Third parties tilt at windmills

Prof C Explains
4 min readNov 7, 2006

by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

As the newspaper you’re reading rolled off the press, Election Day was half over. Unlike most amateur political pundits, I am willing to put my reputation on the line and call some of these races right now.

In the race for Missouri auditor, Charles Baum and Terry Bunker will lose. In the race for the Ninth District congressional seat, Bill Hastings and Steven Hedrick will lose. Frank Gilmour and Lydia Lewis will lose in the race for U.S. Senate. In fact, I predict every third-party candidate will lose.

OK, I’ll admit this isn’t a risky call. But why is their failure such a safe bet? Is it because the Progressive and Libertarian candidates would make bad officeholders? No. Is it because they represent bad policies? No.

It is because of the way we elect our representatives. We generally elect just one person to represent a given political district. For example, voters in the 23rd District will elect just one person to represent them in the Missouri House. They are not allowed to elect three or four people to represent the 23rd District in Jefferson City. This causes a natural inclination for the voters to choose between two alternatives instead of three, five or 10. Since the beginning of our democracy, this system has discouraged third parties and reinforced the two-party system.

There have been some third-party successes, but they are the rare exceptions that prove the rule. The heyday for third parties was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1892 presidential election, the Populist Party candidate ran on a platform of abolition of the gold standard, direct election of senators, graduated income tax and eight-hour working days. He received 8 percent of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes. While that wasn’t enough to win the presidency, it proved the Populist Party vote was significant. Both parties courted Populist voters and eventually assimilated their ideas.

Today, gerrymandering and the influence of moneyed special interests have made third parties less viable than in 1892. When Ross Perot ran in 1992, he spent more than $65 million of his own money and got only 19 percent of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes. By many accounts, he was a spoiler responsible for the defeat of George H.W. Bush. In 2000, Ralph Nader, while winning no votes in the Electoral College, cost Al Gore the election.

Prof C Explains

J Scott Christianson: UM Teaching Prof, Technologist & Entrepreneur. Connect with me here: