Minor political parties do not do well in elections as two parties dominate American politics and the likelihood is that this will be the case in the future. The wealth that the Democrats and Republicans can generate and their traditional hold in American politics invariably means that no other party is likely to get even a ‘toe hold’ in the area where politics count – elections

Since 1980, only four state governors have labelled themselves “independent” out of a potential total of 350 and there is only one “independent” state governor now. The impact an independent governor would have at state level would have to be assessed on an individual state basis. Their impact on national politics is obviously minimal. Therefore America remains a dualist-nation politically. However, minority parties do exist.

Their problems are simple.

they do not have the financial backing that the two main parties have the cost of thorough campaigning during an election is beyond most most voters traditionally support the two main parties as they are ‘safe’ bets – the minority parties would be something of a gamble the electoral system counts against them both main parties are prepared to be flexible with regards to what they represent and they modify their policies according to what is popular at the time, therefore taking potentially important issues away from the minority parties. As such, they can ‘steal the thunder’ of the minority parties.

There have been instances when the electorate has clearly shown that they were disinterested with the two main parties – such as Perot’s showing in 1992. The resultant move by both parties was to steal away from Perot much of what he stood for so that by the 1996 election, his national support fell drastically – despite the financial resources he could call on.


“One of the persistent qualities of the American two-party system is the way in which one of the major parties moves almost instinctively to absorb – thus to be somewhat reshaped by – the most challenging third party of the time.” (Rossiter)



Two types of minor parties have been identified :

1. the ideological/doctrinal party that has a long history of campaigning in elections
2. the transient parties that quickly rise and equally fall and decline.

Ideological parties operate on the fringes of politics and their policies clearly do not have broad support among the electorate. They do not change their polices to get wider support – therefore what they stand for is fixed. They are prepared to wait until the voters see just how corrupt etc. the two main parties are and then wait for those voters to flock to them as they are the parties that have never ‘sold’ their beliefs for cheap votes. They believe that eventually the voter will admire their honesty and principled stand – they adopt a long term view that one day this will happen. Such parties in America would be :

1. the Libertarian Party which believes in a massive reduction in the power of the government at all levels. In the 1980 election, the party won nearly one million votes while in the 1996 election they got 485,000 votes – 0.5% of the total.

2. the Green Party which campaigns on environmental issues. In 1996 they got 684,000 votes – 0.7% of the total – despite having a well known ‘leader’ in Ralph Nader. In the 2000 election, the Green Party got 2.8 million votes/2.7% of the national votes cast. However, they were only on the ballot paper in 21 states and they got over half their votes from the three Pacific states. Their best showing was in Oregon where they received 3.6% of the votes.

3. the Reform Party led by Ross Perot which has been the most successful third party since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. For the 1996 election this party was known as the Independence Party and it got 8.4% of the national vote – but this was a major decrease compared to the 1992 support received by Perot. Perot, of course, has access to something that the other minority parties do not – almost unlimited wealth and spending power that brings with it the media coverage so needed in modern politics. For all this he did not win one Electoral College vote in 1992 or 1996. In the 2000 election, the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan got less than 500,000 votes nationally and no Electoral College votes.

The transient parties are usually formed from a breakaway from the two main parties and are a response to the policies that they might be supporting at a national level. In 1948, some southern Democrat politicians created the “Dixiecrat” candidacy of Thurmond as they did not approve of Truman and his presidency since 1945. Once the main party has been seen to accommodate the views of these breakaways, they died a quick death. In 1968, the Democrat George Wallace created the American Independent Party which wanted segregation of the races – he was a southern politician. He gained 45 Electoral College votes in 1968. Four years later he was back in the Democrat Party though the party had not re-introduced segregation. In 1968, Wallace was supported simply because he was George Wallace – a charismatic and publicity seeking politician with a band of support in the south. In the 1988 election, the AIP polled just 27,000 votes – an irrelevance.

The best showing minority parties in the 1996 election 

Candidate/Party Popular vote % of national total Best state showing
Perot (Reform) 8,085,285 8.4 Maine (14%)
Nader (Green) 684,000 0.7 Oregon (3.5%)
Browne (Libertarians) 485,000 0.5 Arizona (1%)
Philips (US Tax) 184,000 0.19 Virginia (0.5%)
Hegelin (Nat. Law) 114,000 0.12 Montana (0.4%)
Moorehead (Workers World) 29,000 0.03 Ohio (0.2%)
Feinland (Peace and Freedom) 25,000 0.03 California (0.2%)
Collins (Indepen) 8,900 0.01 Colorado (0.1%)
Harris (Socialist Workers) 8,400 0.01 DC (0.1%)