The United States is rooted in a two-party political system that strongly limits the potential electoral success of third parties. Although third parties 🥉 often play a significant role in the election process, they rarely experience success on a large scale, especially in federal elections. Most elections in the United States, including elections for single-member district seats in the House of Representatives, are determined by a winner-take-all 💯 system. This means that candidates who win a plurality (the most votes—with or without a majority) of the votes are rewarded with full representation within a congressional district.
The winner-take-all 💯system is also used as part of the Electoral College 🏫 for determining the winning candidate in presidential elections. Each state has a set number of electors, and all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) award electors using the winner-take-all system—candidates that win a plurality of a state’s popular vote are awarded all of that state’s electoral votes. In the example in the chart below, the Democratic Party 🟦 candidate wins the election—and 100% representation in the district—with less than a majority of the vote.
|2020 Presidential Elections
|48.59% popular vote / 0 electoral votes
|49.93% popular vote / 15 electoral votes
|49.47% popular vote / 16 electoral votes
|49.24% popular vote / 0 electoral votes
Parties other than the leading ones, despite receiving a significant share of the votes, miss out on serving within the district because of the winner-take-all 💯 format. This discourages third party candidates 🥉 from running for office because they have virtually no chance of winning a state’s popular vote. This reality also discourages many voters from voting for third party candidates because they believe they’re essentially “throwing away” 🗑 their votes to an inevitably losing candidate.
Look at these examples: Ross Perot of the Reform Party won 8.4% of votes, but not a single Electoral College vote in the 1996 Presidential Elections. Interestingly, he was able to get 18.91% of votes in 1992 as an independent candidate (not backed by any political party) and still failed to win a single electoral vote. The last time a third-party candidate won an Electoral College vote was in 1968 when George Wallace of the American Independent Party won 46 electoral votes (still far from the 301 with which Nixon won, but still substantial, given that Wallace was neither a Democratic nor a Republican candidate.
A non-structural barrier impeding the potential success of third parties 🥉 is the incorporation of third party agendas by the Democratic 🟦 and Republican 🟥 parties. Despite their limited success in winning elections, third parties sometimes are able to significantly influence policy and election outcomes. In an effort to attract independent and third party voters, the major parties will often include major third party agenda items into their platforms.
When third-party agendas are incorporated into the platforms of major political parties, the third-party's unique issues and perspectives can become diluted or obscured. This can reduce the appeal of third-party and independent candidates to voters who are looking for a distinct alternative to the two major parties.
Although this practice makes it even more difficult for third party candidates to win elections, it can lead to significant social changes. If the Democratic 🟦 and Republican 🟥 parties ignore third party agendas for a prolonged period of time, they run the risk of third parties continuing to gain in popularity, posing electoral risks in future elections.