Election 2020 Third Party Candidates

April 1, 2021
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A Third Choice?

Some candidates running for President won’t appear on the debate stage … but they may still shape the race.

Why they matter.

Why Only Two?

  • A political system with two dominant parties dates back to the first elections in American history.
  • In 1796, candidates from two major parties faced off in the first election for local lawmakers.
  • The two parties to emerge: Federalist (supported the Constitution and strong federal government) & Democratic-Republicans (supported state, local power).
“… potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Pres. Washington in his 1796 farewell address, on the rise in power of political parties he described as "potent engines."

Why Only Two Now?

There’s no single reason.

One famous French sociologist theorized American politics supports only two political parties.

Why? A “winner-take-all” system. A candidate who wins the most votes gets the win. With no reward for runner-up, voters want to vote for the *likely* winner, and the two parties stay in power.


Every year, hundreds of people may run for President. Here are the three you’re most likely to hear about:

Jo Jorgenson (Libertarian Party) – She’s on the ballot in all 50 states.

Howie Hawkins (Green Party)

Kanye West (Birthday Party)


They may not make it onto the ballot; candidates need to meet state-imposed signature thresholds.

They may not make it onto the debate stage; they need to meet a polling threshold (for presidential debate, they need 15%+ support on major polls).

Regardless, they absolutely can influence the ultimate outcome of the election.

Example: 2016 Election

In the following “swing” states, third-party candidates collectively won approx:

  • 4% of the vote in Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina
  • 6% of the vote in Michigan & Wisconsin

President Trump won all these states by a margin of less than 4% (with the tightest race being in Michigan, which he won by just .3%).


“Every minor party or independent candidate who has run in modern history has taken some votes from (both parties).”

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, describing how third-party candidates have shaped modern presidential elections. Burden also says despite popular belief, a vote for third-party candidates is NOT automatically a vote siphoned from Democrat candidates.

Has a third-party candidate ever won the presidency in modern times? No. But former President Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate and came in second to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Ross Perot won 19% of the votes in 1992 but still didn't win any electoral votes.

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by Jenna Lee,