Two Party Dominance USA

Since 1852, a candidate from the Republican or a Democratic parties has placed either first or second in U.S. presidential elections, except for one. In that election, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, a popular former Republican president, ran as a “third-party” candidate, and he came in second place, losing to Woodrow Wilson. 

In terms of elected offices and election outcomes, the United States remains a two-party dominant political system, a characteristic that has persisted since its inception. There is a lack of tradition for third parties or independents to sustain a presence in Congress or state legislatures. The two nominally independent senators in 2021, Angus King and Bernie Sanders, align with the Democrats and do not encounter significant electoral challenges from that party. Furthermore, Sanders made two unsuccessful attempts to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. In 2020, Justin Amash, the sole non-Democrat or Republican in the House, who was elected as a Republican in 2018, switched to independent status in 2019, and later joined the Libertarians in April 2020, ultimately deciding not to seek re-election in November 2020. 

No third-party or independent candidate has won Electoral College votes directly since George Wallace in 1968. The most recent noteworthy independent presidential candidate was Ross Perot in 1992, who garnered approximately 19% of the vote. In 2020, the two-party vote share was 98%. Third parties lack an extensive history. The primary two third parties in the United States, the Greens and the Libertarians, have relatively recent origins: the Greens trace back to the 1980s, while the Libertarians were established in 1971. The majority of third parties in the U.S. have short lifespans. 

According to Richard Hofstadter, third parties serve the purpose of making a brief impact before fading away. Many are centered around the aspirations and charm of a single individual. The American Independent Party (AIP) primarily served as the political platform for segregationist former Democratic Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. When Wallace rejoined the Democrats, the AIP essentially dissolved. Even prominent independent figures typically have close ties to one of the major parties. For instance, Michael Bloomberg was previously elected as a Republican for New York City Mayor. When he ran as an independent in 2009, he faced no Republican opponent. In 2019, Bloomberg invested millions of his own funds to compete for the Democratic presidential nomination rather than running as an independent. Similarly, another wealthy individual with successful presidential aspirations, Donald Trump, opted to run as a Republican rather than an independent. The only challenge to the two-party dominant theory is that, due to the decentralized structure of U.S. parties, some argue there are 100 state parties and not just two all-encompassing parties. The prevalence of primaries reinforces this dominance, enabling and even encouraging politically ambitious individuals to launch independent campaigns, raise funds, and organize themselves while still operating within a party framework to promote their candidacy.

To understand why the two-party system is so firmly entrenched in the United States, it’s important to understand how the nation’s elections work. The U.S. system of representation is based on who wins the most votes in each district, not necessarily a majority of votes cast. In addition, each distinct area—whether congressional district, state or, in the case of the presidency, the nation as a whole—is represented by a single member, rather than proportional representation based on the number of votes received.  

The tendency for such a winner-takes-all, single-member district system to promote a two-party organization is sometimes explained by a concept known as “Duverger’s law,” named after the French political scientist Maurice Duverger. 

The United States has winner-take-all elections—or first-past-the-post system—used in single-member districts. In such a system, a single person represents each electoral district for the House or Senate and gets that distinction by receiving the most votes of those cast, even if they did not receive the majority of the votes.  

Ballot Access

The consensus among political scientists is that structural features strongly favor a two-party system as opposed to a multi-party system. The first consists of a variety of laws that limit ballot access and otherwise penalize third parties. For instance, congressional rules all favor the Democrats and Republicans. If someone from a third party or a person with no party affiliation is elected to Congress, they must choose to be affiliated with one of the major parties to get assignments to standing committees. Presidential candidates from the major parties can receive public money to run their campaigns. But when a third-party candidate runs for president and wants public funding through the Federal Election Commission, they have to receive that funding after the election is over because the amount is tied to how well they did in the last election. 

There are occasionally governors or senators from a third party, but often these parties have limited influence overall and have a difficult time becoming a national movement. Part of this problem comes from the party’s difficulty in winning in the first place; another part of the problem is that the two main parties can make it challenging for third-party candidates to qualify for the ballot in a given election. (The United States, for example, allows each state to determine how a presidential candidate gets on the ballot. That means that third-party candidates generally have to be wealthy people who can fund their own campaigns and satisfy expensive requirements to get on the ballot in all 50 states.)