The 7 Most Successful Third- Party Candidates Ever

by Cate Carrejo

For most of its history, the United States has been embedded in a two-party political system, and when third-party candidates do make bids at the presidency, it's rare that they achieve any measurable level of success. If either liberals or conservatives have a third party candidate run for president this year, that candidate could receive a nearly unprecedented level of support in this divisive election season, like some of the most successful third party candidates to come before them.

The 2016 presidential race has brought surprise after surprise since the very beginning. Now that rumors are circulating on both sides about the possibility of third-party candidates, some voters — particularly those who don't support either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and believe Bernie Sanders can't clinch the nomination — hope the next big announcement to shake up the race will be a new candidate outside the confines of the two major political parties.

Third-party candidates frequently capture the imagination of the American public. Everyone loves a good underdog story, so it's fun to dream of a close election where the dark horse candidate comes out on top. This has never really happened in U.S. politics, but there are a few throughout history who have come commendably close. The most successful third party candidates in history include some former presidents and some unknowns, all of whom came close to flipping American politics on its head.

Teddy Roosevelt

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Before his cousin Franklin served a record four terms, Roosevelt tried to seek office as a third party candidate. Roosevelt left office in 1909, followed by William Taft, whom he had handpicked for the job. However, Roosevelt reportedly became frustrated with Taft's increasingly conservative policies, and attempted to challenge him in the 1912 election. Running with the Progressive Party — better known then as the Bull-Moose Party — Roosevelt eventually lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.

The loss of the presidency may have been a disappointment for Roosevelt, but he still beat Taft by coming in second, making him the only third party candidate ever to do so in an election.

Ross Perot

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Perot started his career as an early tech entrepreneur, first working at IBM and eventually selling his self-made company, Electronic Data Systems, to General Motors for $2.5 billion in 1984. Backed by deep pockets and popular conservative values, Perot made a 1992 White House bid and snagged 19 percent of the popular vote, although that might have been even higher if he hadn't mysteriously dropped out and then reentered the race.

George Wallace

Wallace ran for president with the American Independent Party in 1968 and went on to carry five states in the general election. Then governor of Alabama, Wallace ran on a pro-segregation platform, tapping into a vein of racial tension that was flaring up from the social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. (Sound familiar to a certain contemporary candidate?) Wallace earned nearly 10 million votes, but the country ultimately decided on Richard Nixon.

Millard Fillmore

Like Roosevelt, Fillmore attempted to seek a non-consecutive third term through a third party bid. Fillmore ran in 1856 with the Know-Nothing Party, which reportedly featured a xenophobic and anti-Catholic platform, primarily developed as a political reaction to the wave of immigration in the 1840s. Although he won more than 21 percent of the popular vote, the election didn't go well for Fillmore; he carried only Maryland and its eight electoral votes, and James Buchanan ended up the winner.

Robert La Follette

La Follette spent a lifetime fighting political corruption, first as a Wisconsin district attorney, then governor of Wisconsin and U.S. senator. In 1924, he ran for president under the Progressive Party, but came in third, losing to Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis. He managed to secure 16 percent of the vote and carry his home state, but it wasn't enough to get La Follette to the White House.

Ralph Nader


Nader's long career of running for president culminated in 2000, when he captured 2.74 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Despite the low vote, some say Nader had a huge impact on the election, crediting him as the downfall of Al Gore's campaign due to splitting the Democratic base. Recently, Nader has offered his thoughts on Bernie Sanders' campaign, criticizing of the Democratic Party's nominating process and the fairness of the superdelegate system.

William Jennings Bryan

Bryan got not one, but three, party nominations in the election of 1896: the People's Party, the Free Silver Party, and the Democratic Party. Even with 45.8 percent of the vote, he couldn't defeat the Republican nominee William McKinley though, and he found defeat in two more presidential campaigns before serving as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State.

It still remains to be seen if any third party candidates will enter the race this year, but the U.S. might be primed for a new party to enter the political landscape. If a third party candidate ever does win the American presidency, the change in the country's politics would certainly be fascinating to watch.