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American Voters Never Really Go for the Third Party

With President Joe Biden’s official launch of his reelection campaign, Democrats have voiced concerns about a third party run that could cut into his support in key states and cost them the presidency. One new contender, the No Labels political organization, has locked up ballot spots in a number of states in 2024, and names such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan have been attached as potential candidates.

But despite the $70 million being poured into the No Labels effort, we shouldn’t be fooled by this shooting star. Voters certainly aren’t. It’s not just that a third party, especially one with no history of success and no national figure, has almost no hope of actually winning a race. Even the spoiler potential is overhyped, at least for 2024.

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Throughout American history, the two major parties have proven to be exceptional at garnering Presidential votes. In 17 of the 24 elections since 1924, the two parties topped 98 percent of the vote. There have been only four elections in that span where the Democrats and Republicans did not combine to capture at least 94.1 percent of the vote – and two of those were Ross Perot’s runs in 1992 and 1996 (the other two were 1968 and 1980).

In four of the seven races where the parties got less than 98 percent, third party runs are seen as having played an important, or potentially decisive role, as spoilers. Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party run likely cost Al Gore Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency itself. Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, which took 19 percent of the vote, may have proved a fatal blow to George H.W. Bush’s reelection chances. In 1968, George Wallace’s strong performances in the southern states, including being the last non-major party to capture an Electoral College vote, definitely knocked the presidential race off-kilter, though it is possible that he took more votes from the eventual winner, Republican Richard Nixon, than from Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

For good reason, 2016, when 94.1 percent voted for Democrats or Republicans, may be most on people’s minds. That year saw several significant runs, though again it is very unclear that it would have changed the results. Green Party candidate Jill Stein siphoned off votes, presumably from Hillary Clinton, and that may have damaged her race in key states. At the same time, though it has received less attention, the Libertarian Party candidate former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson managed to take more than three times what Stein received nationwide. An independent candidate, Evan McMullin, won 21.5% of the vote in Utah, though even that was not enough to cost Donald Trump the state.

But what may be much more important for 2024 is how the voters reacted to the shock of a strong third party or independent run. They did not rally around the idea and build momentum for a third party movement in future elections. Instead they recoiled and saw that what may have been a protest vote instead helped elect the candidate that they truly disliked.

The numbers from the succeeding elections tell the tale. The big third party boomlet was from 1992-2000. But third party performances fell each year. In 1992 during Perot’s first run, the Democrats and Republicans only got 80.4 percent of the vote. In 1996, they got 89.9. In 2000, during Nader’s critical run, they got 96.3. But Nader taught voters a strong lesson. The following three elections saw the two parties combine to get 99, 98.5 and 98 percent of the vote.

Past third party over performances saw the same results for at least two elections. 1980, when John Anderson got 6.6 percent of the vote and Reagan and Carter combined for a mere 91.4 percent, was followed by the two parties winning 99.4 and 99.1 percent respectively. 1968, where Nixon and Humphrey only got 86.1 percent, was followed by two elections with the major parties combining for over 98 percent of the vote.

This pattern goes back further in U.S. history, as third (and fourth) party candidates managed to keep the two major participants to only 94.4 percent in 1948. In the succeeding four elections, the two parties never dropped below 99.2 percent of the vote. Even the most famous third party run, the 1912 election where Theodore Roosevelt managed to come in second in the presidential race and the two main parties combined for only 65 percent of the vote, saw a bounce back in the following two elections to over 94 percent of the vote in each.

What explains the reversion back to the two parties? Perhaps voters are willing to register their protest vote when they think the election is a walk for one party or when they feel that specific election will not have much of an impact on policy, but once they see otherwise they retreat back to the two parties.With interest in politics sky high, as seen by impressive turnout numbers, and with the country locked in a bitter division in political ideology, we can expect that old patterns will continue. Voters will likely not be looking to take a gamble that their third party vote won’t simply help the candidate they most object to. Instead, we should expect that discussion for the No Labels and any other party to be a flash in the pan moment, as voters stick to the main event in the ongoing Blue v. Red political fight.