In the shadow of George Wallace: America’s third-party challenge

  • Themes: America, Elections, History

Rather than just distractions or spoilers, the success of third-party candidates in US presidential elections is revealing of underlying currents of American history that are often overlooked by observers.

A George Wallace campaign rally in 1968.
A George Wallace for President campaign rally in 1968. Credit: Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If election day in November 2024 is like past elections, the ballot in all states will make it easy to find and vote for the Democratic and Republican candidates. There are also, however, the also-rans. The unpopularity of Joe Biden and Donald Trump has inspired third-party challengers, including the anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr, African American public intellectual Cornel West, and potentially someone at the head of a centrist ‘No Labels’ ticket, with Trump’s former Republican challenger, Nikki Haley, as the current favourite among many supporters.

Usually, I let my eyes wander down the ballot for at least a moment, to a list of candidates and political parties that, in some cases, I have never heard of. I am often ashamed of that fact, but there is a reason why we know little about these other campaigns.

The American political system lacks strong third parties or coalition-based governments common in other nations. Part of the reason is because the two major parties themselves operate as coalitions, containing a continuum of political thought that stretches across the spectrum – including ideological overlap among Democrats and Republicans. While these differences might seem less prevalent today than, say, during the Cold War, when the threat of an external enemy meant there were always significant numbers of anti-Communists in each party, both major political parties still operate similarly in terms of appealing to their partisan base during primary elections but then shifting towards the centre to attract moderates and independents during the general election. The major parties tend to nominate moderates, while being wary of third-party challengers, who tend to attack from their outer flanks.

In this system, serious third-party challengers are exceptionally rare – perhaps once in a generation. First, there is the cost of running such a campaign. In 2024 both major party presidential nominees are likely to spend at least $1 billion. There is also the challenge of getting on the ballot in enough states to make the effort meaningful. It is virtually impossible to simultaneously lead a revolution and secure a place on the ballot. Finally, there is the strategy of the campaign message to be employed – depending on whether the goal is to make a deal with one side or the other, spawn a movement, or simply be disruptive. Since the dawn of the 20th century there have been only a handful of serious third-party contenders and they all have been especially prone to being misunderstood in history.

The last time such a candidate seriously upset the traditional two-party dominance was arguably Ross Perot, who polled as high as 39 per cent in 1992. Although he did not win any electoral college votes, his was the strongest third-party performance in terms of the popular vote since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. One day we might conclude with certainty that Perot was responsible for denying George H.W. Bush a second term in 1992. In the 1948 presidential election there were two formidable challengers, one from the left (former Vice President Henry Wallace), and one from the right (South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond). While neither was ultimately consequential, the simultaneous challenges showed the extent of dissatisfaction on both sides of the aisle with the major party nominees. Then there was also Eugene Debs, who ran as a socialist five times between 1900 and 1920, winning as many as a million votes in his best and final effort, despite being incarcerated in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

Perhaps the most relevant case from recent history to illuminate the current election season is that of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace in 1968. What makes the example of Wallace resonate so strongly today is that he managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states, everywhere but the District of Columbia. Wallace ran an anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-media platform that has resonated with every populist major candidate in both political parties since. Wallace polled as high as 23 per cent in 1968, just behind Vice President Hubert Humphrey for a period in the early autumn, and ultimately won ten million popular votes while carrying five states in the Deep South and 46 electoral college votes. More importantly, he sparked a movement.

Wallace is one of the most misunderstood figures in modern US political history, most famous for his forceful stand against desegregation in Alabama. A New Deal-inspired Southern conservative, Wallace was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1948, when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey unleashed pandemonium after calling civil rights the next great national challenge. The more aggressive civil rights plank prompted a walkout of Southern delegates, who would go on to meet in a rump convention in Birmingham, Alabama and nominate Strom Thurmond at the head of the States’ Rights Democratic Party. Wallace ran after the Alabama delegation as they left, seized the state banner, and brought it back to the convention floor. He remained a loyal national Democrat.

In his first run for governor in 1958, Wallace was defeated for being too liberal and too timid. It was his opponent, Eugene Patterson, not Wallace, who won the endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan. Following his defeat, Wallace made a calculated political move to the right on the issue of race when he ran again in 1962, pledging to personally ‘stand in the schoolhouse door’ to block integration at the University of Alabama. He carried 56 of 67 counties that autumn and, as governor, he doubled down on race in his inaugural address by proclaiming ‘segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’. His first taste of national politics, however, just a year later in 1964, forced a shift in his message to that of a New Deal-inspired Southern populist, a demagogue first and a segregationist second.

Wallace made a limited run for the presidency in 1964, after he saw how popular Republican nominee Barry Goldwater was in Alabama. Wallace entered three carefully chosen Democratic primaries – Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. Wisconsin Governor John Reynolds said that if Wallace won more than 100,000 votes, the state’s image would be tarnished. Wallace received 266,984 votes and also won 29.8 per cent of the vote in Indiana and 15 of 23 counties in Maryland. He proved he could win votes outside Alabama, and the South, and that the discontent with the establishment was a lasting national phenomenon.

In 1968, Wallace made his first 50-state run for the presidency. His central issues were big government, public education, bussing, and crime – effectively, opposition to civil rights and most of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programmes. Race was a common thread, although by 1968 it was folded into a broader set of grievances with a class-based message. While he never recanted his earlier incendiary statements, Wallace talked less and less about race. The national press covering his campaign fell back on old stereotypes – most had never attended a Wallace rally – while missing the deeper connections he was making with the electorate. His target voter was the ‘little man’, the ‘ordinary American’, who more often than not was white, blue-collar, and rural. Yet since his support came from pockets all over the country, his followers were difficult to stereotype. They were mostly traditional Democrats who had voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Many of the same millions who put Johnson over the top in a landslide, ultimately put Richard Nixon over the top in a landslide in 1972, and helped Ronald Reagan achieve a decisive victory in 1980.

Wallace ran as a third-party candidate in 1968, under the banner of the American Independent Party. That allowed him to criticise both major parties. He hired a team of young law school graduates, who gathered around a map of the country and divided it up into sections in order to determine how to get on the ballot in as many states as possible – a vital prerequisite for a strong third-party challenger. They chose the American Independent Party because it already existed in many states, even though it had been largely dormant. Wallace did not think he could win, but he understood he had a chance to deny both major parties an outright victory, meaning he might be able to cut a deal with the candidate closest to his views.

Wallace courted people who felt looked down upon. His supporters represented the heart of his critique of big government: that the Great Society – including expanded civil rights – had gone too far, too fast. Some were outright bigots, many were not. The national media found it particularly difficult to explain how the Wallace campaign engaged voters who had crossed over from other party affiliations as well as those who did not normally participate in politics. He was popular in places such as Flint, Michigan, Anaheim, California, and South Boston, Massachusetts. Wallace voters were more likely to call themselves FDR-Democrats than anything else. Elvis Presley, returning to live concerts after a seven-year break, had a ‘Wallace for President’ sign at Graceland.

The Wallace campaign was anti-establishment because, he argued, the establishment had let his people down. They felt harmed by institutions that were meant to protect them – all levels of government, political parties, national media, higher education, and religious leaders. Wallace knew how to excite his supporters while keeping the subject of race in the background, focusing instead on local control of schools, protecting private property rights, and law and order. It could be said that the call for ‘law and order’ was thinly veiled racism, but rising crime was real and measurable. Every index showed an increase, from property crime to crimes of violence. It was not Wallace who made law and order a political issue in 1968, it was the growth of seemingly random, brutal violence. Wallace took advantage of the fears that people had, but he did not create them.

Wallace spoke for an America that felt its familiar world slipping out of its grasp. It was not only racial hierarchies that were in danger of disappearing; Wallace’s supporters felt threatened by challenges to women’s traditional roles as homemakers and to the place of Christianity in the public sphere, and by a condescending media that his constituents felt romanticised small-town life while encouraging contempt for it. All of these anxieties were of a piece, aspects of a country they felt was vanishing before their eyes. It is far easier to dismiss Wallace with labels like ‘racist’ than to try to understand what he stood for, why he was popular, and why every populist who has run for the presidency since 1968 has borrowed from his style and even his policies.

Third-party challengers have been especially misunderstood in recent American history. As the 2024 presidential election approaches, we lack the perspective that was acquired on the 1968 campaign. The American public idealises candidates to be like John F. Kennedy, when actually they are much more like George Wallace in their embodiment of anger, hopes and prejudices. If history is any sort of guide, there is an awful lot going on behind the scenes in 2024 that we are not privy to, and it could take a considerable amount of time before it becomes possible to have the personal distance necessary to dispassionately assess the current political era. It will be future generations that create a tidy subtitle to describe this era in history textbooks. By then, the events of today are bound to look quaint compared to what future generations will experience. And third-party candidates will continue to be an important check on the two-party system.


Luke A. Nichter