In 21st-century America's tightly controlled two-party political system, grabbing a measure of the spotlight during a presidential election is almost impossible. Money, media coverage, and thereby votes are hard to come by. Countless obscure political parties exist within the United States, but none of them have been able to grab a lasting foothold within the system.
Still, that hasn't stopped people from trying. Wealthy industrialists, aggrieved mainstream politicians, and individuals on the fringes of the cultural discourse have attempted to break through the two-party glass ceiling, often using periods of political and social instability to wedge themselves into the national conversation. Some have been more successful than others. The two largest and most notable third parties, the Libertarians and the Green Party, will once again field candidates in the 2020 presidential election. Their chances of winning are slim, but they can certainly play a spoiler role in the process to determine our next commander in chief.
Below is a list of the most successful third-party candidates in American history, listed in chronological order.
Election Year: 1832
Party Affiliation: Nullifier Party
Percentage of Vote Won: N/A
The political make-up of the United States in 1832 was far different than it is today. The party system was still evolving, and the major factions of the time were the Democrats and the National Republicans (not to be confused with today's Republican Party). The Democrats' standard-bearer was Andrew Jackson, then the sitting president. President Jackson was a hard-liner whose aggressive political style caused a fracture in the process. Numerous opponents lined up to oppose Jackson's controversial policies, which included bringing an end to the national banking system. His primary opponent, Henry Clay, represented the National Republicans, but other parties sprung up to try to stop Jackson's reelection.
The Nullifier Party was founded in South Carolina as a bastion of states' rights and the idea of nullification - which argues that states should have the power to disregard and invalidate any federal law they don't like. The party chose Virginia Governor John Floyd as its nominee. Jackson's immense popularity with the American voting population led him to a landslide reelection. Floyd, on the other hand, fared poorly. He received no percentage of the popular vote, but was awarded 11 electoral votes, as South Carolina's presidential electors were, at the time, decided by a vote of their state legislature.
- Age: Dec. at 54 (1783-1837)
- Birthplace: Kentucky, USA
Election Year: 1832
Party Affiliation: Anti-Masonic Party
Percentage of Vote Won: 7.78%
Like John Floyd, William Wirt attempted to unseat Andrew Jackson in 1832. Wirt represented the Anti-Masonic Party, which, as the name states, was a political group dedicated to crusading against the fraternal organization known as the Freemasons. It was the belief of the Anti-Masonic Party that the Freemasons were part of a vast global conspiracy. The Anti-Masons were an early iteration of the American populist movement - highly skeptical of the elites, and against modernity and the exclusivity inherent in the Masonic organization.
Wirt took Virginia, defeating that state's sitting governor, John Floyd. Elsewhere in the country, he struggled, and this iteration of the Anti-Masonic Party dissolved eight years later.
- Age: Dec. at 62 (1772-1834)
- Birthplace: Bladensburg, Maryland, USA
Election Year: 1848
Party Affiliation: Free Soil Party
Percentage of Vote Won: 10%
The case of Martin Van Buren and the Free Soil Party is a unique one in American history, primarily because Van Buren had already served a single, four-year term as president from 1837-1841. The seasoned New York politician swept into office thanks to an endorsement from highly popular outgoing president Andrew Jackson, under whom he had served as vice president.
Four years later, Van Buren was defeated in his reelection bid by William Henry Harrison, but he didn't fade from the national stage as later one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush would in the 20th century. Van Buren became a vocal abolitionist, advocating for the human rights of enslaved Americans. Free Soilers believed it was impossible for the federal government to free the slaves of the South, but that they could prevent slavery from spreading to new territories in the West.
Van Buren stood as their first presidential candidate, but found far less success in his third attempt at the presidency. The Free Soil ticket finished last out of three candidates, with Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party securing the necessary electoral votes to win the Oval Office. The Free Soil Party folded in 1854, and much of its platform was co-opted by the fledgling Republican Party.
- Age: Dec. at 80 (1782-1862)
- Birthplace: Kinderhook, Columbia County, Contiguous United States, New York, United States of America
Election Year: 1856
Party Affiliation: American Party
Percentage of Vote Won: 21.5%
Another former president seeking to return to power, Fillmore stood for the American Party, better known as the "Know Nothings," named after their cagey responses to non-party members asking for details of their organization. The previously dominant Whig Party had collapsed, the fight over slavery was reaching a fever pitch, and sitting Democratic president Franklin Pierce was so unpopular that he failed to win the nomination of his own party. This instability was an ideal breeding ground for a fringe third party to grab the national spotlight.
Echoes of the Know Nothings' party platform can be seen in today's politics: distrust of immigrants, the deportation of "undesirables," state-mandated religious education, strong government regulation of private industry, and the expansion of rights for minorities and women. The Know Nothings, while ostensibly anti-slavery, focused most of their attention on the hatred of immigrants and Catholics, making them one of the first isolationist movements in American politics. Fillmore won a significant percentage of the popular vote, but only captured one state, Maryland, netting him a scant eight electors. This would be the final presidential election to feature a Know Nothing candidate, as the Civil War made questions of immigration far less pressing.
- Age: Dec. at 74 (1800-1874)
- Birthplace: Moravia, New York, United States of America