In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Third-Party Politics in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Influence of Third Parties
  • Normative Considerations

Political Science Third-Party Politics in the United States
Stephen K. Medvic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0251


Third parties, and those who vote for third parties, are an understudied aspect of politics in the United States. This is likely the result of the fact that third parties have played a relatively insignificant role in American politics for nearly a century. Third-party candidates do not often appear on ballots and, when they do, they are not considered viable candidates. With few data points to analyze, political scientists have not given third parties in the United States much attention. Nevertheless, the American two-party system, and the marginalization of third parties within that system, is a worthy subject of inquiry. To be sure, minor parties have been influential at particular points in American history. Third parties have forced issues onto the national policy agenda, and several minor-party or independent presidential candidates have garnered a considerable share of the vote. Indeed, third-party candidates have had a noticeable impact in some recent presidential elections (e.g., 2000). There is also evidence that during the previous twenty or thirty years third-party candidates have increasingly begun to appear in US House races. Important empirical questions are raised by the presence—and absence—of third parties in American elections. Why, for instance, are there only two viable parties in the United States? What explains the emergence of third parties in an otherwise two-party system? When third-party candidates do run for office, who votes for them and why? What impact—electorally and otherwise—do third-party candidates have on American politics? Finally, what are the normative implications of a two-party system? Each of these questions forms a section in this article.

General Overviews

A number of works, some of which are intended as textbooks, provide a general overview of the role, and history, of third parties in the United States. Perhaps the most valuable treatment of third parties in American politics is Rosenstone, et al. 1996, which serves as an excellent introduction to the subject in addition to being a rigorous empirical examination (see also under Third-Party Candidate Emergence and Third-Party Voting). Ness and Ciment 2000 is a reference book on the history of third parties, and Hesseltine 1948 also provides (now-dated) historical context. Perhaps the most ambitious examination of third parties is Mazmanian 1974, which covers third-party emergence as well as the electoral and policy impact of third parties. A text on parties generally, Key 1964 addresses the reasons for the two-party system and briefly focuses on types of third parties. Gillespie 1993 and Gillespie 2012 rely on V. O. Key’s characterizations for their own discussion of third parties. Finally, Bibby and Maisel 2003 is an excellent introduction to third parties, and Herrnson and Green 1997 and Herrnson and Green 2002 collect chapters on a variety of aspects of multiparty politics in the United States.

  • Bibby, John F., and L. Sandy Maisel. Two Parties—or More? The American Party System. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.

    Bibby and Maisel provide a general introduction to the American two-party system. Chapters address definitional issues, historical perspectives, explanations for the two-party system, the public’s desire for alternatives, and the future of two-party politics in the United States.

  • Gillespie, J. David. Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

    This exploration of third parties in the United States relies on V. O. Key’s 1958 distinction between continuing doctrinal and short-lived third parties. Gillespie devotes a chapter to continuing doctrinal parties, and one each to “transient” third parties in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also chapters that consider “non-national significant other” parties, minor parties that represent the feminist and civil rights movements, and the beliefs and personalities of third-party leaders.

  • Gillespie, J. David. Challenges to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.

    This volume is a revision and expansion of Gillespie 1993, including six additional chapters. While it continues to utilize the distinction between continuing doctrinal and short-lived third parties, the book is framed around the idea that the American party system is a “duopoly” or “a two-party system that is undergirded by discriminatory systematic measures designed to burden, disadvantage, or entirely shut out challenges to the majority parties’ lock on electoral politics” (p. 2).

  • Herrnson, Paul S., and John C. Green, eds. Multiparty Politics in America: Prospects and Performance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

    This edited volume is divided into three parts, one each on minor-party “possibilities,” “performance,” and “prospects.” Among the noteworthy chapters in the book is an empirical examination of “minor-party forays in American politics”; a chapter on lessons to be learned from new party formation in Europe; a chapter on minor-party candidates’ backgrounds, beliefs, and political activities; and chapters on institutional obstacles to a multiparty system and various barriers to minor-party success.

  • Herrnson, Paul S., and John C. Green, eds. Multiparty Politics in America: Prospects and Performance. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

    This updated edition of Herrnson and Green 1997 is divided into just two parts, one on “possibilities” and another on “performance.” Among the new chapters in this edition is one on public opinion toward the American party system, a chapter on minor-party congressional and state legislative campaigns, and one on Ralph Nader’s presidential bid in 2000.

  • Hesseltine, William B. The Rise and Fall of Third Parties: From Anti-Masonry to Wallace. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1948.

    Hesseltine provides historical accounts of significant third parties in American political history. He begins with a review of 19th-century third-party movements and then turns his attention to 20th-century third-party bids, starting with the Progressives in 1912 and ending with the (Henry) Wallace movement in 1948.

  • Key, V. O., Jr. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964.

    Key addresses the question taken up in the next section of this article—“Why two parties?”—and notes that “several factors drive toward dualism on the American scene” (p. 207). One entire chapter of the text is devoted to minor parties, wherein Key offers a classification of such parties into “two broad types”; namely, the “continuing, doctrinal parties” and the “short-lived, minor-party eruptions” (p. 255).

  • Mazmanian, Daniel A. Third Parties in Presidential Elections. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1974.

    Mazmanian focuses on “significant” third parties, which he defines as those that received a greater percentage of the presidential vote than the average third-party vote in elections between 1828 and 1972, which was 5.6 percent (p. 4). The study seeks to explain the rise of such parties as well as their influence on election outcomes and on public policy.

  • Ness, Immanuel, and James Ciment, eds. The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000.

    This three-volume encyclopedia is a comprehensive resource on third parties in American history. Included are a series of essays that describe the role of third parties in eight historical eras, forty maps illustrating electoral support for third-party (or independent) presidential candidates in a particular year, numerous entries on third parties throughout American history, and biographical entries for individuals who were connected to third parties or who ran for office as significant independent candidates.

  • Rosenstone, Steven J., Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. 2d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    This influential text is a systematic study of third parties in the United States. It identifies constraints on third parties and offers a brief history of third parties in the 19th century and independent candidacies in the 20th. Perhaps most importantly, it develops a general theory to explain third-party voting and the emergence of third-party candidates.

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