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Third party spoilers

I have seen an interesting political meme a few times of late. It says that third party candidates are always spoilers, and cites the Republican dominance of the Presidency between 1896 and 1932 as partial evidence. The argument is that Eugene Debs pulled votes away from the Democrats, causing them to lose. It also cites other examples, but it’s the turn of the century example I’m going to address here. (Because it’s the one which is wrong. The others are pretty much accurate.)

I’m making this post because I spent a while putting together the data and I don’t want to lose it; also because I believe in spreading accurate information, where such is available. My data source is David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Content moved into the extended entry because it was messing up the front page.


Table One: Popular Vote

This table shows the popular vote for every Presidential election between 1896 and 1928. All third parties are lumped together, because I want to provide the most favorable scenario for the Democrats.

Year Democrat 3rd Party Republican
1896 46.7% 2.3% 51%
1900 45.5% 2.8% 51.7%
1904 37.6% 6% 56.4%
1908 43% 5.3% 51.7%
1912 41.8% 35% (27.4% Bull Moose) 23.2%
1916 49.2% 4.7% 46.1%
1920 34.1% 5.6% 60.3%
1924 28.5% 17.5% 54%
1928 40.8% 0.9% 58.3%

In every year in which the Republicans won the election, they had a simple majority of the popular vote. There are no cases in which the third party vote plus the Democratic Party vote add up to more than the Republican Party vote, except in 1912 when the Republican Party was split by Theodore Roosevelt — the one example of a successful third party spoiler from that era damaged the Republicans.

Also, that split was anomalous, as it was the result of corrupt politics on the part of the Republican Party. More information is available here.

Note that the extremely large third party vote in 1924 was also due to a Republican Party split. Robert LaFollete was the standard bearer for the Progressive Party. Don’t be misled by the name; LaFollete, though quite radical, was a Republican earlier in his political career and close examination of the electoral votes of 1924 shows that LaFollete took Republican votes in states that had voted Republican in the elections immediately previous and subsequent. The Progressive Party did not cost the Republican Party the election, despite one of the strongest third party showings of the 1900s.

Table Two: Electoral Vote

For each year between 1896 and 1932 in which the Republicans won, I list the actual Democratic and Republican electoral votes, the states that would have swung Democrat if all the third party voters went Democrat, and the hypothetical Democratic and Republican electoral votes.

Year Actual Democrat Actual Republican Swing States Hypothetical Democrat Hypothetical Republican
1896 176 271 CA (8)
KY (12)
196 251
1900 155 292 no changes 155 292
1904 140 336 MD (1)
MO (18)
159 317
1908 162 321 IN (15)
MO (18)
MN (3)
198 285
1920 127 404 no changes 127 404
1924 136 382 AZ (3)
ID (4)
KY (13)
MD (8)
MO (18)
MN (4)
NE (8)
NV (3)
NM (3)
ND (5)
SD (5)
UT (4)
WI (13)
WV (8)
235 283
1928 87 444 NY (45) 133 399

The 1928 electoral votes don’t add up because the Progressive Party drew 13 electoral votes that year. For the sake of argument, I’ve swung all the Progressive Party votes to the Democratic Party that year; the Republican Party would still have won by a slim margin.

Corrections on math errors and so forth are welcome. So are comments on the politics of the era. Note that this is a purely mathematical analysis of the question, and does not account for the possibility that the existence of a third party drove some voters to vote Republican.

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