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Top Five Third Party Presidential Candidates in Modern U.S. History

Updated on January 23, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

Third party candidates rarely win elections at any level of American government, let alone the presidency. The “winner take all” electoral system makes it difficult for them to gain a foothold. The best they can usually hope for is to play spoiler and/or to get their ideology adopted in the platform of one of the major parties.

Despite these obstacles, there have been some third party presidential candidates over the past century that were at least moderately competitive in their bid for the White House. The following are listed in order of their percentage of the popular vote.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (1912)

This will probably be the most surprising name on this list, since it is well known that Roosevelt was a Republican when he served as president from 1901-1909. Roosevelt endorsed his friend William Howard Taft to succeed him in the 1908 election and Taft went on to win. However, Taft proved to be a very unpopular president and by 1912 nearly everyone, including his old friend Teddy, wanted to get rid of him. Roosevelt first tried to defeat Taft for the Republican nomination but he was unsuccessful. Roosevelt then decided to run as a third party candidate. He became the nominee of the Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose” party because Roosevelt said he was “fit as a bull moose.” Roosevelt won 27% of the popular vote, the highest ever for a third party candidate. He and Taft split the Republican vote, handing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt did get more votes than Taft, however.

Ross Perot
Ross Perot

Ross Perot (1992 and 1996)

Perot was a billionaire who ran for president on a protectionist anti-outsourcing platform. Perot polled strongly against Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton in the early stages of the race. Over the summer, Perot’s poll numbers began to fade and he announced he was leaving the race. However, Perot later returned and tried to recapture his momentum. He still received an invite to debate the big boys at the presidential debates. This is the only time in modern history that a third party candidate participated in the debates, although Ronald Reagan debated John Anderson in 1980 (President Carter refused to participate). Perot received about 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. He did manage to finish second in Utah (where he beat Clinton) and Maine (where he beat Bush). There is debate over the effect that the Perot campaign had on the result of the election. Some people claim that Perot cost Bush the election, while others argue that Perot took an equal number of votes from each side. Perot returned in 1996 as the candidate of the Reform Party. He won 8% of the vote.

Robert La Follette
Robert La Follette

Robert La Follette (1924)

La Follette was the former Republican governor of Wisconsin. He also spent many years in the U.S. Senate and became known for his opposition to American involvement in World War I. He later left the party and formed a new Progressive Party as a vehicle for a presidential run. La Follette ran on a platform advocating government ownership of the railroads and utilities and the outlawing of child labor.

La Follette carried his home state of Wisconsin and won 17% of the popular vote. He placed third behind President Calvin Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis.

George Wallace
George Wallace

George Wallace (1968)

The controversial Wallace ran as the candidate of the American Independent Party on a pro-segregation platform. He hoped to gain enough votes to throw the election into the House of Representatives. Wallace was popular in Alabama and throughout the Deep South.

He won 13.5% of the popular vote and captured several southern states. Wallace is the most recent third party candidate to win states in a presidential election.

John B. Anderson
John B. Anderson

John B. Anderson (1980)

Anderson, a Republican congressman, broke from his party to run an independent campaign. He received over 6% of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. Anderson positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Reagan and also worked to appeal to Democrats who were disenchanted with Carter. He ran to the left of Reagan but to the right of Carter.

Anderson received over 6% of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. He did not have a significant impact on the results of the election, which was won by Reagan decisively.

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader

Other Notable Candidates

Ralph Nader (Green) (1996,2000,2004)

Strom Thurmond (Dixiecrat) (1948)

Eugene V. Debs (Socialist) (1912)

Who do you think has the best chance to make an impact on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election?

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    • nanderson500 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Revised and improved.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Re: Teddy Roosevelt - interesting example of how third party candidates can derail an election for one of the major political parties.

      I'm sure Woodrow Wilson was very pleased. Thanks for the information.

    • nanderson500 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yeah, I should have mentioned the threats against his daughter as well. That was definitely a factor. Although according to this article Perot's numbers - although still very good for a third party candidate - had dropped already before he left the race.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting Hub. I would like to offer a correction or at least a difference in the way I remember Ross Perot's 1992 campaign. I actually campaigned for him in South Dakota that year and remember one key bit of timing a bit differently than the way it's stated in your piece.

      You mention that his poll numbers began to fade and THEN he stepped out of the race for a while. Nunh-uh! From inside the campaign (not close in, though I did sit about 15 feet from Ross at a Rapid City rally one night), here's the way it went down:

      1. Ross was made aware of a credible threat to his daughter's safety by one or more ill-wishers.

      2. THEN he left the campaign, specifically to derail any possible attackers (who would figue they'd done their job by getting him out of the race) UNTIL he was able to put additional security measures for his family into place.

      3. THEN (as soon as he stepped out) his poll numbers plummeted.

      4. As you say, when he did return to the campaign after making sure his people's backs were covered, he never did get that momentum back. Happens every time. BUT, he still pulled 22% of the Presidential vote in South Dakota--which is meaningless nationally, but still, not bad.

      Voted Up Plus.

    • nanderson500 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 

      6 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Another Interesting Hub!! On this list Roosevelt definitely was a surprise to me...I do remember Perot and I wouldn't say he cost anyone the election just perhaps gave people more to think about. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!!!


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