Third Parties in a Two Party System
San Jose State University
The United States of America is heavily entrenched in a two party system. Most Americans can count the third party candidates they know on one hand- and for a good reason. Third parties are prevented from winning elections through institutional barriers, lack of financial support, and a general lack of faith. These barriers are undemocratic, and prevent fair elections from taking place.
One of the biggest barriers preventing third parties from gaining political power in the United States is institutional. The U.S. uses a winner take all system, a system in which the winner of an election gets all the electoral votes for that state. This results in only candidates who are able to get a plurality of votes being able to actually win any given election. Alternative systems in which third parties could thrive include proportional representation. This system is currently in place in countries such as Spain and Austria- although most major countries that employ proportional representations also use a voting percent threshold to prevent significantly minor third parties, or radical third parties from taking office.
Conversely, in the U.S, a candidate has next to no political influence if they can not secure a plurality of the votes, and whoever did secure the plurality would then take all electoral votes. How close the candidate was to 33% (a plurality assuming there are three candidates running for office) does not matter- even a 32% would not be represented in the electoral votes.
The winner take all system prevents third parties from electoral success, and the lack of success prevents these minor parties from growing and gaining support. No one wants to feel as if they are “throwing away their vote” by supporting a third party which is much less likely to win. By doing so, they would be taking that vote away from a Democrat or Republican candidate that may align with at least some of their views, if not most of them. Most people would rather vote for the lesser of two evils than to essentially give a vote to a candidate whom they do not agree with. This results in a fiercely competitive winner take all system, third parties can not thrive.
Ballot access is a large reason why most third parties can not make it to, let alone win, a presidential election. Democrats and Republicans, the two major parties, set the restriction on ballots and would likely try to keep any third party candidates off of them for the same reason that people won’t vote for them- they are afraid of taking votes away from their major candidate.
In the same vein, minor parties aren’t often allowed to participate in the debates seen on TV before major elections. These debates are a huge part of any candidates campaign, and an opportunity to gain a lot of exposure and support. In 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates created a rule stating that third parties need at least fifteen percent in national polls to be part of debates. When third parties are excluded from debates, they are essentially seen as illegitimate in comparison to the candidates on screen- and do more poorly in the elections as a result.
Third parties also rarely succeed in elections because they lack the major funding and resources that the two major parties have. Third parties are often much smaller, and have tighter purses- even the Libertarian Party, one of the largest and most organized third parties, has a small budget compared to Democrats or Republicans. Individuals and corporations can donate unlimited amounts of money to political candidates (despite the undemocratic nature of these donations) in an attempt to curry favor and have policy passed that is favorable to them. These corporations have more faith in the two major parties, and Democrats/Republicans are very well funded as a result. Third parties simply cannot compete with the sea of resources that major parties have available to them. Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, says himself, “What’s very clear is that reporters focus on the two major-party candidates. So if you’re a third-party candidate and you don’t possess the vast personal fortune of a Ross Perot, you’re going to be ignored,” The only reason third parties are becoming more relevant in recent years is due to the internet- which allows them to spread information more cheaply than say, a campaign tour.
Related to the fact that third parties usually lack money and resources, they also can not afford “big name” candidates who are already politically well connected and supported to represent their party. More famous candidates would already have a large following that supports their views and ideas, making campaigning easier. But these candidates would rather run under a major party name, since they would have a much better chance of actually winning the Presidency. An example of this would be Bernie Sanders, who had previously run as Independent, but opted to enter the 2016 election as a Democrat.
Also, third party candidates usually believe very strongly in a specific set of ideals- which can alienate them from the majority of voters and prevent them from gaining support. Most voters can easily decide between which of the major parties they would like to align themselves with, as these parties are formed around two very general ways of thinking, but a third party usually tackles a specific issue. In the case of the Green Party, their political platform is centered around environmental issues. Major parties also have a tendency to pick up pieces of minor party platforms if those minor parties gain political relevance, which is good for those that believe in those ideas, but still prevents even “successful” third parties from gaining momentum and actually winning elections.
Third parties’ inability to develop and gain political influence, especially due to the winner take all system, is inherently undemocratic. Democracy is based in the will of the people- and that will is ignored and erased in this system. Proportional representation would allow all voters to have some voice, and decrease voter apathy while allowing third parties a better chance at succeeding in major elections. Many people who agree with the third party platforms are not aligning themselves with them due to a lack of faith in their success, while major parties begin listening less to their constituents and more to their deep pocketed campaign donors. The voters are then left with the options of either “throwing away their vote” or choosing the major party that aligns with at least some of their views. In a truly democratic system, voters would be able to align themselves with the party that represents them most truly, and know that their vote actually matters.
American politics revolve around a two party system, but are afraid to tackle many of the issues that third parties bring to light. Still, institutional barriers, a lack of funds, and a lack of faith keep them from developing in this political client. These barriers are preventing a true democracy from existing and need to change.