December 7, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

This is why third parties can’t win in presidential politics

And this is why we should change that.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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People who are seriously considering voting for a third-party candidate in the coming presidential election are people who annoy me. Third parties can’t win. The only time a third-party candidate ever did was in 1860. Republican Abraham Lincoln won when the country was already cracking up over the continued institutionalization of chattel slavery.

However much the country seems to be cracking up, we are not currently on the precipice of civil war. Third-party candidates are not going to win now or ever, not as long as the status quo remains the same. And no, a third-party victory won’t change the status quo, because the status quo prevents the hope of a third-party victory.

Voting for a third party accomplishes one thing. It takes votes away from one of the other major-party candidates. Given that the status quo favors the Republican candidate – think the Electoral College – voting for a third party is probably going to take votes away from Joe Biden. Whatever you think of him, he’s better than the alternative. (The alternative, by the way, likes making jokes about being a dictator.)

“More parties would break this zero-sum all-or-nothing politics. It would make coalitions more fluid and more multidimensional. Allies and enemies would shift from election to election, and from issue to issue. These shifting alliances are necessary for democratic stability.”

Actually, it accomplishes another thing. It enriches presidential candidates for third parties that do not work in cooperation with one of the major parties. (It’s called “fusion voting.”) For instance, the Green Party — these people know they can’t win. They know the status quo prevents them from winning. They don’t say that, though. In the space between what they know and what their supporters don’t know is a scam. In the absence of systemic change, third parties that don’t cooperate with one of the major parties are inherently exploitative.

Setting my annoyance aside, however, I do have sympathy for people who are seriously considering voting for a third-party candidate. In a kind of fundamental way, it just feels wrong that Americans are presented with two, and only two, presidential candidates every four years. We are taught from infancy to believe freedom is rooted in choice. There’s something unfree about being so constrained. 

This combination of annoyance and sympathy on my part illustrates, I think, the difference between practical reality (third parties can’t win, don’t bother trying) and democratic aspiration (third parties should be able to win, we should bother trying). This combination also illustrates the difficulty of this conversation. I risk encouraging people to vote for a third party by talking about how third parties should be able to win. I risk squelching hope in democracy by talking about how they can’t. 

But nothing worth doing is easy, as they say. So I got in touch with an expert on elections, election reform and third parties. Lee Drutman is the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America and a senior fellow at New America. Lee is also the co-host of the podcast Politics in Question and the man behind Undercurrent Events, a terrific newsletter. Check it out.

JS: Can you explain why third parties can’t win in presidential politics?

LD: The American electoral system is a winner-take-all system. Winner-take-all systems tend to discourage third parties, which are seen as spoilers and wasted votes. All ambition and money and energy flows to the two top parties. In the American case, this is the Democrats and the Republicans. Because of the Electoral College, American presidential elections are distinctly winner-take-all, in that they are the cumulation of many separate state-based winner-take-all elections. Many states also have stringent ballot-access requirements, requiring third-party challengers to spend considerable resources just to get on the ballot. All this contributes to discouraging third parties, and creating tremendous obstacles to their chances of victory.

JS: What would have to happen for third parties to be viable?

LD: We would need electoral system change. The first way we could do this is through fusion voting. Fusion voting refers to a system in which a candidate wins the support of more than one party – usually one major party and one “minor” party. Each party nominates the same candidate, and the candidate appears twice on the ballot under two distinct party labels. The votes for each candidate are tallied by party and then combined for the final result. 

Fusion encourages parties to organize together, because it gives qualified parties a place on the ballot. This place on the ballot gives parties potential leverage, which they can use to bargain with major-party candidates. A ballot line signifies a party’s presence across multiple elections, enabling it to hold candidates accountable. Consistent parties across elections let voters support major candidates on minor lines, conveying their values effectively.

Importantly, fusion voting works in the context of inherently winner-take-all elections, such as presidential elections.

For offices where multimember districts are possible — ie, the US House – proportional representation would make new parties viable. 

Proportional representation describes a family of voting systems that aims to ensure a party’s share of seats in the legislature is closely proportional to its share of votes in the electorate. Because representation is proportional to party-vote share, proportional representation systems are more party-focused. However, there are several types of proportional representation. Systems vary in the number of representatives per district, the threshold for legislative representation, and the extent to which voters are voting for candidates, parties or both. No two countries use the same system. 

Mechanically, proportional representation facilitates a multiparty system, just as winner-take-all elections facilitate a two-party system. When the threshold for winning is a simple plurality, political energy concentrates into two camps. When the threshold for winning is lower, more parties can form. For example, in a five-seat district elected proportionally, it is possible for five different parties to gain representation. This encourages more parties to compete. In a one-seat district, only one seat is available. With only one seat available, third parties become spoilers or wasted votes.

JS: The major parties have factions. Aren’t those like third parties?

LD: Factions within existing parties, while they share some characteristics with third parties, face real challenges in operating as separate entities, largely due to the nationalization of politics. 

In today’s political landscape, issues and party identities are increasingly national rather than local or state-based. This national focus means that the broader party brand and its national platform tend to overshadow the distinct identities of internal factions. 

This nationalization has led to a more homogenized party identity, where the national party’s stance on key issues tends to dominate, reducing the visibility and distinctiveness of internal factions.

Because factions don’t have their own ballot lines, it is hard for them to signal to voters that they are different from the major parties. They also don’t have the legal benefits of being a party, and no real mechanisms to enforce internal discipline. 

JS: Why are there so many third parties this time but not last time?

LD: In 2020, there was tremendous anti-Trump sentiment that coalesced around Biden. In 2024, a growing number of Americans have lost enthusiasm for Biden, and forgotten how dangerous Trump is. 

This has led a few prominent would-be candidates and organizers to think there might be an opportunity in 2024. We’ll see how many actually wind up on the ballot come November, though. 

JS: Finally: do we need third parties? Would democracy be better?

LD: Yes, we absolutely need more than two parties. America is a large, diverse country. How can we fit all that diversity into a two-party system? We can’t, and our attempts to do so have come at tremendous costs of under-representation, political stagnation and divisive zero-sum politics. Our two parties can only hold their coalitions together through demonization of the opposing party, a demonization that has destroyed the shared faith in our democratic institutions of free and fair elections. This is no longer sustainable. 

More parties would break this zero-sum all-or-nothing politics. It would make coalitions more fluid and more multidimensional. Allies and enemies would shift from election to election, and from issue to issue. These shifting alliances are necessary for democratic stability.

In practical matters, this would require electoral reform, as discussed above. So briefly, the benefits of proportional representation are clear and urgent. Most significantly, larger multi-winner districts (ideally five-seven members) would make gerrymandering irrelevant. Gerrymandering is only dangerous with single-member districts. But even without gerrymandering, single-winner districts atop geographically sorted parties mean that most districts won’t be competitive, and most voters are irrelevant.

Don’t we deserve a modern electoral system where voters have meaningful choices and where every vote is equally significant regardless of where a voter lives? Don’t we deserve an end to the exhausting knife’s edge all-or-nothing extreme partisan polarization? 

Let’s join the world’s advanced democracies and embrace multiparty democracy, through proportional representation and fusion voting. 


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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