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If you look in the Daily Kos Elections oh-so-handy polling database, you may notice about a third of the races polled have a third-party candidate polling at 5 percent or above.

As David Nir noted the other day, this seems like a lot. Is it?

Indeed, it is. Below is the percent of Senate elections with three or more candidates getting more than 4 percent of the vote (roughly equivalent to polling >5%), going back to 1914, the first year with direct election of senators by popular vote.

If the polling holds up, we're on track to have the most three-way Senate races since 1920. Incidentally, that means we're on track to have some pretty big polling misses as well, since polling with third-party candidates performing this well is much less accurate.

More below the fold.

The Governors

Below is the graph for the Senate with the races for governor added in, back to 1966, which is approximately when the current pattern (most races in midterm years) began.

The prevalence of third parties in both types of races follows the same general pattern. Races for governor, however, have a clear presidential/midterm pattern. In midterm years, the yellow squares tend to be above the green circles. This could be due to the fact that states that are more likely to support third-party candidates—say, Maine or Minnesota—always have elections during the midterms.

The numbers

Here's a table to compare the Senate and governor races:

In the aggregate, races for governor are much more likely to feature a third party with more than 4 percent than races for Senate. Even if you restrict the Senate races to the same time period, you get the same result.

Third parties are much less likely to be found in presidential year races for governor.

When looking at races for Senate and governor together, this means midterm years are likely to have a greater number and proportion of races with third-party candidates >4 percent than presidential years.

What is going on?

Looking at the graph, there are some potential explanations for the blips, bumps and peaks on it. The peak from 1992-1996 could arguably be related to the Ross Perot phenomenon. The bump in the 1960s and 1970s seems like the reasonable outcome of the turbulent politics of those days. And the initial peak in 1914 is clearly the result of the popularity of both the Progressive and Socialist parties at that time.

But what about now? Are we witnessing the birthing pangs of a new third-party movement? Or will this, too, pass? Is it just the irascible expression of general discontent, eventually to be folded into the main parties as Democrats embrace an economic populist style and Republicans become entirely engulfed by their unruly creation?

Perhaps this is related to the dismal view of the Republican Party, as many of the candidates this year are Libertarian. The latest polling numbers give Republicans a net favorability around -20, except for Fox. Democrats are also in negative territory, although well-loved compared to Republicans.

There's some evidence to back up this idea. If you look at this table of the incumbents with the worst winter approval ratings in the last few election cycles, you see that of the 17 who survived their primary, 11 (65%!) were in three-way contests (three candidates >4%).

A few words about the fascinating election of 1914

Popular elections for Senate started with a bang in 1914. It was kind of a free-for-all compared to the next 96 years.

Four candidates won with less than 40 percent. Although all the winners were Democrats or Republicans, the Socialist candidate took 21 percent in Oklahoma and 25 percent in Nevada, and the Prohibition candidate took 15 percent in Arizona. Progressive Party candidates had more than 20 percent of the vote in Georgia, California, Washington, Pennsylvania and Kansas. Progressive candidate Francis J. Heney took 29 percent in California, where Progressive vice-presidential candidate Hiram Johnson won the governor's seat.

Overall, Progressive candidates took 11.7 percent of the votes for Senate that year; Socialists, 4.2 percent; and Prohibition candidates, 1.5 percent.

For context, recall that in the 1912 presidential election, the incumbent, Taft, placed third with 23.2 percent and 8 electoral votes. Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party had 6.0 percent, his best showing ever. Theodore Roosevelt, having lost the Republican nomination, founded the Progressive Party and ended up with 27.4 percent of the vote.

Data sources and other comments

One pertinent question to ask is, do third-party candidates tend to fade as the campaign begins in the fall? A cursory look through the 2010 polling doesn't show that happening. I did not look into the matter very closely, though.

The 4-percent threshold is based on the 5-percent threshold for polling. The 5-percent threshold for polling is roughly the amount a candidate needs to be getting before the candidate will be routinely included in polls.

Data sources: David Leip's atlas, for all info back to 1990; the Clerk of the House, Our Campaigns and wikipedia pages. Off-year special elections for Senate were not included.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 11:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Is anyone really surprised? (24+ / 0-)

    When major parties both represent the moneyed class, people start looking elsewhere.

    Democratic politicians need to return to carrying about working people. As long as only "money" wins the votes in Congress, disaffection will grow.

    "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." -- James Baldwin. July 11, 1966.

    by YucatanMan on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 11:29:19 AM PDT

    •  Absolutely. I hear all this funny talk about (9+ / 0-)

      Demographic shifts favoring one party or the other and, ultimately, it's a flyspeck.

      The reality is that the major parties are doing most Americans dirty.  Make enough people's lives miserable and they'll stop listening.

      Until one party or the other decides that we matter and starts acting that way, I would expect increasing interests in "other" candidates.  At the very least, I would expect elected offices to start looking like ping-pong balls as the electorate bats them back and forth from one party to the other.

      LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

      by dinotrac on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:04:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Oh, dear. We, The Money, will have to start a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Whole New SuperPac.  Goddamm . . . these people . . . maybe We should just get rid of them.

    "The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”" -- Paul Dirac

    by Rikon Snow on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 11:32:01 AM PDT

  •  People registering as Independent (18+ / 0-)

    has been rising for years.
       It's only logical that the support for 3rd party candidate would also increase.

      What is going on is the same thing that is happening in Europe: the major parties no longer represent the populace.

    "The oppressors most powerful weapon is the mind of the oppressed." - Stephen Biko

    by gjohnsit on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 11:33:20 AM PDT

  •  I'd think this trend would tend to be a little bit (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, jck

    of a benefit to Democratic candidates...what with the hissy fits TPers seem subject to.

  •  Litmus Tests (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TofG, dinotrac, Gooserock, Ragmod, TDDVandy, nimh

    The more the 2 parties have become dominated by litmus tests the more people are pushed to move to 3rd parties.

    I know plenty of economically radical people who aren't comfortable with all of the social issue stances required of being a member of the Democratic party. Hence they consider themselves independents.

    In the same vain their are plenty of socially liberal people that are far more conservative economically that don't feel comfortable with Republicans.

    It is a natural thing, and the more the 2 parties demand strict adherence to whatever they consider to be the norm of being a party member the more likely we are to see alternative parties sprout up at some point.

    In the post citizens united world the money is there to set up party apparatuses that were never really viable before when you had to deal with the 2 big parties to be able to get a message out.  

    •  That's why litmus tests are bad. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Winning, dominant parties are COALITIONS of people with varying views. They still have a party platform, yes, and  the members will agree with the MAJORITY of it, yes. But each member can dislike one plank or another and still be in the party. That's.. Becoming not so true, particularly for the TeaPublican party.

    •  No kidding. I often get ask why I, a conservative (6+ / 0-)

      come to this site.  But, seriously, where will I get into realistic discussions of global warming on a conservative site? Or the horrible state of American health care?

      Yeah, lots of disagreement on the solutions here, but at least you can talk about it.

      LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

      by dinotrac on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:07:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  All the Social Issue Stances? (7+ / 0-)

      Must mean sex control. Let women plan their families, let people who want to marry do so.

      That was cutting edge stuff around the time Ringo Starr met the Beatles. Figures it would be controversial half a century later.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:14:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I speak only for me here... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Losty, Odysseus

      ..but I'm far more interested in an Ethics test.  My beef with mainstream Dems is that they claim to be advocates for Main Street, working people, etc., etc., then when the rubber meets the road, they vote Economic Royalism.  It's the disingenuousness.  We can argue about the details, but come on...

      D's claim: support Net Neutrality
      D's action -> TelCo Tommy heads FCC

      D's claim: support Good middle class jobs
      D's action -> secret TPP, TAFTA, TISA

      D's claim: protect SS
      D's action -> Chained CPI proposal

      D's claim: "I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes and join you on the picket line."
      D's action -> Arne Duncan busts public school teachers tenure and pushes for-profit private schools on taxpayer's dime

      I could go on and on...

      The only reason the 1% are rich is because the 99% agree they are.

      by GreatLakeSailor on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 04:58:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Having a 'Ross Perot' Moment in the GOP... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    With 3rd party polling, you normally assume the voters will come home to their party come November.   I'm not so sure that is a guarantee this time around.  

    Republicans are having a Ross Perot moment; as with Bush Sr., they are convinced that their leadership doesn't care enough about their convictions and so they view punishing them by either not showing up or voting third party as fitting.

    There is a standard for this, though it's far closer.   Pat Buchanon Republicans never really came home for Bush.. they stayed at home.. some voted Perot..

    McDaniel type Republicans are in the same boat.. they may not come home, because they feel as though they need to dispense some judgement to make it their home again

    Gandhi's Seven Sins: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice; Politics without principle
    >Follow @tmservo433

    by Chris Reeves on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:10:17 PM PDT

  •  Conservatism Has a History of Injecting Indy (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    liberte, Australian2

    candidates into contests where a liberal might win. Are we seeing an organic phenomenon or how much of is this might be astroturf?

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:11:12 PM PDT

  •  With apologies, this shows me nothing. (5+ / 0-)

    The important questions are which third parties are running and why.
    For example, the Greens of the 1990s were mostly new voters, with a smattering of Democrats who left in protest over the DLC, and after 2000 a few (re)joined the Democratic Party, most disappeared. (and the Democratic Overton Window moved to the right/corrupt) It would be interesting to ask: is the present rise of Tea Party/Libertarian challenges due to a rise in dissatisfaction over Republican corruption, a rise in racism, or a real fascist movement? (and for that matter, when the mainstream Republicans (fascists) beat back the challenges, how far will the Republican Overton Window move, and in what ways?)

    •  Ding ding ding! We have a winner. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Phoenix Woman
      a rise in racism,
      I sat on the porch talking with my brother during the primary for 2008.  We agreed that Candidate Obama would "lance a boil of racism".

      Neither one of us thought it would get anywhere near as bad as it has.

      We have a lot more work to do before some people believe that others are actually American citizens.  You can say all you want that "All people are created equal".  Actions speak louder than words.

      -7.75 -4.67

      "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

      There are no Christians in foxholes.

      by Odysseus on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 09:46:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Exactly. W/O ideological map of this vote.... (0+ / 0-)

      ....this statistic is meaningless.

      Visit for Minnesota news as it happens.

      by Phoenix Woman on Mon Jun 30, 2014 at 12:55:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  people are pissed off (4+ / 0-)

    remember Ross Perot, a terrible campaigner but
    he was arguing for "Reform".

    someone not beholden to the bankers may be able
    to win.

  •  It's because Republicans are crazy and Democrats (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Johnny Q, Chi, Odysseus

    are feckless.

  •  Does anybody know (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    (1) How many seats a third party would have to have in the Senate, or in the House, to be officially recognized as a minority party?

    (2) The last time it happened?

    (There certainly were at least three parties in the House and the Senate in 1858; there may have been enough People's Party representatives at some point in the 1880's-1890's. Doubt it has happened since, but I might be mistaken.)

    •  there are no rules or laws about this. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Square Knot, Losty

      the constitution doesn't even recognize the validity of a 'political party'.

      it would be up to the convening senate to decide how it would organize itself.

      don't expect  3rd party to get any recognition unless they hold the balance of power (see: Lieberman for Connecticut Party.).

      To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

      by UntimelyRippd on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 02:11:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My guess (0+ / 0-)

        At about 10-20 senators or 40-60 representatives they would in practice have to allow some sort of recognition and allow the leadership to control committee appointments. But otherwise, I suspect you're right--no formal recognition unless you control the balance of power.

    •  Second most seats I would think (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      that would make them the official opposition

  •  dreaminonempty...... (0+ / 0-)

    Running Wild!!!!

    You CAN change the world.

    Can I help?


    I am Joe's Steven......

    by Joes Steven on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:30:10 PM PDT

  •  Most third-party votes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    these days tend to be more or less protest votes.  Third-party or independent candidates also frequently pull over 20 percent of the vote in races where one of the major parties fails to put a candidate on the ballot (e.g. the Libertarian Party of Texas in the recent past has been better about getting a name on the ballot than the Democrats) and frequently third party candidates run the best in races where neither major party candidate is well-liked.  E.g. last year's Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, where rather large numbers of people cast protest votes.

    When neither party is particularly well-liked, of course you're going to start seeing more third-party votes.  But I kind of doubt many of those people voting for the Libertarian actually agree with the Libertarian Party platform; they're more or less casting votes for the Libertarian to protest the two major parties.

    30, white male, TX-07 (current), TN-09 (born), TN-08 (where parents live now)

    by TDDVandy on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:38:08 PM PDT

    •  Doesn't really explain CO-Gov 2010. (0+ / 0-) CO-Gov 2010
      Hickenlooper (D) 51%
      Tancredo (American Constitution) 36%
      Maes (R) 11%.

      The R's had a candidate, and I don't recall that he was particularly disliked.  Tancredo was a classic vanity candidate who apparently actually appealed to an awful lot of the electorate.

      -7.75 -4.67

      "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

      There are no Christians in foxholes.

      by Odysseus on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 09:51:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Libertarian Paul Sarvis is running in the race (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Losty, Odysseus

    for Mark Warner's Senate seat. Warner, a DINO, is running against Ed Gillespie, one-time chair of the RNC and a typical Rethug.

    Hope Sarvis is going to take votes away from Gillespie rather than Warner. As indifferent a Dem as Warner is, he's still miles better than a Rethug.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:39:19 PM PDT

  •  3rd Party inclusion.... the consequences (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MHB, Phoenix Woman

    Third Party inclusion gave the presidency to Bill Clinton.

    Third Party inclusion in 2000 caused Fat Tony, of SCOTUS fame to appoint Bush The Lesser to the Presidency..... and of course lead to 9/11....

    Be very wary indeed of unintended consequences of 3rd party inclusion.  We could get a Tea-Drooler Senate that is veto-proof.

    •  One error in your otherwise accurate comment... (0+ / 0-)

      ...Perot didn't "give the presidency to Bill Clinton".

      That notion was first advanced by Republicans eager to deny Clinton's legitimacy, when the facts are that for several months before the 1992 elections, and well before Perot's re-entry into the race, there were no serious polls that had Bush the Elder leading Bill Clinton:

      The Perot phenomenon soon crested. His behavior grew erratic as the media ratcheted up its scrutiny. Meanwhile, anti-Bush voters began growing more comfortable with Clinton as they were exposed to him more. With Clinton emerging as a viable option, there was less an less room for Perot. By July, Perot’s support had slipped back to the 20s, with Clinton’s rising. Perot then dropped out during the Democratic convention in mid-July, after which Clinton surged to leads of 20-25 points in national polls. Here’s the important part: He maintained wide leads for the next 2 1/2 months, during which it was a two-way race. Even Bush’s post-GOP convention bounce in mid-August wasn’t enough to put him ahead of Clinton, and polls throughout September weren’t even close. In a two-way race, Clinton was dominant — and there was no sign that Bush and his vaunted “attack machine” could do anything about it. Of course they couldn’t: Not with unemployment soaring, confidence sagging and Bush’s approval rating under 40 percent. The race was fundamentally about the incumbent.

      When Perot returned to the race at the start of October, little changed. Sure, Perot performed ably in debates, rehabilitated his own image, which had been damaged by the bizarre circumstances of his July exit (he had blamed Republican “dirty tricksters” and suggested they had tried to sabotage his daughter’s wedding), and managed to snag nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. But his presence never altered the basic dynamic of the race: Voters wanted Bush out and Clinton cleared the (very low) hurdle of being an acceptable enough alternative.

      The idea that  Perot came along and mucked up a fundamentally winnable election for Bush just doesn’t mesh with reality. Without knowing anything about his opponents, any election forecasting model would have predicted a Bush defeat based on the economic conditions that prevailed in the run-up to the ’92 election. Perot was not the cause of Bush’s political misfortune that year — he was a symptom of it.

      Visit for Minnesota news as it happens.

      by Phoenix Woman on Mon Jun 30, 2014 at 01:08:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Here's and idea for........ (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, Australian2

    complete public financing of a true progressive (D) campaign -- with either Warren or Sanders at the top.

    15,000,000 individuals, from Jan 2015 onward, give $5 per month.  That's $75,000,000 per month.  

    We can call this the 5:15 campaign.

    (5:15 -- symbolic of when some of us have to get up to get ready to go to our jobs.)

    •  I'd give 'em $100 a month (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      No I wouldn't.  I'd give them whatever I could the moment they announced, and work for them what what little spare time I can find.

      If they want to call themselves Democrats, fine.  If they don't, that's fine too.  I'd rather support candidates I trust (as far as I can trust any of them) than toe any party line.

      I stand with triv33. Shame on her attackers.

      by Dallasdoc on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 03:17:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Ross Perot was the biggest fucking fraud to ever (4+ / 0-)

    run as President of the United States. Yes, an even bigger fraud than the Gipper and Romneybot.

    Let's not even get into Ross Perot's innumerate flip-flops like styling himself as a defender of Social Security despite advocating cuts. Look at his campaign platform versus his public statements; his platform was nothing but a contradictory mash-up of incoherent policy positions.

    Instead, I despise this man for two reasons.

    1.) Fearmongering on NAFTA. NAFTA is a questionable treaty and a net negative but in the long run it's proven to be small and bullshit. But like with Monsanto it's just mushroomed into this Great Satan among leftists and working-class conservatives. Like, if you listen to either side of the debate on this NAFTA is somehow responsible for waves of immigration or the corporate bootheel being pressed harder or for millions of jobs being shipped overseas or whatever other ridiculous scapegoating people come up with. Because demagoguing scary corporations and brown people never goes out of style.

    2.) His stupid, stupid fucking debt and deficit-hysteria charts. The harm to our discourse this has wrought has been unimaginable. Just ask Obama and Bush Jr. A lot of people on the Internet and real life say that this is what made them feel engaged and treated like they were an adult -- this fills me with unimaginable despair.

    Perot is one of the reasons why I laugh my ass off when people talk about the need for a 3rd Party. These people style themselves as brave and lonesome defenders of the working class sticking it to the man but really they're just unwitting shills for the overclass.

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