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What influence have independent candidacies had in the history of US presidential elections?

Voice of America

By Salome Ramirez Vargas

The race to the White House has been dominated by Republicans or Democrats, the two major parties that control every political aspect of the United States. However, in each election season, independent or alternative candidates have attempted to gain ground in the public eye.

Being an independent or alternative candidate is not unusual in the United States, and in the 59 presidential elections that have been held since 1788, in a dozen of them these candidates have achieved at least 5% of the total votes.

However, none of them has managed to achieve the presidency in US history, with the exception of George Washington, known as the “father of the nation”, who was an independent candidate and publicly opposed the development of political parties at that time. .

Still, their presence in the race is seen as a “valuable outlet for voters who feel disenfranchised or unrepresented by the two major parties,” Mark Caleb Smith, director of the American Studies Center, told VOA . Politicians from Cerdarville University in Ohio.

The conversation regained its relevance after Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s announcement last week to separate from the Democratic Party and run as an independent candidate .

Although in the vast majority of cases alternative candidacies have “little or no effect,” according to Institute for Political Innovation academic Merrill Matthews, in at least four elections since 1900 “you could say that third-party candidates changed the result".

The first notable example occurred in 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt ran for president under an alternative party against then-President William Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt reached 28% of the vote, which would have caused a rift in the Republican Party. “His candidacy allowed Woodrow Wilson to win an easy election,” Smith said.

Years later, in 1992, Ross Perot of the Reform Party achieved a similar impact by reaching 18.9% of the popular vote, that is, more than 19 million people chose him as their presidential option. The winner at that time was Bill Clinton, and in second place was then-president George HW Bush.

In 2000, environmentalist Ralph Nader won about 3% of the popular vote. This, according to experts, would have cost Al Gore the presidency against Republican George W. Bush.

In more recent times, such as the 2016 elections, two alternative parties obtained a significant number of the popular vote. Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, obtained more than 4.4 million votes, thus reaching 3.3% of the total.

“We didn't have a specific plan to gather specific electoral votes… Our goal was to build a base of support and grow that base,” Ron Nielson, Johnson's former campaign manager, told VOA .

Nielson elaborated that votes for alternative parties are a “protest” and a “show of discontent” with the two-party system. In Johnson's case, he said he did not know if his millions of votes would have benefited one candidate or another.

“People chose to stay home or voted against or in favor of the other two contenders and many times they had a really annoying and defiant position against one of them,” he explained.

In states like Florida, Michigan or Pennsylvania, where the difference in votes between Trump or Clinton could have been overcome with the votes directed to Johnson, the former campaign director assured that "I don't know if Johnson's votes in those states would have gone in favor." of Hillary Clinton. “I think the Libertarian and Johnson votes were probably evenly split.”

Also in 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party reached over 1.4 million votes. Neither of the two candidates managed to obtain electoral votes, and they are not the only ones. Only a dozen have achieved Electoral College votes since its establishment, but none of them enough to win.

The Electoral College is an indirect election system created in 1787 that consists of 538 electors who represent the will of the citizens of each state. To win the presidency, 270 electoral votes are needed.

“In our electoral college system, in every state except Maine and Nebraska, a candidate must win the state in order to receive electoral college votes,” Smith explained. This is why, even if a third candidate is “successful,” unless he can win a state, he “has very little chance of recording votes in the Electoral College.”

In the 2020 elections, which left Joe Biden the winner, candidate Joe Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party reached 1.8 million votes, less than 1% of the total. This left her in third place after Donald Trump.

Looking ahead to the 2024 elections, Kennedy is not the only independent option for both parties. Cornel West, a progressive activist, announced that he would split from the Green Party and seek the presidency as an independent.

West wrote in X that he was running as an independent to “end the iron control of the ruling class and guarantee true democracy.” And he added: “We need to break the grip of the duopoly and give power to the people.”

A movement called No Labels also assured that it is considering presenting an independent nomination for the presidency in the coming months.

Despite the unlikelihood of an independent or alternative victory in the presidential elections, experts believe that it does influence the political debate by “forcing the candidate of a major party to adopt some of the rival's positions,” Matthews noted.

“If enough people vote for a third party, the two major parties will have to take note and perhaps start reforming to absorb those voters. “This is a mechanism by which the two major parties could change due to election results,” Smith added.

In a trend analyzed by the analysis company Gallup in September 2023, 46% of respondents said they consider themselves independent. The tendency to lean toward one party or another splits 49% toward Republicans and 43% toward Democrats.

“The idea of ​​many opinions being brought to the fore is healthy for democracy, it is healthy for the United States or for any country. And any type of discussion is much better when many voices are heard or allowed to speak so that they can represent different fragments of the discussion,” Nielson concluded.