Spoiler alert: Third-party candidates have played roles in presidential elections

RFK Jr. is the son of the former U.S. senator who ran for president in 1968 before he was assassinated.

The two-party system in U.S. politics makes it difficult for an independent candidate to win a presidential election.

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s decision to switch from the Democratic Party to run as an independent in the 2024 presidential election presents a challenge for the candidate and the entrenched two-party system.

Since 1900, only five third-party candidates – Theodore Roosevelt (1912), Robert La Follette (1924), Strom Thurmond (1948), George Wallace (1968) and John Hospers (1971) — have been able to capture at least one electoral vote, according to But other candidates, like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, made an impact in the national election without winning an electoral vote by siphoning voters away from mainstream candidates.

Hospers, the first candidate in the history of the Libertarian Party, captured one vote from Virginia, according to the website 270 to Win. Incumbent Republican Richard Nixon won the other 11 votes in the state.

Here is a look at how “major” third-party candidates fared in presidential elections since 1900.

Theodore Roosevelt (1912)

Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. He was elected in his own right in 1904 but decided not to stand for re-election in 1908.

Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was easily elected. But by 1912, Roosevelt was unhappy when Taft did not push ahead on the former president’s reform agenda, according to

Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, but when he failed, “T.R.” formed the Progressive Party, commonly known as the “Bull Moose” party.

Progressives flocked to Roosevelt but effectively split the Republican Party, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the general election.

Wilson won 435 votes, but Roosevelt finished second with 88, according to 270 to Win. Taft won only eight electoral votes, carrying Utah and Vermont.

The Bull Moose Party finished second in 1912.

Strom Thurmond (1948)

Strom Thurmond, who ran under the banner of the Dixiecrat Party, disdained integration and intensely believed in states’ rights.

Then the governor of South Carolina, Thurmond and other Southern Democrats opposed the Democratic National Convention’s desire to centralize civil rights, according to Smithsonian Magazine. To show their anger, the southern faction bolted from the convention and formed their own party -- “The South Secedes Again,” the magazine noted.

Thurmond would win four states in the Deep South -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina -- and 39 electoral votes. He garnered 1,169,021 votes nationwide, mostly from the South.

Thurmond pulled votes from President Harry S. Truman, but the incumbent, who had been projected to lose to Republican Thomas E. Dewey, received surprising support from the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. That enabled Truman to score the biggest upset in presidential election history as he took a comfortable 303-189 margin in the Electoral College and won the popular vote by more than 2.1 million.

Thurmond voters came mostly from Truman’s base, but the sitting president triumphed by making up for it with the help of another third-party campaign: Many of Progressive Henry Wallace’s early supporters unexpectedly defected to voting for the president’s re-election, causing one of the biggest presidential upsets in history.

The governor of South Carolina was against integration and touted states' rights.

George Wallace (1968)

Another segregationist and a strong states’ rights advocate, Alabama politician George Wallace is remembered for his campaign against civil rights that helped him get elected as governor of the state in 1962, The Washington Post reported.

“I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Wallace said after his election.

Wallace, who served as governor on four separate occasions -- Alabama’s constitution prohibited consecutive terms -- entered the 1968 presidential race running as a candidate for the American Independent Party.

Wallace, as might be expected, derived most of his support from the Deep South. He won five states -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina—and grabbed one elector in North Carolina (the other 12 went to Richard Nixon).

Wallace also collected 9,906,473 votes, according to 270 to Win.

His bid for a run as a Democrat in 1972 was stopped during an assassination attempt in Laurel, Maryland. Wallace was injured and was confined to a wheelchair until his death in 1998.

George Wallace carried several Southern states in 1968.

Ross Perot (1992)

Businessman Ross Perot was a populist and a self-made billionaire, according to The Hill. After entering the race, he outspent incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, according to PBS. Perot also became the first third-party candidate to participate in televised debates with the two major candidates.

Clinton would unseat Bush but drew only 43% of the popular vote. Bush received 37.4%, while Perot collected a healthy 18.9% of the vote.

However, Clinton won big in the Electoral College, topping Bush by a 370-168 margin. Perot did not win an electoral vote but did attract 19,742,267 votes.

The businessman was the first third-party candidate to participate in a televised debate with the two major party candidates.

Ralph Nader (2000)

Ralph Nader was noted for his activism in consumer protection and the environment. He also was a political reformer.

His entrance into the 2000 presidential race as a Green Party candidate would decide the election, even though he did not win an electoral vote.

Nader received 2,882,728 votes nationwide, but crucially he drew 97,488 votes in Florida, according to 270 to Win.

George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by a razor-thin margin in 2000. Bush, the governor of Texas, was running against the vice president, who wanted to extend the Democrats’ hold on the White House that had been secured for eight years by Bill Clinton.

Bush won by 537 votes in Florida to take the election, which was decided after several recounts and legal challenges. It is possible that Nader drew votes away from Gore in the Sunshine State, certainly more than 537.

His presence in the race swung the vote -- and election -- to Bush, even though the Republican lost in the popular vote to Gore.

It would be one of just five elections where the candidate with the most popular votes was defeated. The others were in 1824, 1976, 1888 and 2016.

The consumer advocate won more than 98,000 votes in Florida in 2000.

Can Robert F. Kennedy Jr. make a difference in the 2024 race?

The allies of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, who currently are the leading candidates for their respective parties, believe that Kennedy might take votes away from one or both candidates, The Associated Press reported.

“The truth is, they’re both right,” Kennedy said in his Monday announcement in Philadelphia. “My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”

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