THE BLOG
05/12/2016 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does a Third-Party Candidate Have a Real Chance at Winning?

The only president ever to win as a third-party candidate: George Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

This election season, with its angry comments sections and nasty memes, is getting seriously heated. A Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton battle is in the cards for this fall, to the dismay of many Republicans and Democrats--just think about all those #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary hashtags.

Last night, Bernie Sanders won big in the West Virginia primary. In spite of some huge victories in recent primaries, Sanders has almost no chance of winning the Democratic nomination at this point (because, well, math).

So there are increasing calls for him to run as a third-party candidate. If he does, that could mean big trouble for Hillary.

Meanwhile, anti-Trump Republicans continue to dream about potential third-party candidates who might throw a wrench in their "presumptive" nominee's campaign. On Tuesday, Ted Cruz announced that he "no interest" in running as a third-party candidate, although many #NeverTrump Republicans see him as a potentially effective option to defeat their nominee.

So ... what exactly is a third party candidate, and why do they matter?

Third Parties and Independents, Explained

Two major parties dominate our democracy--Republicans and Democrats. There are currently only two high-ranking politicians who aren't in one of the mainstream parties: Senator Angus King from Maine and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. King and Sanders are independents, which means that they aren't affiliated with any political party. Sanders chose to enter the presidential race as a Democrat so he could have a real shot at the White House.

In addition to independents, there are a few notable third parties--like the super-liberal Green Party, the conservative, Bible-based Constitution Party, and the Libertarian Party, who believe that the best government is no government (or the least government possible).

These parties are relatively small--for example, the largest of the three is the Libertarian Party. Their candidate Gary Johnson won 1% of the national vote in the 2012 election. Despite their small size, third parties can have a surprisingly BIG effect on an election.

The Spoiler Effect

The only independent candidate ever to win a presidential election was George Washington - in 1789!

So if third-party candidates don't win, why are they such a big deal in elections?

There is something called "the spoiler effect," which basically means that a third-party candidate takes away votes from the mainstream nominee on their end of the political spectrum.

Think Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee in the 2000 Bush v. Gore election.

Consumer advocate and activist Ralph Nader in 2007. (ragesoss/Flickr)

Some people believe that if Nader had dropped out, many of his 97,488 votes in Florida would have gone to the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, and if so, Gore could have won the swing state of Florida, and therefore the election (it was a nailbiter)! Talk about changing history.

Our Two-Party System Makes It Tough for Third-Party Candidates

"Spoilers" aside, most votes for third-party candidates can function as protest votes. These votes hardly ever make a noticeable dent in general elections.

The government has made it pretty hard for third-party candidates to become a part of presidential elections, anyway. It is difficult for alternative parties to simply get on the ballot in many states because of strict ballot access laws.

Also, third-party candidates generally don't get a large stage to showcase their views--they are often banned from presidential debates. Ross Perot, an independent who gained a whopping 19% of the vote in the 1992 election, was allowed to debate with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Those debates helped his exposure and popularity immensely. Four years later, in 1996, the powers-that-be made sure he wasn't allowed back in the debates.

These Are the High-Profile Third-Party Candidates (and Potential Candidates) This Year

If there's any moment for a third-party candidate to shine, it might be this year's hostile election, which is filled with bitter divisions in both parties.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is the Libertarian candidate.

Gary Johnson. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

He is pro-civil liberties, and against the US government meddling in citizens' affairs and international affairs. He also believes in keeping open borders and in legalizing weed nationwide. He presents himself as a candidate outside of the standard "left" vs. "right" notion of politics, and believes he could win over the hearts of young Bernie Sanders supporters.

Dr. Jill Stein is the Green Party candidate.

Dr. Jill Stein. (PaulSteinJC/Flickr)


Stein is progressive and focused on social justice. Her platform overlaps with Bernie Sanders--she is anti-Big Banks, and fights against income inequality and for the 99%. Sanders' supporters name Stein as a "Plan B" candidate, and Stein has gone as far as to openly support Sanders. The two candidates' biggest difference is Stein's strict anti-war stance (Sanders supports the war on ISIS). Stein was once arrested for protesting her exclusion from a 2012 presidential debate.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who gave up running against Trump for the Republican nomination, has been named as a potential third-party candidate who could seriously derail the Trump campaign, although as of right now he claims that he has no interest in becoming an alternative candidate.

And of course, there are the many calls for Bernie Sanders to run as an independent--even from Donald Trump.

Interestingly, right now Sanders polls much better against Trump than Clinton, and could have an easier time beating the Republican nominee in the general election.

But left-leaning Bernie supporters who like the idea of changing the system also know that a Bernie independent run could mean serious trouble for the Democratic party--and their pet issues--and could lead to a potential Trump victory. But still, Sanders supporters who might otherwise have unified behind the remaining Democratic candidate could instead vote for a third-party Sanders.

Yet a third-party Republican candidate would also steal votes from Donald Trump, taking away any chance for a Trump presidency. Even Trump knows it:

But even though chances are low, a third-party candidate win could happen--the Obama administration is even preparing for the possibility.

One thing is clear--all of this in-house fighting demonstrates the crazy climate of this year's election, and the huge divisions currently between, and within, the Democratic and Republican parties. Even the first, and only, independent president George Washington warned us of the "continual mischiefs of the spirit of party."

This article was written by Clementine Amidon and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.