Debate: America’s Third Largest Party?

For years the Libertarians have claimed to be America’s third largest party. Are they right? Over the last decade it would be easy to see how the Libertarians, Greens, and Reform Party could all have laid claim on that status. It all depends on what criteria is used.

How do you define if one party is more successful than another… do you use registration? Including their California affiliate, the Constitution Party technically holds that title. Presidential vote totals? Number of elected officials? Quality of elected officials? Or some other method?

This is an interesting topic since it’s largely subjective. Let’s discuss and see if we can decide on some common ground.

67 Responses to “Debate: America’s Third Largest Party?”

  1. Mikey Says:

    I would gauge it in two ways.

    The first would be the total number of elected positions held. You can have (or claim to have) 1 Million supporters on your rolls, but if you cannot get one person elected to even a county-level seat, then there is something wrong.

    The second way would be the Presidential election. This shows your national strength through not only raw votes, but also the number of states you have ballot access to. While you normally need to have the first criteria met before a Presidential run, that is not always the case (insert Perot example here).

    But over all, a national test is probably the most realistic way to gauge who is the largest third party . . . at least in my view.

  2. NewFederalist Says:

    I tend to agree with Mikey. I would qualify his comments by saying that I don’t think races which are non-partisan should count toward the elected members total. The Libertarians make incredible claims as to the number of party members serving as public officials (over 600) but when you drill down and toss out those races which were non-partisan or which the winning candidate had no opponent or those where the office holder has been appointed rather than elected, the picture changes dramatically. The total number of elected officials who were elected in a partisan race with opposition is less than a few dozen. To the Libertarians’ credit, however, is their demonstrated ability to get on the ballot in all 50 states plus DC in presidential elections. Nobody comes close to them on that basis. On balance I believe the Libertarian Party can still claim to be America’s third largest political party.

  3. Austin Cassidy Says:

    Interesting takes. Mikey, what would you say as to Greens v. Libertarians by those standards?

    The Presidential vote total is a little difficult to use.

    In 2004, the LP received 397,000 to the Green 119,000… but since 1972, the LP has polled a grand combined total of about 3.3 million votes for President. The Greens have polled 3.7 million, and they’ve only run three times. Almost all of that falls on the back of Ralph Nader’s 2000 bid. So, that makes things even more complicated.

    But you do make an excellent point with ballot access, however it’s again confused by the issues with Nader running as an independent… if the Greens had been united, it’s reasonable to assume a better showing for Cobb and that he would have qualified for more states.

  4. Ron Hardy Says:

    Greetings!

    As far as I can count, in terms of strictly partisan races, the Green Party has one elected official at the state legislative level, John Eder of Maine representing Portland. The other 200+ Greens in office are at the city council, mayor, county board, school board or water/soil boards.

    I agree that partisan races are indicative of success, but it should be noted that many Greens running for non-partisan races openly declare their allegience, for better or worse.

    Can anyone tell me how many Libertarians are at the state legislative level and up? I have no idea.

  5. Austin Cassidy Says:

    At the state legislative and up? I believe it’s zero…

  6. Otto Kerner Says:

    I think one might want to distinguish between the “largest” or “most active” third party and the “most successful” one. I tend to suspect the Libertarians are still the most active third party. My impression is that they have more local organizations, and they certainly run more candidates, especially for high-level offices like the U.S. Congress. Ballot Access News shows 21 Libertarian Senate candidaes last time, compared to 10 CP and 8 Greens; 8 Libertarian gubernatorial candidates (out of 11 states with races), compared to 2 CP, and 0 Greens; 143 Libertarians for U.S. House of Reps, compared to 47 CP and 43 Greens; and 377 Libertarian state legislative candidates, compared to 108 CP and 94 Greens. These numbers imply that the Greens might not even be the fourth largest party, although there’s probably some other factor to mitigate that conclusion.

    I think that, a few years ago, the Greens had the momentum to eventually become the third largest party, but they were hurt badly by their perceived role in the 2000 presidential election and by the split with Nader. Anecdotally, I had a friend who was an employee of Nader for President in 2000 and was active in local Green politics. But, even before the 2004 election, he had switched to working with Democrats. He was basically just “mugged by reality”, as he realized that it’s very difficult for minor parties to get ahead in the American political system.

    On the other hand, I would say the third most successful party in the U.S. is definitely the Vermont Progressive Party. Despite being organized in only one state, they have more state representatives (six) than all other third parties put together. Moreover, they’ve been electing representatives consistently for something like 10 years, and they were recently allowed to form a caucus by the Vermont House of Representatives.

  7. Austin Cassidy Says:

    I agree with you about the Vermont Progressives. I’m starting to wonder when they’ll try and spread across the border to NY or NH.

    In the Libertarians v. Greens debate…

    The Libertarians certainly are more active with putting more people on the ballot… but as far as winning meaningful races, I think the number of successful partisan elections probably goes to the Greens, though I don’t know any exact numbers.

    The GP claims only about 220 elected officials, while the LP claims over 600. They don’t seem to have the list up there any more, but when they used to maintain a complete directory of “Libertarian Officials” you could see that a great many of those positions were not elected, but rather appointed and nonpartisan spots that were given to people who just happen to be Libertarians. And of the ones that are elected, a great many of those were not partisan races.

    Looking over the list… most of those people were sitting on things like the Placentia Traffic and Safety Commission, the Lee County Nuisance Abatement Board, the Governor’s Holocaust Education Commission, or the Citrus Heights Planning Commission. Or were in positions like San Miguel County Coroner.

    Now, looking over the list of Green Party office holders… the first notable difference is that they don’t list appointed officials. And while they do have some less notable positions on there, the majority of their officials are at the town council level and above.

    You see they have a state representative in Maine. They have someone on the San Francisco city council, plus a city councilman in Boston, MA… two city councilman in Minneapolis, MN… a city councilman in Napa, CA… a city councilman in Hartford, CT… the mayor of Sonoma, CA… a city councilman in Providence, RI… the now-famous mayor of New Paltz, NY… a city councilman in Duluth, MN… a number of other substantial offices.

  8. Ron Hardy Says:

    One thing that has been gnawing at me about this:

    I don’t like pitting the Greens Vs. Libertarians like this.

    On the one hand, the means of measurement of sucess of third parties is interesting, but I am afraid it leads to an ‘adversarial’ comparison between the 3rd Parties where none really exists in ‘the real world’. All 3rd parties share the common obsticles of ballot access, media access, and the stigma of ‘viability’, and many, especially Greens and Libertarians, work in conjunction to challenge these. Badnarik and Cobb together sued Ohio regarding the 2004 election, and at least in Wisconsin Libertarians and Greens often release joint press releases, most recently regarding the Supreme Court decision on state law and medical marijuana.

    One interesting note regarding the “measurements of success” of third parties being discussed here. There was much debate in the Green Party after their 2004 nominating convention that selected Cobb over Camejo (i.e. Nader) over the proportion of delegates between the states. Green Party stands on “one person one vote”, but some states, notably California Greens, felt excessively under-represented in that almost half of “registered” Greens are in California, and maybe 33% of elected Greens are in California. (California backed Camejo/Nader). So there is a current debate over how to measure proportions, since not all states allow citizens to “register” as Greens, each state has different membership rules, etc. Do you measure by elected officials? Membership? Registration? Or a proportion of these things and others?

    This relates to the comparison of Libertarians and Greens. Libertarians have more candidates on the ballot in more states for more offices than the Greens, which should be one factor in the measurement.

  9. Austin Cassidy Says:

    That’s a good point… if they had universal ballot access they might be able to use some formula of Presidential results + elected officials.

    Maybe they could set up some sort of dues paying membership system tied to delegate selection to measure support among the various states and make sure it was representative?

    I know it sounds like I’m sticking up for the Greens, but the reality is my views fall much closer to Libertarians/Constitution Party than Green… it’s just my feeling that I would rather be a member of a party that runs 100 candidates and wins 25 times than a party that runs 500 candidates and wins 15 times.

  10. Ron Hardy Says:

    And in full disclosure, I’m a Wisconsin Green!

  11. Brian Says:

    How about the Independence Party in Minnesota. They have an elected State Senator, and then of course there was Jesse as Governor.

  12. Austin Cassidy Says:

    And they had a U.S. Senator there for a couple of months.

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