Would a third party candidate spoil the 1920 presidential election?
At least three presidential elections in the past three decades alone were very likely altered by third-party candidates:
- 1992: Independent candidate Ross Perot earned 19.7 million votes, mostly from Republican George H.W. Bush, likely tipping the election to Democrat Bill Clinton.
- 2000: Green Party candidate Ralph Nader earned 2.8 million votes, mostly from Democrat Al Gore, likely tipping the election (particularly the results in Florida) to Republican George W. Bush.
- 2016: Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein jointly combined for 5.9 million votes, primarily from Democrat Hillary Clinton (particularly in Stein’s case). Shifting a combined 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would have lost Republican Donald Trump the election.
This 1920 New York Times Magazine article considered the possibility that Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs could throw the election. They drew a comparison to the at-the-time-well-recalled 1892 race:
In one memorable year, 1892, the discontented were chiefly Republicans, and in the West they voted for the Populist candidate, James B. Weaver, while in the East they stayed home in such large numbers as to elect a Democratic President [Grover Cleveland]. In recent years they have voted for Debs, without the slightest regard to his principles and solely by way of protest. This year, thanks to [Farmer–Labor Party presidential nominee Parley] Christensen’s nomination, neither party will be hurt more than the other.
Indeed, neither major party was disproportionately hurt that year. Harding won the election with a commanding 404-127 Electoral College margin and 60.3 percent of the popular vote, while Debs won 3.4 percent and Christensen won 1.0 percent of the popular vote – and neither won any electoral votes. It’s hard to claim that either Debs or Christensen changed the election result.
However, neither Perot, Nader, Johnson, nor Stein won a single electoral vote either, yet are widely considered to have changed the election result. What’s the difference? The close margins of those elections. Since this article was published in 1920, only three different third-party candidates have won so much as a single electoral vote, yet the margins were decisive enough among the two main candidates that none of them proved to be spoilers.
- 1924: Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette won 13 electoral votes, though Calvin Coolidge won a commanding 382-136 Electoral College victory over John W. Davis.
- 1948: States’ Rights Democrat (Dixiecrat) candidate Strom Thurmond won 39 electoral votes, though Harry Truman won a commanding 308-139 Electoral College victory over Thomas Dewey. Thurmond likely took more votes away from Truman, meaning Thurmond’s candidacy didn’t change the election result so much as prevent Truman from winning by an even larger margin.
- 1968: American Independent Party candidate George Wallace won 46 electoral votes, but in an echo of two decades prior, Wallace’s candidacy didn’t change the election result so much as prevent Richard Nixon from winning by even more than his actual 301-191 Electoral College margin.
(Libertarian Party presidential candidate John Hospers technically won a single electoral vote in 1972, but that was Virginia faithless elector Roger MacBride, who was supposed to vote for Richard Nixon as his state had.)
As for 2020, neither Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen nor Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins appear to be making as much of a splash as their 2016 predecessors, at least so far. And no other candidate has announced who plausibly seems like they could even attain 1 percent of the vote, for now.
The Party of Discontent
Published: Sunday, July 25, 1920