Running as a third-party candidate or Independent for any federal office in the U.S.—let alone the presidency—is a long shot. Still, generations of Americans haven’t tired of trying. Their success throughout history has varied widely as has their ability to garner electoral college votes. In the American statewide winner-takes-all system, the latter factor has often depended on whether candidates could mobilize voters regionally.
2020 presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang last year joined third-party hopefuls when he founded the Forward party, which he now co-chairs. He announced Thursday that his organization was merging with coalitions of moderate dropouts from both major parties in an attempt to bridge partisan differences. According to Axios, the party is attempting to appear on 15 state-wide ballots in 2022 and expand that to ballots in all 50 states by 2024. With Yang’s presidential ambitions well known, another presidential run in 2024 seems possible, something that the New York native at least hasn’t denied.
This chart shows the share of the vote achieved by the highest-ranking third-party candidate in the … [+] U.S. presidential elections.
Yang could, however, meet the same fate as other third-party presidential candidates who were looking to build a U.S.-wide base. No matter how well their performance in the popular vote might have been, the inability to carry any whole state led them inevitably to a result of zero electoral college votes.
Especially more recent third-party candidates have grappled with this issue. In 1992, Independent Ross Perot received a whopping 18.9% of the popular vote, which translated into a resounding zero votes from electors. Perot won no state and came second in only two, Maine and Utah, further exemplifying the uphill battle candidates from outside the major parties face.
States’ Rights and “Dixiecrats”
Even though none ever came close to the presidency either, third-party candidates of the past were much better at garnering electoral college votes when their platforms aligned with regional—read: Southern—issues. George Wallace of the American Independent party won 13.5% of the popular vote and 46 electors (8.6%) in 1968 after campaigning against desegregation. He won five states—Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia—as well as one electoral college vote from North Carolina. In 1948, “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond had been even more efficient at turning ballots into electors, winning 7.3% of the electoral college (39 votes) with a share of the popular vote of just 2.4%, which was concentrated in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The “Dixiecrats”, officially named the States’ Rights Democratic Party, also opposed racial integration.
The most successful third-party candidate after the year 1900 was actually Teddy Roosevelt, who ran for the Progressive party in 1912 after having completed two presidential terms between 1901 and 1909 for the Republicans. He came second after election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, with more than 27% of the popular vote and 88 electors (16.6%). In a time before presidential term limits, Roosevelt sought a third term over a feud with his successor, Republican William Howard Taft, and an increasingly likely Democratic victory. In 1916, Roosevelt had reconsidered splitting the conservative vote and turned down the Progressive nomination.
The party made a reappearance in 1924 when Robert La Follette won almost 17% of voters and 13 electors from his home state of Wisconsin. This was still fewer than the 15 electors Independent Harry F. Byrd earned almost four decades later in 1960 despite not having been on the ballot and having received no votes from the public. 14 unpledged and one unfaithful elector voted for him in yet another protest of desegregation, thereby surpassing the electoral college tally of many serious third-party candidates of the past 120 years.

Charted by Statista

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