One of my acquaintances, an Indian-American, was in Kolkata during the US presidential election, and voted online for his home state, Indiana. It was interesting to know that he voted for Jo Jorgensen, the candidate of the Libertarian Party, in the election. In fact, very few in the rest of the world knew that in addition to Joe Biden and Donald Trump, there were other candidates in the 2020 US presidential election. And, while Kamala Harris got tremendous attention for breaking glass ceiling to become the first woman to assume the second highest post of the country, the 63-year-old Jorgensen, a libertarian political activist and a lecturer of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina, was the only woman to run for the president’s post in the 2020 elections, although not from a major party. In the 2020 elections, Jorgensen repurposed Hillary Clinton’s unofficial 2016 campaign slogan “I’m With Her”, and, to her credit, she finished third in the popular vote with about 1.2 per cent of the national vote share.
Although there are several other minor parties, such as the Green and Constitution parties, and some independent candidates as well, since 1852, a candidate from the Republican or Democratic parties has always won or become runner-up in the US presidential elections, except in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, a popular former Republican president and a unique candidate unto himself came in second while not running under the banner of one of the two major parties and lost to Woodrow Wilson. In fact, the political history of the US has always been the story of dominance of the two major parties. Initially, they were Democratic-Republicans and Federalists; Democratic Party and National Republican Party thereafter; followed by the Democratic Party and the Whig Party; and when the Whig Party vanished after the 1850s, the Republicans and the Democrats dominated the political scenario of the country. Earlier it was possibly easier for a new political party to get into the mainstream. In fact, the Republican Party, founded in 1854, could dismantle the Whigs between 1854-60 when it propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.
There are occasional governors elected from a third party, but not many though. Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, and Bill Walker in Alaska are the only examples in this century. While Governor Charlie Crist of Florida became an independent in 2010, he was elected as a Republican in 2007. Not more than two of the 535 seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate were outside the grasp of Republicans and Democrats at a time, ever since World War II. Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, is of course a remarkable politician in this context. Sanders was the first independent elected to the US House of Representatives since Frazier Reams of Ohio in 1950s. As an independent, Sanders was the member from Vermont’s at-large district during 1991-2007, and then Senator from Vermont from 2007 till date.
The two-party dominance in the US is inherent within its electoral setup. And it’s a simple by-product of the electoral structure as well. The seats in Congress and the presidency of the country are determined with a winner-take-all (or first-past-thepost) method. In all states except Nebraska and Maine, whoever gets the maximum number of popular votes in the presidential elections bags all the electoral votes of the state.
In fact, French sociologist Maurice Duverger theorized his famous “Duverger’s law” in 1950s and 1960s, which states that single-ballot plurality- rule elections (such as first-pastthe- post) structured within singlemember districts tend to favour a two-party system. The electorates often choose candidates who are most likely to win. In fact, due to this electoral system, there is no incentive in getting even 20-25 per cent of the popular vote share. The 1992 presidential election is a perfect example in this context when the Texas industrialist Ross Perot ran as an independent, won several counties, finished in second place in two states, and finished third overall, receiving close to 19.75 million votes, which is 19 per cent of the popular vote share – the most won by a third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. However, Perot failed to win even a single vote in the electoral college.
The last two non-Republicans and non-Democrats to win electoral votes in presidential elections were George Wallace winning 46 electoral votes in 1968, and Strom Thurmond winning 39 electoral votes in 1948. However, these were among racial tensions in the country – both Wallace and Thurmond were Southerners who ran as staunch opponents of integrating black and white Americans.
The electoral system in India, of course, is quite supportive of small parties having a regional base, although it is again a first-past-thepost system. This is because the constituencies can be won separately and independently in our system. Consequently, parties having electoral base in only one or two Lok Sabha or Assembly constituencies can survive in the country. A corollary to Duverger’s law, however, is that both the simple-majority system with second ballot and proportional representation favour multi-party systems. Political parties smaller than a threshold size, however, might struggle in a proportional representation system.
For example, in Israel, the 120 members of the Knesset are elected through party-list proportional representation where seats are allocated to parties approximately in proportion to the number of votes received. However, in Israel, a party must meet an election threshold of 3.25 per cent to be allocated a Knesset seat. And hence it might be very difficult for very small parties to survive.
Still, in the 2020 US elections, knowing very well that she had absolutely no chance of winning the presidency, 1.8 million American voters endorsed Jo Jorgensen, who termed Social Security a ‘Ponzi scheme’, opposed federal civil asset forfeiture and qualified immunity, and called stay-at-home orders and corporate bailouts during Covid-19 pandemic “the biggest assault on our liberties in our lifetime”. Both Democrats and Republicans can afford continuing to ignore this voice due to the electoral structure of America. The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.