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Third-party candidates often reveal hidden angst among voters

They keep the major parties ‘honest’

Merdies Hayes | 11/3/2016, 12:25 a.m.
Americans have generally tolerated the constraints of the two-party system by demonstrating civic duty and patriotism. And while even George ...

South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 ran as a States Rights Democratic Party candidate. Thurmond’s campaign was born out of support for segregationist policy. He and a number of other prominent Southern Democrats walked out of the party’s convention that year in protest of incumbent Harry S. Truman’s support for civil rights in the Democratic Party platform. Thurmond’s goal was to draw enough votes away from Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey to force the election into the House of Representatives. Although he received just 2.4 percent of the vote, Thurmond and the newly-formed “Dixiecrats” would vehemently oppose any civil rights agenda in their southern districts for the next 30 years.

In 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran as an American Independent and received a remarkable 13.5 percent of the vote and won five states (46 electoral votes). Like Thurmond before him, Wallace was a staunch segregationist yet his presidential run was significant because it was the last time that a third-party candidate won a single state in any presidential election. Historians believe that in the tumultuous year of 1968, Wallace’s candidacy siphoned off many votes from liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey, thereby allowing Republican Richard Nixon to win the presidency.

Illinois congressman John Anderson was a Republican but ran as an independent candidate in 1980. He performed poorly in debating incumbent Jimmy Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and was never able to fully recover his early support among voters, particularly college students. Anderson finished the race with just under 7 percent of the vote, unable to carry a single precinct in the country.

In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran under the Reform Party banner and nearly upset the “apple cart.” By the middle of the year, Perot was actually leading in a few polls pitting himself against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. However, Perot withdrew from the race in July of that year allegedly due to homophobic threats made against his daughter. He reentered the race in October, and managed to secure almost 19 percent of the votes—mostly from Southern, Deep South and “Bible Belt” states. Again, presidential historians point to Perot’s surprisingly strong showing among Republicans and undecided voters which took away votes from Bush and helped to usher Clinton into office.

Political activist Ralph Nader ran several times as a third-party candidate. In 2000, however, his small 2.74-percent share of the votes proved sufficient to affect the outcome of one of America’s closest and most contentious presidential elections. In the end, Texas Gov. George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore, but carried the Electoral College into the first of two terms at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Third parties remain capable of influencing the direction and focus of American politics. As the Free Soil Party moved the anti-slavery dialogue from the fringes into the mainstream, or the Prohibition Party influencing national social and moral discourse, third parties over the years have served to bring ideas, issues and ideologies into better perspective among voters.