Why third-party campaigns have always been doomed to fail

Rumors of a third-party challenge in 2024 are mounting. 

Some say that if Trump loses the Republican nomination, he will stump as the “Truth Party” candidate. And the media already went into a frenzy of speculation that a centrist third-party candidate might emerge when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) launched the No Labels manifesto.  

No matter how attractive third-party candidate are, they never win. The 1912 Progressive Party campaign of Theodore Roosevelt — the best showing of a modern candidate — offers an insight into why the obstacles are insurmountable. It should sound a warning for candidates flirting with the prospect. 

Third parties spring from renegade blocs within major political parties. Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party when sitting president, William Howard Taft, won the GOP nomination. Roosevelt founded the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party, claiming that Republican bosses had conspired against him. 

He expected to convert old Republican friends, and many did join, but others felt betrayed. Henry Adams said that Roosevelt had “cut the throats” of the Republicans so “deliberately and effectively” that the party would never forget his treason.  

In a sense, Adams was right. Roosevelt had left the party splintered in ways unanticipated. In the West and Midwest, left-wing Republicans classed Roosevelt as too conservative. In New York, conservative Republicans saw the former president as utterly radical. Of course, Democrats would not vote for him either. The Progressive Party was doomed from the start. 

If Roosevelt’s shifting allegiance had not estranged Republicans, the cult of personality in the new party would. Some were energized by the immense celebrity of the former president. It seemed like a religious awakening; Roosevelt’s fans flocked to the campaign like worshippers. Indeed, that is how the standard-bearer characterized the election: “We stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord,” Roosevelt roared in his acceptance speech for the Bull Moose Party. 

But celebrity campaigns tend to disaffect as many as it attracts. The revelation of Roosevelt’s second coming disgusted some voters.

The overwhelming emphasis on personality also poisoned the spirit of democratic reform at the heart of the Progressive Party messaging. It gave Democrats and Republicans an opening to take pot-shots. They called the Progressive a frequent drunk, mentally insane, paranoid and power-hungry. Taft, once a close friend of Roosevelt, told the press that another term for Roosevelt would bring a “reign of terror,” akin to the bloody French Revolution. The lesson here is that third-party campaigns rely too heavily on lightning-rod candidates who appeal and repulse in equal measure.  

Finally, third parties like Roosevelt’s present every election as pivotal, as if every four years the nation faced an emergency that only one candidate could shoulder. In 1912, Roosevelt blasted plutocrats and party bosses as the culprits of political corruption who had diminished American democracy. He preached that industrial capitalism had provoked a crisis on par with the Revolution and the Civil War — a crisis that only the Progressive Party could solve. Roosevelt promised to combat runaway wealth, political machines and entrenched special interests. So did the Democrats and Republicans. 

Like most political campaigns, the Bull Moose revolution over-egged the analogy. The notion that only Roosevelt could save the American republic, as Washington and Lincoln had done in wartime, came across as audacious. Roosevelt had struggled valiantly against the ills of industrial capitalism as president, but he had not solved the problem completely and voters refused to believe another term in office would accomplish all he promised.  

All third-party candidates have the same problems as Roosevelt. With roots in a major party, they spark ugly intra-party battles and struggle to win over the members of the rival party. They rely on a cult of personality and contrive national crises, claiming that only they can solve them.

Only one thing is guaranteed with a third-party candidate: election by plurality. 

Roosevelt’s Bull Moose insurgency led to the presidency of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won the contest with a mere 42 percent of the vote. Roosevelt and Taft together secured over 50 percent

Did Roosevelt succeed in turning the political conversation to the left? Yes, certainly. Attractive third-party candidates tap into the prevailing political mood, and they change the course of the election. But they do not win.

Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party campaign was the most successful in modern history. It still ended in a catastrophic defeat. 

Michael Patrick Cullinane is a historian of American politics and an award-winning author. He is the chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, a public historian for the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and host of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era podcast

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