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Third Party Candidates

United States democracy is based on the principle of a multi-party system. Today, citizens can cast votes for representatives of the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, or Independent Party, to name a few of the 37 or so active parties that currently list candidates. Americans may also vote for nominees of the dominant Republican and Democratic Parties, which may seem permanently ensconced. However, until 1792, there was only one party, and it was neither Republican nor Democrat. Anti-Federalists formed the first opposition faction against the new nation’s Federalist Party. It evolved into the Democratic-Republican Party and still later, into the modern Democratic Party. The Whig Party, formally organized in 1834, was a key political force until the 1850s, when the slavery question seriously divided party members. The Republican Party formed in its wake, composed largely of Northern opponents of slavery. Indeed, President Lincoln’s election in 1860 was commonly regarded as a third-party victory.

A variety of third parties have challenged the dominant two-party system since the first (the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832), most of them driven by protests on particular issues or focused on discrete political ideologies. The Liberty and Prohibition Parties, for instance, called respectively for the abolition of slavery and prohibition of alcohol. Theodore Roosevelt was perhaps the most successful third-party candidate after Lincoln, when he gained 27.5% of the popular vote as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912. In more recent times, Ross Perot (Reform and Independent Parties) captured an astonishing 19% of the popular vote. Third-party candidates for the Presidency have been far more influential in raising public awareness about particular issues and affecting the tenor of political discourse, than in winning votes. The two dominant parties have often adopted concerns championed by a third party, ironically diminishing the third party’s power.

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