Their power is particularly evident in Presidential elections, where the manner in which the states have organized the Electoral College system - each of the 50 states plus Washington DC using single round, "winner take all", plurality elections[1] - makes it virtually impossible for anyone other than the Democratic or Republican Party candidate to win a Presidential election. Single-round plurality voting per district tends to evolve towards a two-party system and it also often leads to Polarization: concentration on two dominant parties since any new party has to overcome the virtually impossible hurdle of getting more votes than any other party to obtain an electoral result. A particularly flagrant example of the consequences of this was the US presidential election of 1992 when nearly one in five Americans voted for Ross Perot, a wealthy Texas businessman who ran as an independent and received 19% of the votes, yet was unable to win a single Electoral College vote.

It is clearly possible for third-party or independent candidates to run for President. It is a complicated, expensive process, involving meeting a variety of requirements and deadlines specific to each state, to get on that state's Presidential Election Ballot. In each Presidential election, there are third parties candidates who appear on many state ballots, and even though they have no chance of winning they can often have a major influence on the outcome, particularly in a country like the United States that is split down the middle into two camps, with most recent Presidential elections decided by a tiny number of votes.

A case in point is the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, in which even though Gore won the popular vote, he lost the election on the basis of Bush's less than 600 vote victory in Florida (confirmed by a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court ruling). Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who had built a national reputation for his successful attack on General Motors, ran as the Green Party candidate in 2000 and garnered nearly 100,000 votes in Florida. Many Democrats blame Nader for having made Gore lose the election. Had only a small minority of his voters in Florida voted for Gore (and the same calculation applies to Nader's 22,000 votes in New Hampshire), the Democrat would have won the Presidential election.

One of the few subjects Republicans and Democrats agree upon today is they do not want a repeat of 2020, Biden against Trump, yet as of this writing, that seems to be the probable outcome of the primary elections for both Parties. The two candidates currently have a similar, highly negative rating among American voters, a political setting reflecting the frustration with the two Parties that bodes well for a third-party candidate. A recent poll indicates that forty-four percent of Americans are open to considering a third-party candidate if Trump and Biden are the candidates from the two leading Parties[2]. Ominously for Democrats, 45% of Democrats are open to third-party candidates, as compared to only 34% of Republicans. It appears Biden has a less solid hold on his voters than Trump voters, who have a much stronger emotional bond with their candidate.

We will be other Presidential candidates than the Democratic and Republican, there will be a Green Party nominee, who may well attract young voters furious with Biden for having accepted construction of the Mountain Valley pipeline (West Virginia Senator Manchin's pet project), as well as agreeing to give permits for oil drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a new movement, called "No Labels", that intends to register on the Presidential ballot in all states. Founded by Senator Joe Lieberman and other generally left-of-center politicians, it is also considered a major threat to the Democratic Party's chances to win the 2024 election.

Will a third-party candidate spoil the 2024 election, either for the Democrats or the Republicans? When most pollsters predict that in 2024, just as in 2020, the election will be decided by a tiny number of votes in a small number of swing states, even a minor showing by a third-party candidate can change the outcome.

To understand the 2024 US Presidential election, we need to keep a close eye on what happens beyond just the Biden-Trump agenda.

[1] With the exception of two states, Maine and Nebraska, who allocate their electoral votes in part by congressional district, rather than as a single state, but this has never had a notable impact on the presidential election.

[2] NBC News Poll conducted June 16-20, 2023


Patrick Siegler-Lathrop is a dual-national American-French businessman living in Portugal, having pursued a career as an international investment banker, an entrepreneur-industrialist, a university professor and a consultant. He is the author of numerous articles on the US and a book, "Rendez-Vous with America, an Explanation of the US Election System". He is currently the President of the American Club of Lisbon, a 76-year old organization "promoting goodwill and understanding between people and cultures". For more information:

The opinions expressed herein are personal and not those of the American Club of Lisbon.

Patrick Siegler-Lathrop