When 3rd-Party Candidates Changed Elections - And History


In many ways, the future of the United States depends on the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

Meanwhile, the independent candidacy of former Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appears likely to affect that outcome.

Barring something unforeseen, voters will have nearly a year to reflect on those two facts. For present purposes, they serve as starting points for analyzing the impact of third-party and independent candidates on two significant U.S. presidential elections.

Before proceeding, I should establish criteria for choosing these two elections.

By “significant” I mean elections that shaped the country’s future to such an extent that it would be impossible to imagine U.S. history unfolding the way it did were it not for that particular election’s outcome. On some level, of course, this criterion applies to all historical events. The key here is the phrase “to such an extent.” Events of unusual significance had to have occurred because of that election.

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By “impact” I mean third-party/independent candidates whose mere presence on the ballot demonstrably altered the election’s outcome.

Thus, the candidate’s share of the overall vote did not itself signal that the election met these parameters.

For instance, in the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate H. Ross Perot garnered 18.9 percent of the popular vote. Had those votes gone to Republican President George H.W. Bush instead of Perot, then the incumbent unquestionably would have defeated Democrat Bill Clinton, who scored a 370-168 Electoral College landslide despite winning only 43 percent of the popular vote.

The problem, however, is twofold. First, I cannot predict with reasonable certainty that Perot’s votes would have gone to Bush. Second — and far more important — I cannot say that events of transcendent significance hung in the balance.

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A Bush victory, of course, would have spared us the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary. That certainly qualifies as something. Likewise, to a certain extent, we might trace the weaponization of federal agencies to the Clinton years. That also qualifies as something.

On balance, however — in light of what we now know — I cannot speculate on how a second Bush term might have played out during the relatively serene 1990s. This, coupled with uncertainty about Perot’s impact, persuaded me to exclude the 1992 election.

The same holds true for the 1968 election, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

In that year, American Independent Party candidate George Wallace, who earned notoriety as Alabama’s staunch segregationist governor, won only 13.5 percent of the popular vote but nonetheless managed to secure 45 combined electoral votes from five Southern states: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, Republican Richard Nixon earned a comfortable 301 electoral votes but outpaced Democrat Hubert Humphrey by only 510,000 popular votes nationwide.

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As with Perot, Wallace’s presence made a difference, but it is not clear to whom. After all, Humphrey won Texas, but Nixon won Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. That was the rest of the former Confederacy. Thus, we cannot say that Wallace altered the election’s probable outcome.

Finally, to keep things manageable, I have excluded the most obvious example of all: the presidential election of 1860.

In short, Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency represents too much of an outlier. Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckenridge and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell split the anti-Lincoln vote three ways. Meanwhile, Democrats in the slaveholding South kept Lincoln off the ballot altogether. And Lincoln’s victory, of course, triggered both secession and the Civil War. In a few paragraphs, it is simply impossible to trace the consequences of the most consequential election in U.S. history.

Thus, I have settled on two presidential elections. In each case, a third-party or independent candidate played a decisive role. And in each case the outcome’s effect on subsequent U.S. history — though falling short of 1860’s — proved nearly incalculable.

1912 Presidential Election

After serving nearly two full terms (1901-09) — including what would have been assassinated President William McKinley’s second term (1901-05) — Republican Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908, paving the way for his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, who comfortably defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the Electoral College, 321-162, while securing nearly 52 percent of the popular vote.

Four years later, however — for reasons both personal and ideological — Roosevelt challenged his hand-picked successor. When the incumbent Taft won the Republican nomination in 1912, Roosevelt decided to run as the nominee of the new Progressive Party.

In short, Roosevelt’s candidacy plunged Republicans into a virtual civil war. As a result, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912 with a massive 435-88 Electoral College victory over Roosevelt. Taft placed third with only Utah’s 8 electoral votes.

The devil, however, lay in the details.

For instance, compared with 1908, the Democratic candidate actually lost votes (6.4 million for Bryan to 6.29 million for Wilson). Meanwhile, the combined Roosevelt and Taft popular vote totals from 1912 nearly matched the total Taft alone earned in 1908 (7.6 million to 7.68 million). It would be difficult to demonstrate Roosevelt’s decisive effect more clearly than this.

Roosevelt’s candidacy thus guaranteed a Wilson presidency.

Meanwhile, in 1914, World War I — known for decades thereafter as simply “The Great War” — broke out in Europe. Then, in 1916, Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”

Finally, in April 1917, German submarine attacks on nominally neutral U.S. vessels became intolerable. This prompted Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

Rather than merely vindicate the rights of neutral nations, however — as President James Madison had done in 1812 — Wilson radically transformed American foreign policy.

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” he piously and foolishly declared.

Furthermore, the president already had in mind an international organization, what became the now-defunct League of Nations.

“A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations,” he said.

With those words, Wilson abandoned the wise and time-tested policy of “no entangling alliances,” so carefully crafted and preserved by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and others.

Of course, it is impossible to say how Taft might have responded to World War I. Nor do we know who might have won the 1916 election had Wilson not enjoyed the advantage of incumbency.

We can say with confidence, however, that the conservative Taft would not have set the U.S. on its lengthy and regrettable career of fighting for “democracy” across the world. To Wilson alone we should affix that infamy. And for it we may thank Roosevelt.

1844 Presidential Election

At first glance, the 1844 election might not strike the casual observer as fitting either of my criteria.

After all, the Democrat, James K. Polk, defeated Whig candidate Henry Clay in the Electoral College 170-105. Polk also narrowly won the popular vote, 49.5 percent to 48.1 percent, meaning that no third-party candidate made a ripple on the national level.

Likewise, probably few modern Americans could describe the immediate consequences of Polk’s victory.

Upon closer inspection, however, we find the sort of drama that altered a nation’s destiny.

In the state of New York, Polk won 237,588 votes to Clay’s 232,482. Meanwhile, James G. Birney of the Liberty Party earned 15,812 votes.

The Liberty Party represented the tiny fraction of Americans who in 1844 identified with the abolitionist cause. Hence, Birney gained some traction in New England and upstate New York but almost none elsewhere.

Still, Birney’s presence proved decisive.

Given the binary choice between Polk and Clay, abolitionist voters might have held their noses while casting votes, but they unquestionably would have chosen the latter.

On philosophical grounds, Clay had some anti-slavery credentials. Polk had none. A younger Lincoln, for instance, idolized Clay, whereas many voters viewed Polk as a protege of former President Andrew Jackson, who left no record of any moral objections to slavery.

It would be no exaggeration, therefore, to guess that had Birney not appeared on the ballot in New York, all or nearly all 15,812 of his votes would have gone to Clay. This would have put New York’s 36 electoral votes in Clay’s column — and that would have flipped the national result to Clay 141, Polk 134.

As it stood, Polk entered the presidency and then pursued aggressive western expansion. Texas entered the Union as a slave state in 1845. More importantly, Polk provoked the Mexican War (1846-48), which eventually added to the Union nearly all of the present-day American Southwest, including California.

Thus, it would be impossible to overstate the significance of Polk’s victory, made possible by Birney.

Had Clay won the presidency in 1844, there almost certainly would have been no Mexican War and no conquest of territory. Without the Mexican War, the question of slavery in the territories would not have re-emerged. And in that case, Democrats in 1848 would not have proposed the solution of “popular sovereignty” — the novel idea that people in the territories could and should vote on whether to allow slavery.

That idea — so close to Democrats’ hearts — threw the territories into chaos. It gave us Bleeding Kansas. It called the Republican Party into existence in 1854. And it brought Lincoln back into national politics to fight against the hideous notion of slavery sanctioned by democratic vote.

In short, had Birney not appeared on the 1844 ballot in New York, the modern Republican Party might not exist. We might never have heard of Abraham Lincoln. And the Civil War certainly would not have occurred when and why it did.

As Tucker Carlson recently noted, the present moment feels weighty, like something bad lay on the horizon. And everyone knows it. Thus, the 2024 election could not feel more consequential than it now does.

Time will tell, of course, whether posterity might view RFK Jr. as a Roosevelt or a Birney.

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.
Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.