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Minor (Third) Parties: Definition, Role & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Third Party?
  • 1:22 How Are Third Parties Formed?
  • 2:26 The Role and Impact of…
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson will introduce the concept of third parties, as well as explain their role in the national political party system. A short quiz will follow to check your understanding.

What Is a Third Party?

If you have ever found yourself as the youngest sibling in a family, you know how hard it can be at times to be the 'baby' of the family. Sometimes, you may feel overlooked and find it hard to gain attention and be taken seriously by your parents. The same can be said for third party candidates in the United States.

A third party is a political party other than the two major political parties (Republican and Democratic). Our nation's history has been dominated for so long by a two-party system that it has become nearly impossible for a third party to come along and compete with the Democratic and Republican parties for political power and influence. Despite this uphill battle, a 2013 Gallup poll estimated that up to 60% of people are in favor of the formation of a third party, so the desire by the public is there.

There have been instances of non-presidential elections being won by third party candidates, such as Jesse Ventura's third party win for Minnesota governor in 1998. However, no third party candidate has ever won the presidency.

Nevertheless, some of the more famous and mildly successful third party presidential candidates include the following people:

Year Candidate Third Party Name Electoral Votes Won Winning Candidate and Party
1892 James Weaver Populist Party 22 Grover Cleveland (D)
1912 Theodore Roosevelt Progressive Party 88 Woodrow Wilson (D)
1948 Strom Thurmond State's Rights 39 Harry Truman (D)
1968 George Wallace American Independent 46 Richard Nixon (R)
1992 Ross Perot Independent no votes but won 18.9% of the popular vote Bill Clinton (D)

As you can see from the table, there have been third parties that have been popular enough to gain either electoral votes or popular votes in presidential elections, which is no small feat considering just how dominant the national Republican and Democratic parties have been in our nation's history.

How Are Third Parties Formed?

Third parties can come into existence in a couple of ways:

1) They can be founded from scratch by individuals or groups who are committed to a particular interest, issue or ideology.

Think of these types of groups as clubs or activities you decided to partake in during your school days. You were most likely to join the club or activity that best suited your interests.

Or

2) Third party political parties can also form because they have split off from one of the major parties when a group becomes dissatisfied with the major party's policies. These groups are called splinter parties.

This might be something similar to leaving a job to start a business in the same industry because you might feel that you can contribute to the field in a more meaningful way if you're the one that is in charge of things. The biggest example of this in our country's history was in 1912 when President Theodore Roosevelt split off from the Republican Party to form a third party - the Bull Moose Progressive Party - and actually won more electoral votes than any other third party presidential candidate has ever had at 88 votes.

The Role and Impact of Third Parties

Even though third parties often get treated like the forgotten younger sibling, they do serve an important role and have had significant impact on our political party system.

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