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Third-Party Presidential Candidates Who Changed American History

The Hill

Democrats are very worried that a third-party presidential candidate backed by the group No Labels could cost Joe Biden the 2024 presidential election—handing victory to the Republican candidate, possibly former President Donald Trump. Democrats are right to be worried … but Republicans should be worried too.

Although third-party candidates are fairly common in U.S. presidential elections—as well as other federal and state elections—they seldom have much of an effect on the outcome.

But in at least four presidential elections since 1900, a third-party candidate attracted enough votes to arguably change the outcome. Two of those losses went to Democrats and two to Republicans.

Teddy Roosevelt in 1912: Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became president when second-term Republican President William McKinley was assassinated by a deranged anarchist in September 1901. Roosevelt easily won reelection in 1904. But he had promised not to run for a third term in 1908. As a result, William Howard Taft became the GOP candidate and won the election.

The GOP put Taft up for reelection in 1912. However, Roosevelt had grown dissatisfied because Republicans were not supporting progressive policies, so he ran on a third-party ticket, the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party. And he did very well, just not well enough. Taft received 23.2 percent of the popular vote while Roosevelt got 27.4 percent, essentially splitting the Republican vote. Thus, the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won with 41.8 percent—and a landslide of 435 votes in the Electoral College.

As they say, elections have consequences. Under Wilson, Congress created the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913, and he signed the first income tax legislation, the Revenue Act of 1913. He also took the country into World War I in 1917, even though he had promised not to enter the war during the 1916 presidential campaign.

Ross Perot in 1992: Wealthy businessman Ross Perot shook up the 1992 presidential election, much as Donald Trump did in 2016. Indeed, the parallels between Perot and Trump are striking. Both were self-made billionaires who had never been elected to office. Both were populists who undertook unconventional campaigns that resonated with a large portion of dissatisfied voters. Both were critical of the two major political parties, and yet both attracted crossover voters. The big difference may have been that Perot shunned the parties, while Trump ran as a newly-minted Republican.

Bill Clinton won the 1992 election with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Incumbent George H.W. Bush received 37.4 percent, while Perot got 18.9 percent.

Many voters believe Perot cost Bush his reelection. The general consensus among election experts is that it’s impossible to know. For example, election guru Michael Barone claims that exit polling revealed that the second choice among Perot voters was evenly split between Clinton and Bush.

However, Perot brought a lot of energy to the campaign, and he highlighted a number of economic problems that resonated with the public. In those situations, the voters generally sour on the incumbent, in this case Bush.

Once in office, Clinton decided his 43 percent gave him a mandate to pass new taxes and sweeping health care reform. Clinton’s overreach allowed Republicans to take control of both houses of Congress in 1995 for the first time in decades.

Ralph Nader in 2000: Clinton’s presidency opened the door for Vice President Al Gore to run for the White House in 2000. His Republican opponent was Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

It was a very close election, and it all came down to Florida. After multiple recounts and legal challenges, and countless discussions of hanging chads, Bush won the state with a margin of just 537 votes.

But there’s more to the story. Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party candidate and received 97,488 votes in Florida. Given the progressiveness of the Green Party, it’s extremely likely that most of the Greenies would have voted for Gore, giving him the Sunshine State victory.

How would Gore have responded to the 9/11 terrorist attack? Would he have better handled the financial meltdown of 2008? We will never know.

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in 2016: I touched on this issue for The Hill a few weeks ago. To summarize: Trump won Pennsylvania by 47,292 votes, Michigan by 10,704 votes, and Wisconsin by 22,748—the slimmest of margins. The Libertarian Party candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, received between 2.5 percent and 3.6 percent of the votes in those states. But it’s impossible to know how those voters would have voted had Johnson not been on the ballot.

But we can be pretty sure that Jill Stein’s Green Party voters would have gone for Hillary Clinton. Stein had more votes in each of those three key states than Trump’s margin. It may be fair to assume that if Stein had not been on the ballot, Clinton would have beaten Trump.

While third-party candidates don’t win presidential elections, they can change the debate and the results. Sometimes that works in favor of Democrats and sometimes Republicans. That could be the case again, depending on whom No Labels runs for president in 2024—if it runs anyone.