Interesting Third-Party Candidates
Third-party candidates are the strangest mythical creatures in American politics.
To explain, every few years, the myth that a third-party candidate will ride in capture the presidency, and save America from the forces of evil takes hold. In reality, no third-party candidate has received a significant share of the vote in 109 years.
The last third-party candidate to get more votes than a major party candidate was Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) in 1912. Roosevelt, a popular ex-president, won 88 Electoral College votes on the Progressive Party ticket. The winner of the election of Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) won 435 Electoral College Votes. In contrast, President William H. Taft (R-Ohio) won eight Electoral College votes.
Thus, Roosevelt did not win enough votes to affect the outcome of the election. In fact, no third-party candidate has won enough Electoral College votes to affect the outcome of a presidential election.
However, some observers think third-party candidates such as H. Ross Perot (Reform-Texas) could have shifted enough popular votes to affect the Electoral College outcome. In addition, Third-Party candidates such as Perot and George Wallace (P-Alabama) sometimes foreshadow national political trends.
Therefore, examining third-party candidates can show us where politics could go. Studying past third candidates can help us identify future alternative candidates and new political trends.
Some Interesting Third-Party Candidates include:
Eugene V. Debs (S-Indiana)
Debs was one of the most influential and prolific third-party candidates. He was also a fascinating man.
Debs ran for president five times. He was also the only person to campaign for president from a prison cell in 1920. Interestingly, Debs probably had more influence over American history than many establishment candidates even though he never won an Electoral College vote.
Eugene V. Debs (S-Indiana) was the Socialist Party candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Debs became famous as the Grand Secretary of the Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, a union, and editor of the Brotherhood’s magazine.
Ironically, Debs began his political career as a conventional Democrat. He served two terms as City of Clerk in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, and served as a state representative in Indiana.
Debs became famous by organizing the first US industrial union, the American Railway Union (ARU) in June 1893. In April 1894, ARU members went on strike at James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway. The ARU forced Hill, a Gilded Age Robber Baron, to accept its demands 18 days later.
On 11 May 1894, Debs and the ARU organized a boycott and strike against railroad sleeper car builder and operator Pullman. In July 1894 and May 1895 courts jailed Debs and other ARU leaders for contempt of court. Consequently, Debs became a national hero. For instance, immense crowds welcomed Debs when he reported to jail to serve his sentence on 22 November 1895.
The chaos of the 1890s radicalized Debs, who became a Social democrat. To explain, Debs was a patriotic American who viewed socialism as the logical conclusion of the American Revolution. Debs believed only a government takeover of corporations and industry could preserve the rights elaborated in the Declaration of Independence and Guaranteed by the Constitution.
Debs became the leader of a political party called the Social Democracy of America. In 1900, Debs ran as the party’s presidential candidate. In 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, Debs ran as the presidential candidate for another organization called the Socialist Party of America.
In 1912, Debs received 901,551 popular votes and came in fourth behind William Howard Taft (R-Ohio), Theodore Roosevelt (P-New York) and Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey). However, Debs received no Electoral College votes.
Debs was the most popular and best-known third-party candidate of the early 1900s. Debs’ strangest election came in 1920 when he campaigned for president from a federal prison cell in Atlanta instead of his “Red Special Train.”
On 16 June 1918, US marshals arrested Debs. Debs’ crime was to deliver a speech condemning America’s involvement in World War I. Federal prosecutors charged Debs with violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts for exercising his First Amendment rights. Debs believed World War I was being fought for the benefit of a few Wall Street Bankers at the expense of ordinary Americans.
“I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs declared. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”
A Federal Court found Debs guilty on three counts and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Disgustingly, newspaper editorials applauded the court’s ruling. Frighteningly, a unanimous US Supreme Court upheld Debs’ blatantly unconstitutional conviction verifying his gloomy assessment of civil liberties. Hence, the Espionage Act is still law in America 103 years after Debs’ arrest.
Debs spent two and a half years in prison for exercising his constitutional rights. Ironically , the Socialist Party nominated Debs as its presidential candidate in 1920 while he was in prions. Debs ,or Convict 9653, won 3.5% of the popular vote.
In December 1921, Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) commuted Debs’ sentence and invited him to the White House. By the late 1930s, ten years after Debs’ death, most Americans, including many Republicans had adopted the old socialist’s view of World War I as an atrocity participated by arms dealers. It took Pearl Harbor for Americans to support another war.
Long in poor health, Debs died at a sanitarium in Terre Haute, Indiana. During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), ironically a conservative Democrat, implemented of the Socialist Party’s agenda including federal support of unions, Social Security, and unemployment insurance as part of his New Deal.
Hence, Debs lost the battle, but won the war after his death. Therefore, Eugene V. Debs was one of the most successful third-party candidates in American history. Debs changed America by running and losing.
Norman Mattoon Thomas (S-New York) was a Presbyterian Minister who ran for president six times on the Socialist Party Ticket.
Strangely, Thomas studied under future President Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) at Princeton University in the early 1900s. Thomas was a frequent candidate who never held office. He also ran for Governor of New York State, Mayor of New York City, New York State Senate, and Alderman (New York City Councilman). Thomas ran for President in 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948.
Thomas joined with conservatives in 1940 to organize the America First Committee to oppose US entry into World War II. Like many conservatives, Thomas was an isolationist who opposed US international involvement because it led to wars.
Like Debs, Thomas had a reputation for often unpopular political and ethical stands. For example, Thomas was one of the national political figures to oppose FDR’s blatantly unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Thomas compared the President’s action to “burning down Chicago to get rid of gangsters.”
Norman Thomas became the respectable face and voice of American socialism in later years. He earned the hatred of the radical left for criticizing Stalin and of the Right for his anti-war stands. Thomas remained politically active until his death in 1968. He was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.
Norman Thomas was the man everybody admired, but nobody voted for.
J. Strom Thurmond Jr. (D-South Carolina)
Today we remember Strom Thurmond (SR-South Carolina) as one of the longest serving US Senators in history.
However, in 1948, Thurmond, an eccentric South Carolina governor and war hero, ran for president as a Dixiecrat on the State’s Rights Party ticket. Strangely, Thurmond knew he did not stand a chance of winning.
Instead, Thurmond’s goal was simple to screw President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) out of an electoral victory. To explain, Thurmond and other Southern racists were angry at Truman’s support of Civil Rights and desegregation of the military.
The Dixiecrats hoped to take enough Electoral College votes away from Truman to deliver the White House to popular Governor Thomas E. Dewey (R-New York). Southerners formed the States Rights Party just after Truman won the nomination at the 1948 Democratic convention.
The States Rights Democratic Party or Dixiecrat party was so hastily organized that Thurmond became the only man nominated for President from a professional wrestling ring. They formed the States Rights Party so fast; the promoter did not have time to tear down the ring leftover in the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, from the wrestling show the night before.
Instead of a stage, the States Rights’ Party used the wrestling ring for the speeches at its impromptu convention. The press labeled the States’ Rights Democratic Party the Dixiecrats because of their use of the Confederate battle flag and commitment to the Confederate cause of state rights.
Thurmond’s screw job failed because Truman won a with a comfortable margin of 303 Electoral College votes. However, Thurmond received 39 Electoral College votes.
Thurmond represented South Carolina as a US Senator for 48 years from 1954 to 2003. Ironically, the former Dixiecrat Thurmond became a Republican, the Party of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, in 1964. Thurmond was the third longest serving US Senator after Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Interestingly, Thurmond became the oldest ever member of the US Congress. He was 100 years old at the time of his retirement in 2003. In addition, Thurmond was the longest serving member of Congress to sit only in the Senate. Inouye served in the US House before being elected to the Senate.
Henry A. Wallace (P-Iowa)
Oddly, Thurmond was not the only third-party candidate out to screw Harry Truman in 1948. Former Vice President Henry A. Wallace (P-Iowa) ran with the same goal but a different motivation.
Wallace, an admirer of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin, was angry at Truman’s decision to wage an aggressive Cold War against Communism. Wallace hoped that a challenge from the left could convince Democrats to abandon the Cold War.
Wallace had an odd background for a presidential candidate. His family owned a popular agricultural newspaper, Wallace’s Farmer. Wallace himself was an agronomist who conducted experiments with corn.
He developed one of the first hybrid seed corn varieties, Cooper Cross. Wallace became rich by selling hybrid corn seeds through his Hi-Bred Corn Company.
Wallace, a former Republican, became President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-New York) Secretary of Agriculture. In that position, was a key leader of the New Deal but generated controversy with radical farm policies.
In 1940, FDR engineered Wallace’s nomination as Vice President to reduce the power of conservative Democratic rivals, such as Vice President John Nance Garner (D-Texas). In 1944, Democrats fearing Wallace’s leftist politics and Communist sympathy replaced him with moderate US Senator Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) in the Vice Presidential slot.
By then Wallace had beclowned himself by describing Joseph Stalin’s gulag concentration camps as a “combination Tennessee Valley Authority and Hudson’s Bay Company.” Consequently, many Americans saw Wallace as a Stalinist dupe. FDR appointed Wallace Secretary of Commerce to mollify him, while Truman became president in April 1945.
In 1948, Wallace became the nominee for the Progressive Party. He received the support of many leftist intellectuals. However, Wallace doomed his cause by accepting the endorsement of the American Communist Party. Consequently, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) denounced Wallace as a “front, spokesman, and apologist for the Communist Party.”
Strangely, Wallace received almost as many popular votes as Thurmond (1.57 million compared to the Dixiecrat’s 1.69 million). Yet Wallace received no Electoral College Votes. Thurmond got 39 Electoral College votes in the South with the help of corrupt Jim Crow Democratic Party political machines.
In 1952, at the height of the McCarthyite hysteria, Wallace published a book called Where I Was Wrong that declared the Soviet Union to be “utterly evil.” Predictably, Wallace lost whatever credibility he had and devoted himself to experiments with seeds and chickens. Wallace died in obscurity in 1965, having lost whatever political influence he had.
George Corley Wallace Jr. (AI-Alabama)
George C. Wallace (AI-Alabama) was the last third-party candidate to win Electoral College votes. In 1968, Wallace won 46 Electoral College votes on the American Independent ticket.
Wallace was a strange candidate. He was a left-leaning Democrat who favored both racial segregation and New Deal Social Programs. In the early 1960s, Wallace gained national attention through his aggressive opposition to desegregation as governor of Alabama. Consequently, Wallace began receiving mail from admirers all over the country.
The attention inspired Wallace to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) in the Democratic primaries. Wallace surprised pundits by polling well and attracting enormous crowds in Wisconsin and other northern states.
In 1968 Wallace ran for President on the American Independent Party. Surprisingly, Wallace’s platform was leftwing. For example, it called for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam and Social Security and Medicare increases.
Wallace’s 1968 campaign foreshadowed the Republican victories of the 1970s and 1980s. His advertisements emphasized “law and order” and Wallace himself was a vocal critic of foreign aid. Wallace resembled Donald J. Trump Sr. (R-Florida) with demands that America’s European and Asian allies pay more for defense.
On election day, however, Wallace was no match for a better politician with a similar platform Richard M. Nixon (R-California). Nixon also ran on a law and order platform, promised an end to the Vietnam War, and promised expansion of the welfare state. Nixon won 301 Electoral College Votes easily beating both Wallace and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minnesota).
Wallace returned to the Democratic Party and regained the Alabama governorship in what President Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia) called one of “one of the most racist campaigns in modern Southern political history.” In 1972, Wallace threw his hat into the Democratic presidential primary again.
Ironically, in 1972 Wallace began denouncing segregation and calling himself a moderate on racial matters. Although Wallace expressed his opposition to busing for desegregation. On 15 May 1972 Wallace was shot five times while campaigning in Laurel, Maryland.
Wallace survived, but he was paralyzed and unable to complete the campaign. At the time of his shooting, Wallace was leading in the polls. Wallace made one more unsuccessful Democratic presidential primary run in 1976. In the late 1970s, Wallace became a born again Christian and apologized to blacks for his segregationist policies.
George Wallace paved the way for centrist Democrats such as presidents Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia) and Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas). Notably, Clinton adopted Wallace’s law and order rhetoric. In recent years, many pundits have compared Wallace to Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). Ironically, in 1992 Wallace admitted he voted for President George H. W. Bush (R-Texas) for president and condemned Democrat Bill Clinton as too liberal for Alabama. Wallace died in 1998.
H. Ross Perot (R-Texas)
I consider H. Ross Perot the most overrated presidential candidate in American history.
Perot was a US Navy Academy Graduate and former Naval officer who became an IBM salesman. He later formed two computer companies and sold them for billions of dollars.
Perot became a folk hero for organizing his own commando team to rescue two employees from prison during the Iranian Revolution. The probably imaginary incident became the basis of Ken Follett’s novel On Wings of Eagles. Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster played a fictionalized version of Perot in a TV movie version of On Wings of Eagles.
Hence, Perot’s career was a harbinger of the Hollywood hype and media bullshit that surrounded Donald J. Trump’s (R-Florida) career. Perot announced his candidacy on Larry King Live and asked viewers to put his name on the ballot in all 50 states.
Notably, the center of Perot’s campaign was an astroturf organization he called United We Stand We America. Another anticipation of Trump, who calls his astroturf organization Make America Great Again.
Moreover, Perot’s main issues were opposition to the North American Free Tree Agreement and Mexican immigration. Similarly, Trump’s 2016 campaign emphasized opposition to free trade and immigration.
Like Trump, Perot made bizarre and blatantly false claims. For example, Perot claimed that the Bush administration knew there were American prisoners of war in Vietnam over 20 years after the war. He also claimed that the Black Panthers, the Vietnamese government, and drug-dealing CIA agents were trying to kill him.
Similarly, Trump claimed that President Barack Obama (D-Illinois) was not born in America and that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and racists.
Media outlets such as the Associated Press falsely claim Perot had the best showing for a Third-Party Candidate in a century. In reality, Perot earned no Electoral College votes and his candidacy had no effect on the race’s outcome. In 1992, Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) won by a margin of 370 to 168 Electoral College votes.
However, Perot won 19.742 million votes nationwide. That means little because the popular vote does not determine American presidential elections.
Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money 30-minute infomercials in which he used charts and graphs to explain his points. Hence, Perot foreshadowed Andrew Yang’s (D-New York) Math campaign in 2020.
Perot went onto form his own political party, the Reform Party. The Reform Party became a vehicle for celebrity candidates such as pro wrestler turned Minnesota Governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura and Donald J. Trump Sr. Trump flirted with a presidential run on the Reform Party in 2000.
Perot like Trump ran as as a billionaire populist candidate. However, unlike Trump, Perot failed to confirm the political system. Trump reached the White House by winning the Republican Presidential nomination.
History shows that Third-Party candidates have little effect on American politics or the outcome of elections. However, Perot’s story shows the media keeps hyping them up and perpetuating the Third Party myth.
Intelligent political operatives will learn from Trump and ignore Third Parties.