In anticipation of "Early Voting," which begins here in 11 days, I took a look at the the sample ballot to see how many issues I would be asked to vote on. Not a lot of surprises in that department, but I was, I admit, amazed by the number of "independent" candidates for president. I actually counted 5 in all! Other than the personal satisfaction of seeing one's name on the ballot, I wondered, what motivates all those "independent" candidates to run? Even more, I wondered, what motivates people to vote for them?
Let me begin with a personal confession. Once upon a time, I too succumbed to the allure of voting for a third-party candidate. The year was 1980, and the candidate was John Anderson, a 10-term Illinois Republican congressman, who had gradually drifted away from his party's orthodoxies and ran as an Independent against Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter, even appearing in one debate (with Reagan only, since Carter refused to debate with him). Disillusioned that my preferred candidate had not won my party's nomination and unwilling to vote for the one who did - even if it meant his opponent would win the presidency - I made the bizarre decision to vote for John Anderson.
I say "bizarre" because at the time I was an Assistant Professor of Political Science and so certainly should have known better. And in fact I actually did know better, but I voted my high-principled resentment anyway.
What did I know then (and still know now) about Third Parties and "Independents" in American Presidential elections?
I knew, first of all, that such candidates normally never win. The single exception (sort of) was the election of 1860. The present Republican party had been founded as a third-party in 1854. Its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won in 1860 in a four-way race against two Democrats and a Whig. The sectional split in the Democratic party (together with the terminal obsolescence of the Whig party) made it possible in a moment of acute national crisis not just for Lincoln to win but for the Republicans to replace the Whigs as one of the two major parties going forward. in fact it became the dominant party for some seven decades until the 1930s. This was the only time anything like that happened in American history. Given that it involved a four-year civil war, it may be just as well it only happened once!
Secondly, I knew that only rarely do third parties win sufficient electoral votes to matter - or indeed any electoral votes at all. Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" third party's bid in 1912 was due to an ideological split in the Republican party, and it did as well as it did because of the leadership of the charismatic former President. But its only lasting effect was to take enough electoral votes away from William Howard Taft to win the election for Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. Without TR, the "Bull Moose" party then quickly died, and most of its adherents returned to their original Republican loyalty. The split within the Republican party continued as a festering internal conflict, but never again spawned a serious third-party threat.
Finally, I also knew that the only other serious third-parties in the 20th century were sectional parties with exclusively regional (and hence electorally limited) appeal. As such, those parties did well enough to win some electoral votes, but only in one part of the country. Being sectional, they had no serious prospect of carrying any states elsewhere. The Dixiecrats in 1948 were southern segregationist Democrats who bolted Harry Truman's party and won four southern states (39 electoral votes), but did not impact the election's outcome. In 1968, George Wallace carried five southern states (46 electoral votes). The Wallace vote has since come to be seen as a kind of transitional way-station in the realignment of the once "Solid South" from Democratic to Republican.
I knew all that in 1980. I knew that, for all sorts of reasons, it would be virtually impossible for a non-regional third party to carry even a single state and so win even a single electoral vote. So I knew that my vote would thus be wasted and that, if I were in a swing state where my vote actually mattered, all that it would accomplish would be to help the candidate I preferred the least. Still, I voted for a third party - ignoring everything I knew professionally in order to indulge my self-absorbed, high-principled resentment.
A friend of mine did the same in 2000, when he voted for Ralph Nader. Voting in a state where there was no question about that state's electoral votes, he felt safe in expressing his resentment against the two major parties. But, given the closeness of the electoral vote in an election whose outcome was determined not by the voters but by the intervention of a politicized Supreme Court, it is plausible that at least in some places some people's votes for that third-party candidate did make a decisive difference, and that that difference helped make the 2000 election's eventual outcome possible.
So - regardless of the specific merits or lack thereof of any past or present third-party or "Independent" candidate - the lesson in all this is the institutional reality of our two-party binary politics. As I learned and taught as a political scientist, all sorts of structural factors, such as single member districts, the one-person Presidency itself (which inherently excludes coalitions - surely the ultimate "single-member district"), and our "first-past-the-post" electoral system (which has given us a Republican Congress even though more people who voted in congressional elections have voted for Democrats) have directed us toward a two party system (much as parliamentary cabinet government and proportional representation in other countries can foster a multi-party system). There is a lot to be said for proportional representation and parliamentary cabinet government by multi-party coalitions, but two parties have been the consistent norm in the US since Washington's Administration. The parties evolve and change, and the electorate may realign, but in the end they tend to stay two.