Third Party in 2020? Trump Need Not Worry.

U.S. President Donald Trump smiles while hosting a CEO town hall on the American business climate at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Independent candidates run spirited campaigns and espouse unique agendas and perspectives—but they often lose.

In the past month, coverage of the 2020 presidential has begun as reporters and observers have breathlessly covered and commented on the sizable number of Democrats maneuvering to take on Donald Trump, as well as a number of disaffected Republicans, like erstwhile critic Ohio Governor John Kasich and recent antagonist Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. While the prospect of an third-party candidacy would certainly enliven what promises to be another wild presidential contest, an independent candidate would gain little traction and achieve less in the way of shifting American politics away from Trumpism.

Third parties and independent candidates are a recurring phenomenon in American politics. The Republican Party began as a third party and rapidly became one of the country’s two main parties. Independent presidential candidates in the twentieth century have included memorable historical figures such as former President Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Robert LaFollette, former Vice President Henry Wallace, Sen. Strom Thurmond, Gov. George Wallace, Rep. John Anderson, businessman Ross Perot, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

More notably, in the past fifty years, third-party independent appeared like clockwork, on a recurring cycle of every twelve years: Governor Wallace in 1968, Anderson in 1980, and Perot in 1992.

According to this rhythm, independent runs should have occurred in 2004 and 2016. However, the 2004 election featured no major third-party candidate because Nader’s run in 2000 demonstrated that every single vote counted and that consolidating the base was paramount. Moreover, liberals had no appetite for bolting from the Democratic Party only to ensure George W. Bush’s reelection.

In 2016, Donald Trump ran what was virtually an independent candidacy, running against traditional Republican conservative orthodoxy and effortlessly poaching Democratic constituencies.

Why Did He Succeed While Others Didn't?

Independent candidates run spirited campaigns and espouse unique agendas and perspectives, but each of them loses. Nevertheless, in defeat these failed candidacies influence the outcome and subsequent political debate. Over time, third-party agendas are usually co-opted by and their voters are integrated into the two major parties.