“Can an independent candidate like RFK Jr. win the presidency?” [updated]

There is much that’s accurate in this explainer in The Washington Post. But there is one sentence that jumped out to me as highly inaccurate and misleading: “For much of U.S. history, there were more than two major political parties, and that could emerge again.” That’s just not true. To be sure, third (and fourth, etc.) parties have attempted to compete against the two dominant parties since fairly early in the nineteenth century, and the upstart Republican Party was able to replace the Whigs as the second dominant party before the Civil War. But never has there been a period when three or more “major political parties” have been competitive amongst each other at the same time. The closest the nation came to that was 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) party eclipsed the GOP to come in second for the presidency (in both the Electoral College and the national popular vote). But the Progressive Party was not able to sustain itself as a “major” third party. The role of minor parties in the nineteenth century, like the Greenbacks, was much the same as the role of minor parties, like the Greens, today.

The Post’s explainer correctly observes that the “plurality” winner rule that states to award their electoral votes prevents third parties from effectively competing. But the piece fails to discuss the kind of electoral reforms that would enable third parties to compete without simply serving as spoilers for one of the two major parties. Instead, the explainer concludes by saying: “So until there is a popular rejection of the two major parties, or an official divide in one of them, the two-party system dominates.” Instead, a better conclusion would have been something like this: “So unless election laws are changed to adopt procedures that would enable third parties to compete effectively, like various forms of ranked choice voting, the two-party system dominates.”

UPDATE: Although this blog post focused on presidential elections, a full assessment of the extent to which a third political party has ever been able to sustain successful electoral competition in the United States for any significant period of time would encompasses an analysis of third parties in congressional as well as presidential elections. One reader of this post correctly observes that in the Thirty-Fourth Congress, elected in 1854, the American (Know Nothing) Party won 51 seats in the House of Representatives, while Democrats won 82 seats, and the “Opposition Party” of former Whigs and future Republicans won 100 seats. This aberrational high-water mark of third-party representation in Congress, I would argue, was a temporary consequence of the transition from the old two-party electoral competition between Democrats and Whigs to the new two-party electoral competition between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, as a result of the next election in 1856, the American Party’s representation in the House dropped to 14 members (with 132 Democrats and 90 Republicans, plus 1 “Independent Democrat”). I do not think the performance of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s reflects the capacity of a third party to sustain effective electoral competition in the plurality-winner system that became dominant in the Jacksonian era.

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