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What is a Third Party?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the US, a third party, is any political party outside the major two, the Republican and Democrat parties. These groups are usually formed by people who feel disenfranchised by the big two, or feel that the people are not being effectively represented by either of the major parties. Voting for a third party candidate is still frequently referred to as throwing away a vote, however, and third parties are often considered “spoilers.” Ross Perot ran as a Reform Party candidate in 1992, for example, and won nearly 19% of the popular vote. He is often credited by Republicans with helping Bill Clinton win the presidency.

In 2000, Democrats blamed Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, for the election of George W. Bush. As politics become heated and controversial issues abound, more people are becoming politically active. They are becoming more educated about what is going on in the world by utilizing many different news sources. Those who feel they are being pandered to or abandoned by the major parties may vote for an outside candidate, even if it is only to send a message.

Instead of continuing to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” many voters on both sides want more choices. Third parties are currently at a disadvantage in terms or recognition, funding, air time, debates, and ballot access, however, so are often unable to offer voters much of a choice. Until a third party can compete with Republicans and Democrats, a vote for one of these candidates will continue to be viewed negatively by many people. The irony is that without a high enough percentage of votes, these parties will never be recognized as major parties.

Third party candidates have filed lawsuits to obtain fair treatment and access, and a great number of people are pushing for more choices. Many see the major parties as two sides of the same coin. Change is brought about by having more choices, and third parties may become the vehicle of that change. Even when a third party doesn’t win an election, it may be able to bring certain issues to the forefront and cause Republicans and Democrats to address those issues.

The largest third party in the United States to date is the Constitution Party, followed by the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. There are several other smaller parties, all vying for precious votes.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Sep 06, 2012

When the title said "third party," I thought it was referring to third parties in international diplomacy or negotiations.

I study conflict resolution and when a country (or organization) not directly involved in the conflict intervenes to help solve it, we call that country a "third-party."

This is also where the terms "third-party intervention" or "third party negotiations" come from.

By candyquilt — On Sep 05, 2012

@ankara-- No, I don't agree. If half of the country decided to vote for a third party, that party would no longer be the third party. They would win the presidential election.

There is nothing wrong with our system. Yes, it's dominated by two parties, but that's because those are the parties that Americans like the most and vote for. It's as simple as that. There is no need to make the third-party appear like the underdog so to speak.

By bluedolphin — On Sep 04, 2012

@cafe41-- I don't think that third parties are destructive to the political process. On the contrary, it's the shortcomings of the political system that doesn't allow third parties a say in governance despite their popularity.

I know for example that no matter how hard the Green Party tries to win elections, it's never going to get a majority of the vote. But don't you think that they should still have a say as politicians and law makers?

The third party or any party aside from the two major ones serve no function in the US, aside from simply existing. If we had a more friendly multi-party system, people would be voting for the party that they actually want to vote for. Now people are forced to pick between the Democrats or the Republicans so as to not waste their vote.

By cafe41 — On Nov 10, 2010

Mutsy-I totally agree. I know that when Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate and many have said that if he hadn’t run and simply joined the Gore campaign then George W. Bush might not have been elected because the margins were so low.

I think that third parties are destructive to the political process and instead they should work with the party that they are most closely aligned with as did the Tea Party so that the movement could have a chance at success.

Third parties don’t win elections. It is far better for the Party to embrace a third party within itself and offer that leader a voice then to splinter it with a third party that will go nowhere.

By mutsy — On Nov 10, 2010

Suntan12-I think that third party candidacies do damage to both parties and bring about the worst possible outcomes in elections.

For example, in the Tea Party movement, the Republican candidate was usually the Tea Party favorite.

Although the Republican Party establishment congressmen find the Tea Party a bit threatening, it was because of the Tea Party that the Republican Party became relevant again.

The Tea Party movement has moved the Republican Party back to the right and more inclined with its conservative views especially with respect to fiscal policies.

Here the movement was combined and it benefited the Republicans, but had the Tea Party run on its own, it would have been a disaster for the Republican Party.

By suntan12 — On Nov 10, 2010

A third party often develops because the candidates as well as its followers feel that their viewpoints are not heard. The problem with third parties is that they often siphon votes from the party closets aligned with the movement and bring about the opposite results of what the third party wanted.

For example, Ross Perot’s third party candidacy leads to the defeat of George H. W Bush. Ross Perot was seen as more of a libertarian, but instead of electing himself or Bush, who represented the Republican Party who was closer in ideology to him than the Democrat Party, instead got President Bill Clinton, elected.

President Clinton had opposing views to that of Bush and Perot, so the Perot candidacy really did not have a positive outcome. A better measure would have been for Perot and Bush to combine forces in order for each to get what they needed.

Clearly if Bush would have brought Perot over to his campaign and listened to some of his ideas they both would have gotten a little closer to what they wanted, but instead both lost and ended up with the exact opposite. This did not help either movement.

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