How much power do third parties actually have?

You might assume that third parties do not wield much power in the political realm. That certainly makes sense, because third parties are relatively small and have few candidates win election to office. In fact, the largest of these parties (the Libertarian Party) does not even have a single state legislator in office. This indicates that third parties hold little to no power in the policy-making process. It is hard to shape policy when one does not have a seat at the table.

And yet, there is a multitude of small political parties that exist all over the country, many spanning the entire nation. Oftentimes, voters only become aware of their existence by seeing the party name on a ballot, which is far too late to convince most voters to make that selection.

Many of these small parties function as a reaction to and a rebellion against the two-party system of American politics. Independent voters have been seeking viable alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties for decades, but have found little in which to put their faith.

The Democratic Party has over 44 million registered voters across the country. The Republican Party has a much smaller number of registered voters, with around 33 million. However, all remaining political parties have less than 3 million registered voters in the entire country.

The Libertarian Party has approximately half a million registered voters, but their 2016 presidential nominee received almost 4.5 million votes in that election. This gives a partisan gain ratio (PGR) of 9, meaning that candidate received eight times the number of votes than the number of that party’s registered voters eligible to cast a ballot. Third parties tend to have a high PGR, meaning that their registered voter base is just a small portion of the people that end up voting for them. Much of this is due to voters rejecting the main party candidates, providing a treason for small parties to push a narrative of partisan rebellion.

The Green Party earned nearly 1.5 million votes in the 2016 presidential election, in spite of having only about a quarter of a million registered members. This works out to a PGR of 6. By contrast, the Democratic party had a PGR of 1.5 and the Republican Party had a PGR of 1.9 during the 2016 presidential election. This shows that small parties have a larger potential for growth than the two main political parties in America.

But these numbers do fluctuate. While the Democratic and Republican PGRs were relatively unchanged from 2012 to 2016, the PGRs for the Libertarian Party and the Green Party both tripled during that same span. This demonstrates the volatility of third-party politics In America, often based upon the popularity of the main party candidates.

While we did see an unprecedented rise of third-party voters in 2016, it is incredibly unlikely that this will be a trend in American politics. While the PGRs ate high for these parties, that also means that they lack a strong base of party loyalists that the party can depend on. Without a major third-party movement in America, it is likely that they will continue to be simply votes to reject the mainstream candidates, which is not a viable model for a party in the long term.

The influence of third-parties on presidential elections really only matters within the electoral college. In 2016, voters in states like Michigan cast far more third-party votes than the margin of victory for Trump. Even though the Libertarian and Green Parties came nowhere near victory, their presence on the ballot does impact the outcome of the election in close states. That can mean the difference between a Democrat or a Republican in the Oval Office.

Stay tuned for more articles on third party politics in America.

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