Presidential election results are often pictured through electoral college maps, a useful and simple tool. Looking at the competition of the two parties throughout time provides a quite interesting exercise. Certain states turn blue, then red, then blue again. Others stay the same color. One election the map is filled with red; the next election blue makes a comeback. And on and on it goes.
This is in fact quite deceiving. What the electoral college does not show is the history of third-party challenges to the two-party system. In 1992, for instance, presidential candidate Ross Perot finished with 18.9% of the vote – yet not a single state in the 1992 electoral college showed his third-party run . . .
Let’s take a look, then, at the macro-level trend. Here is a graph of third-party performance throughout the entire history of the United States, since popular voting first started. (The picture here is a small thumbnail of the real graph, which can be found here.)
The data here is also fairly inconclusive. Strong minor party candidacies seem to come and go in no particular order. There are long periods where they get less than 1% of the vote, and times where they regularly break the 10% barrier. To be frank, I was expecting to find a more discernible pattern – say, a strong minor party performance every four or five cycles. [Emphasis added.]Ironically, Inoljt's surprise could have been expected. It is considered common knowledge among political scientists and mainstream political observers that the rise and fall in the popularity of third party and independent politics over time is effectively dependent upon the state of the economy. In good economic times, or so the reasoning goes, the public is content, and so the electorate is happy to support the major parties in power, while in bad economic times public discontent results in stronger opposition to the major parties in power.
While this line of argument may seem reasonable to economic determinists and vulgar materialists, the fact is, it is simply false, and suggests that the political scientist or commentator in question just doesn't know what he or she is talking about. At the same time, however, these individuals are not entirely at fault since American historians and political scientists have devoted so little attention to the third party and independent political tradition in the United States. Long time readers may recall a series of Poli-Tea posts from late 2009 which took a look at a number of academic articles on the third party and independent tradition in the US. The third post in that series considered an article by Hirano and Snyder which provided an overview of the scientific literature on the third party and independent political tradition. H&S write:
Another claim in the literature is that third party electoral success is linked to the state of the economy (Stedman and Stedman, 1950). However, the evidence for a connection between short-term economic ﬂuctuations and third party electoral support is mixed at best . . . The evidence seems more consistent with the conclusion in Herring (1965) that “third parties are bred in prosperity as well as depression.” (p. 19.) [Emphasis added.]