The 1860 election cemented the Republican Party's position as one of the two major parties in U.S. politics, along with the already-established Democratic Party. Since this time, all U.S. presidents have been affiliated with these two parties, and their candidates have generally performed the best in each presidential election. In spite of this two-party dominance, there have always been third-party or independent candidates running on the ballot, either on a nationwide, regional or state level. No third-party candidate has ever won a U.S. election, although there have been several occasions where they have carried states or split the vote with major party candidates. Today, the largest third-party in U.S. politics is the Libertarian Party, who are considered to be socially liberal, but economically conservative; in the 2016 election, their nominee, Gary Johnson, secured just over three percent of the popular vote, while their latest candidate, Jo Jorgenson, received just over one percent of the vote in the 2020 election.
The most successful third-party nominee was Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election, who was the only third-party candidate to come second in a U.S. election. The former president had become disillusioned with his successor's growing conservatism, and challenged the incumbent President Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. Roosevelt proved to be the most popular candidate in the primaries, however Taft had already secured enough Republican delegates in the south to seal the nomination. Roosevelt then used this split in the Republican Party to form his own, Progressive Party, and challenged both major party candidates for the presidency (even taking a bullet in the process). In the end, Roosevelt carried six states, and won over 27 percent of the popular vote, while Taft carried just two states with 23 percent of the vote; this split in the Republican Party allowed the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, to win 82 percent of the electoral votes despite only winning 42 percent of the popular vote.
Other notable performances
The last third-party candidate to win electoral votes was George Wallace* in the 1968 election. The Democratic Party had been the most popular party in the south since before the Civil War, however their increasingly progressive policies in the civil rights era alienated many of their southern voters. Wallace ran on a white supremacist and pro-segregationist platform and won the popular vote in five states. This was a similar story to that of Storm Thurmond, twenty years earlier.
In the 1992 election, Independent candidate Ross Perot received almost one fifth of the popular vote. Although he did not win any electoral votes, Perot split the vote so much that he prevented either Clinton or Bush Sr. from winning a majority in any state except Arkansas (Clinton's home state). Perot ran again in 1996, but with less than half the share of votes he received four years previously; subsequent studies and polls have shown that Perot took an equal number of votes from both of the major party candidates in each election.
Performance of select third-party or independent candidates in U.S. presidential elections from 1892 to 2020
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Statista, & ProCon. (February 17, 2021). Performance of select third-party or independent candidates in U.S. presidential elections from 1892 to 2020 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved December 02, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/
Statista, und ProCon. "Performance of select third-party or independent candidates in U.S. presidential elections from 1892 to 2020." Chart. February 17, 2021. Statista. Accessed December 02, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/
Statista, ProCon. (2021). Performance of select third-party or independent candidates in U.S. presidential elections from 1892 to 2020. Statista. Statista Inc.. Accessed: December 02, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/
Statista, and ProCon. "Performance of Select Third-party or Independent Candidates in U.S. Presidential Elections from 1892 to 2020." Statista, Statista Inc., 17 Feb 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/
Statista & ProCon, Performance of select third-party or independent candidates in U.S. presidential elections from 1892 to 2020 Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134513/third-party-performance-us-elections/ (last visited December 02, 2021)