen as salient in the US political system for their function as part of the nation’s big tent politics.

New York Times
In an example of the big tent, the Green Party’s Green New Deal concept has caught on with progressives within the Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)

Hofstadter also defined the point of third parties as to generate ideas, so that “when a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties.”

In the big tent system, the major parties attempt to create a broad appeal to a wider net of voters, hence why the Democrats or Republicans may pursue ideas advocated by popular third parties. Look, for instance, at the Libertarian Party, which has had a notable influence on major parties, particularly the Republicans, as can be seen by libertarian members such as Justin Amash’s membership of the House Freedom Caucus and the minimalist state position – such as low taxes and opposition to national healthcare – of the Tea Party.

The Green Party too has had influence: the Green New Deal was first a platform for the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins in 2010 before catching on with progressive members of the Democratic Party such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey whilst being central parts of the Democratic presidential campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In the words of the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, parties such as hers are thus “catalysts for change, forcing the major parties to address new ideas and issues.”

It should be noted however that third parties are jockeying for position amongst a sea of interests from competing pressure groups. Similarly, pressure groups’ interests can be taken on by the major parties, such as the AFL-CIO encouraging Democratic support for the Civil Rights Act 1964 and Voting Rights Act 1965 plus, since the 1970s, Democrats have upheld abortion rights, hence their funding by pro-choice groups such as EMILY’s List, which raised over $100 million in the 2022 Midterms.

The Republicans have been groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, whose call for greater trade negotiations was likely an influencing factor in Donald Trump’s signing of US trade deals with Canada and Mexico in 2018 and Japan in 2019. Perhaps the most powerful is the National Rifle Association which has long had a political stranglehold on Congress since first donating to a Republican presidential candidate in 1980; the efforts of the NRA and the Republicans’ stern defence of Second Amendment gun rights can be seen in 2013 when efforts to restrict gun ownership post-Sandy Hook Massacre failed – even in spite of broad public support for the measure. Naturally, both parties and groups will be vying for the attention of the two major parties to project their policies to a wider and more commercial audience.

A negative side effect of the big tent concept however is noted by Hofstadter, who notes that once a bee stings, it afterwards dies – a reference to the decline of third party popularity after their ideas are appropriated by major parties. After George Wallace’s performance in 1968 on an anti-segregationist platform, the Republicans under Richard Nixon took on a more ardent states’ rights position, meaning the party soon faded out of the political landscape.

In 1948, Harry Truman was able to neutralise the threat posed by the Progressive Party’s Henry A. Wallace by pledging policies such as an increase in the minimum wage and national health insurance under his Fair Deal policy, with such progressive ideas taking the wind out of Wallace’s campaign. In regards to major parties taking the ideas of both political parties and pressure groups, a further issue is that big-tent politics can create too many interests to appease, inevitably leading to a dissatisfactory outcome.

As author Todd Gitlin notes in his book The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, the big tent creates far too many interests to appease and serve fulfilling:

“All factions will stomp their feet and demand priority…As some problems [are] more or less successfully addressed, others will come to the fore.”

Plus, the big tent can dilute the purpose of a major political party. For example, Senator Bernie Sanders condemned his opponent Hillary Clinton for cosying up to big business during the heated 2016 Democratic primaries. In his 2018 autobiography, Sanders stated:

“It became clear to me and millions of Americans that the elitist, top-down approach of the party needed to be reformed. All over the country, people were demanding a Democratic Party that represented ordinary Americans.”

The spread of third-party platforms and messages to major parties through the US’s system of big-tent politics serves to highlight how third parties are able to have influence and are relevant, able to establish political ideas which may be implemented by the major parties.   

Last but not least, third parties are still extremely relevant for the purpose of serving as an alternative – perhaps their most important function.

The function of any third party is to try to captivate the electorate, breaking the two-party monotony many voters feel and serving as a different voice in the political echo chamber. To serve as something new gives purpose to third parties.

For example, in 1992, Ross Perot’s lively injection into the presidential race scene as an independent candidate offered new social and economic initiatives not previously offered by major parties, policies such as electronic direct democracy and the elimination of powerful lobbyists from Washington.

In 1968, the American Independent Party, whose leader George Wallace had popularised the phrase “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” served as an outlet for many disillusioned white, southern Democrats. In an era of post-civil rights legislation, the party was able to pick up states such as Georgia and Alabama, being the only committed anti-segregationist party. Moreover, third parties can serve as an ideological juxtaposition to major parties.

The Socialist Party’s Eugene Debs ran for President five times between 1900 and 1920 – not running in 1916 – on a uniquely left-wing platform, an ideology not at the fore of American politics. Debs has described the two-party system as one of “alike capitalist parties, differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests…the same principles under varying colo[u]rs.”

In the UK, the Lib Dems serve as the effective ‘protest vote’ party. In the Labour landslide election of 1997, the Liberal Democrats more than doubled their seats, thought to have been able to capitalise on anti-Conservative Party tactical voting and the alienation of Labour voters hesitant towards the rebranding of the party to the more centrist ‘New Labour’. In 2005, the party, now under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, won 62 seats; this was the most seats of any third party since 1923. The Lib Dems managed to achieve such a feat by taking advantage of Labour’s post-Iraq War popularity with the Liberals being the only major party to oppose the war, with Kennedy famously speaking out against the war at the (at least) million-strong 2003 Hyde Park anti-war rally.

In regards to US politics, the alternative proposed by third parties is only as effective as its leadership, serving as a criticism of this argument. An example of the contingency of success on the candidate is the story of the Progressive or ‘Bull Moose’ Party. In 1912 under the leadership of the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, the party far outperformed the Republican Party from which he defected, coming second with over four million votes. When Roosevelt declined the nomination in 1916, the party went on to win a paltry 33,406 votes. Without a central and efficient leader, the chances of a third group acting as a viable alternative are unlikely. Simply, the effect of a third party without a strong personality is next to nil. Despite this, the function and role of third parties as an alternative is vital to US politics. The need to break the hegemony possessed by the Democrats and Republican Parties gives life to third-party candidates who have relevance, speaking for the many in the US electorate who feel unrepresented by the ordinary binary options and voyage beyond the two-party system for a more reflective political outlet.   

Third Parties in Politics: In Conclusion

To conclude, third parties are an important aspect to US political life – far from “irrelevant” – without which the system would suffer. It is true that electorally, the success of independent and third-party candidates can most diplomatically be described as restricted but such is not to completely disregard the relevance of third parties.

Third parties instead contribute to the political freedoms of a pluralist society – as protected under the First Amendment – and allow the spread of new and exciting ideas onto the main political stage by willing hopefuls. It would of course be an exaggeration to claim that third parties are totally successful but to compare outsider parties to temporary entities such as bees would be to underplay the role of these groups.

No matter political philosophy, all third-party candidates state their agreement that their point is to truly represent the differing interests of American citizens – more than spoilers, more than a wasted vote, and more than perennial unelectable. Perhaps Hofstadter himself said it best when he remarked:

“Their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life.” 

Griffin Kaye is a contributing writer for Lace 'Em Up. He is a life-long pro wrestling fan and has written on comedy, music, history, politics, and TV. He can be reached by e-mail at, on Twitter @GriffinKaye1, as well as on Instagram at @TheGriffinKaye.

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