How important are minor parties

Although two parties dominate the political system in the USA,  there are different types: national, regional and state-based; permanent and temporary; issues-based and ideological.

■ The best-known national third parties are the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. The Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson was on the ballot in all 50 states in the 2016 presidential election. In the 2020 United States elections, the Libertarians gained a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives, giving them their first state legislative win since 2000. Jo  Jorgensen Libertarian candidate 2020  received more than 1.8 million votes in the general election, about 1.2% of the national total.

After the election, several media outlets speculated that Jorgensen's candidacy resulted in vote splitting significant enough to be decisive in Democrat Joe Biden's victory over Republican Donald Trump, pointing to Jorgensen's vote share being higher than Biden's margin of victory over Trump in multiple battleground states

while Green Party candidate Jill Stein was on the ballot in 44 states and was a write-in candidate in three more. 2020 Howie Hawkins ran but faced difficulties getting on the ballot in several states for example On May 28, 2020, the Green Party of Rhode Island announced that it would not place a presidential candidate onto the ballot for the first time since 1996 citing the danger of Donald Trump winning reelection 

■ Regional third parties have included Strom Thurmond’s States Rights Party (founded 1948) and George Wallace’s American Independent Party (founded 1968).

■ The Green Party and the Libertarian Party are examples of permanent third parties, while the Reform Party and the American Independent Party are examples of temporary third parties.

■ The Green Party and the Prohibition Party are both examples of issue-based third parties, while the Socialist Party and the Libertarian Party are examples of ideological third parties.

Third parties face a range of obstacles to success. 

Political scientist Patrick Dunleavy has argued, America appears to be the only country in which Duverger's Law — that a single-member-district, first-past-the-post electoral system stymies the creation of third parties — actually holds. Since the two-party system is baked into the cake of the American political system, the pursuit of a third party, whatever sense of smug satisfaction it may generate, is guaranteed to be a sinkhole for money and energy. On a national level, third-party success has been very limited, although they have had some impact on the political system. The reasons for their lack of success are manifold. In some ways this lack of success is a product of the fact that the factions within the major parties allow them to cover a broad range of support, leaving little room on the political spectrum for minor parties. Primaries have also made infiltration of the main parties easier than challenging them, as best highlighted by the rise of Tea Party Republican challengers in the 2010 midterms. However, there remains a range of other obstacles to minority party achievement. 2016 Trump took over the Republican presidential race rather than run as an independent.

Obstacles to success 

First-past-the-post electoral system 

The use of this winner-takes-all system, which is exacerbated by the Electoral College, makes it very hard for minor parties, which do not have both widespread national support and regional strength in depth, to succeed. In this way, George Wallace secured 45 Electoral College votes with 13% of the vote in 1965, targeting southern states, while in 1992 Ross Perot achieved no Electoral College votes despite polling nearly 19% of the national vote. Gary Johnson ( Libertarian)  received 4,489,233 total votes and 3.27% of the national vote, coming third in the nation and setting a record for the Libertarian Party's best ever electoral result in the process

The Electoral College

The Electoral College also makes it difficult for minor parties to win. In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) the electoral vote is awarded on a winner take all basis.

Ballot access rules 

State ballot access laws can be particularly stringent, soaking up the time and resources of minor parties. States such as California require a petition signed by 10% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, which amounted to over 1 million signatures for 2012. 2016 Jill Stein (Green) failed to get on the ballot in four states.Third parties are disadvantaged by the states’ ballot access laws. Laws in each state regulate how third-party candidates can qualify to get their name on the ballot. Some, such as those in Tennessee, are straightforward. Tennessee requires just 25 signatures on a petition. But other states, such as New York and California, are much more demanding. In New York, a third-party candidate must gain a certain number of signatures in every county in the state. In California, the number of signatures required is equal to 1% of the electorate in the state. IN July 2020 Howie Hawkins, Green Party presidential nominee, sued Oklahoma over the $35,000 filing fee for president. 

Limited funding 

The provision of federal matching funds in presidential elections works against minor parties, which require at least 5% of the previous vote for partial funding and 25% for full funding. In addition to the fact that this sets the bar too high for third-party candidates, with only three having achieved this since it was introduced, it also means that candidates, such as Perot in 1992, do not actually receive funding in the election cycle where they have had success. Given the huge cost and restrictions, for getting on the ballot, as well as the lack of federal funding, minor parties find themselves in a 'catch-22' situation. They find it hard to raise money from pressure groups and PACs because they are unlikely to win. In 2012, Barack Obama raised over $715 million while Gary Johnson, the most successful minor-party candidate, raised just $2.5 million. 


The major parties in the USA, through co-optation, often act as 'sponge parties', absorbing the successful policies of minor-party candidates, thus nullifying their electoral success. In this way, Perot's commitment to financial policies which would balance the federal budget was rapidly absorbed by both Clinton and congressional Republicans.

Lack of media coverage

Given the obstacles mentioned above, minor-party candidates find it hard to secure any print or TV news coverage. In addition, they are usually excluded from the national presidential debates, because of the requirement that candidates poll 15% with voters across five national opinion polls. Only Ross Perot in 1992 and John Anderson in 1980 have appeared in a presidential debate. 2016 Gary Johnson lost a legal challenge to be included in the presidential debates. Their candidates are usually barred from appearing in the televised debates. In 2016, only Trump and Clinton appeared in the three presidential debates. Both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were excluded as were Howie Hawkins (Green ) and Jo Jorgensen (Libertarian)


Minor parties tend to be dependent on the charismatic leader. When these leaders leave politics the parties tend to decline e.g Perot's Reform party. They also tend to be focused on short-term issues e.g the rising debt of the 1990's. They also tend to be more ideological e.g Libertarian. They can also have little appeal outside a region- e.g Dixiecrats

Impact of minor parties

The importance  of third parties in US politics is rather contradictory : they are both unimportant and important. Their combined popular vote in 2012 was less than 2%, and just 6% in 2016. But their potential importance is shown in the fact that in three of the nine presidential elections between 1968 and 2000 it could be argued that a third party affected the outcome — in 1968, 1992 and 2000. In 2016 and 2020 the tiny margins which separated Hilary Clinton and Trump then  Joe Biden and  Trump mean that the small vote for third parties may have had a significant influence.

MInor parties have still had an indirect impact on the US political system. This has been achieved on the one hand through influencing the political agenda and pushing certain issues towards the forefront of elections. An example is Ross Perot's success in 1992, which forced the major parties to focus on the issue of the budget deficit. Although he achieved no Electoral College votes that year, his policies were adopted by both Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress, which achieved victory in 1994 with its commitment to a balanced budget as part of the Contract with America. As a result, the USA had a budget surplus by the end of Clinton's presidency.

Minor parties have also on occasion had an indirect impact on the eventual outcome of the election. This was most obviously the case in the 2000 presidential election, which swung on the result in Florida. Here Nader, who polled nearly 100,000 votes, arguably cost Al Gore the election when Bush achieved victory in the state by a margin of only 537 votes, meaning he ultimately won the Electoral College by just five votes, despite losing the overall popular vote. 

Minor parties have also had a role in party dealignment and realignment. The Progressives in the 1890s helped to pull working class and the rural poor away from the main parties-(dealignment) These voters later realigned with the Democrats and became part of the New Deal Coalition. Dixiecrat candidates (Strom Thurmond 1948 and George Wallace 1968 help to de-align Southern white voters from the Democrat Party. These late realigned with the Republicans. ) 

The 2016 election results made analysts focus on four states in which Trump's lead over Clinton was less than Johnson's total number of votes: Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan; for instance, analysts also expressed if about half of Johnson's supporters would have voted for Clinton over Trump, the electoral map would have been decidedly different. There were close races in Michigan, where Trump won by fewer than 14,000 votes, Johnson got more than 172,000 votes; and in Wisconsin, where Johnson won more than 105,000 votes, 37,000 votes went to Trump.[In the Republican stronghold of Georgia, which will award 16 electoral college votes, Biden beat Trump by 11,000 ballots. The percentage-based breakdown puts this into sharp relief: Biden has won 49.5% of the votes compared to Trump’s 49.3%. Jorgensen has won the remaining 1.2% – which now totals 61,792 votes. That number is more than seven times the Trump-Biden split there. But this depends on Green or Libertarian voters actually voting if there was not third party-  polls suggest many voters who vote for the small parties would have otherwise not voted. 

Was Jo Jorgensen a spoiler for Trump?