NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Third Parties Can't Win In A Two-Party System

July 28, 1999

Last weekend's Reform Party convention brought together activists from across the ideological spectrum yearning for an alternative to the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. According to a recent poll, 57 percent of Americans now agree it would be a good idea to have a viable third party.

Unfortunately, those supporting third party efforts are wasting their time if their goal actually is to elect a president. That is basically guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which requires an absolute majority in the Electoral College or, failing that, a majority of state delegations to the House of Representatives.

  • At the national level, electing a Jesse Ventura -- who was elected Governor of Minnesota with a bare plurality -- is a virtual impossibility.
  • In almost all cases, the winner in the Electoral College needs to carry a majority of the popular vote as well.
  • Although there are exceptions -- Bill Clinton got just 43 percent in 1992 and 49.2 percent in 1996 -- the winning candidate must have a sufficiently broad geographic base to get 270 electoral votes.

This virtually ensures there can never be more than two major parties. Says political scientist Judith Best, "The electoral- count system is not neutral; it has a built-in bias in favor of the two-party system, since it discriminates against both sectional and national third parties."

The two-party necessity also tends to force all politicians toward the middle. This centrism is necessarily frustrating for those with strong ideologies or absolutist agendas. As the legal scholar Alexander Bickel put it, "The choice in the general election between two candidates either of whom can satisfy most people, or at least radically dissatisfy very few, always leaves some of us with no choice at all."

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, July 28, 1999.


Browse more articles on Government Issues