If the defining characteristic of an American third party is finishing third in a presidential contest, then the Socialist Party has been the country’s quintessential third party, recording seven third- place finishes from 1904 to 1944. And the Socialists arguably rank with the Populists and the Prohibitionists as the big three of legitimate third parties, as opposed to vehicles for specific candidates, in the post-Civil War area. The Socialists generally advocated public ownership of the railroads and utilities, the eight-hour day, a minimum wage, a graduated income tax, unemployment and industrial accident insurance and abolition of the electoral college, while criticizing the other political parties as tools of the major financial interests.
Former American Railway Union leader and one-term Indiana Democratic state legislator Eugene Debs finished third in the presidential races of 1904, 1908, and 1920, although his highest percentage actually came when he finished fourth with 6% in 1912, a year when the party claimed more than a thousand local elected officials. He carried two counties; he had carried one four years earlier, and none in his prior two runs.
There had been talk of recruiting Debs as the Populist candidate in 1896 and he ran fourth on a hastily put-together Social Democratic ticket in 1900 before the Socialist Party came into place. In the Debs era, the party represented something of a home for “middle-of-the-road” Populists, i.e., “third- party” die-hards who hadn’t agreed with backing Bryan. But while Debs’s final 1920 candidacy – conducted from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where he sat due to his opposition to the First World War – to some extent held the American left together, the creation of a largely non-electorally-oriented Communist Party markedly weakened the Socialist Party. In 1924, the Socialists opted to back Robert La Follette’s Progressive candidacy instead of running one of their own.
When the Socialists returned to the presidential ballot with minister Norman Thomas as their candidate in 1928, he scored the first of his record four third place finishes (of six total races). But his 0.7% was the lowest total for any third place finisher since 1872. He tripled that in 1932, but would later finish third with percentages far lower than even that of 1928. The party ran presidential candidates through 1956 when they drew less than 0.1% of the vote. An offshoot Socialist Party USA has run presidential candidates since 1976, but they have usually achieved ballot access in fewer than ten states.
It took 18 tries before a candidate of the country’s oldest socialist party would finish as high as third in a presidential election – in 1960, when the Socialist Party dad dropped from the field and Socialist Labor Party leader Eric Hass made the ballot in 15 states, and then again in 1964, when he appeared on 19 state ballots.
The party, founded in 1877 as the Workingmen’s Party, arguably peaked in the 19th century, when it was composed largely of German immigrants and won elections in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and New Haven. It recorded its highest presidential election percentage – 0.29% – in 1900, but that was surpassed by the first candidacy of Eugene Debs who would subsequently run as the candidate of the Socialist Party which supplanted the SLP as the main institution of American socialism. Hass’s 0.06% vote in 1960 was the lowest total recorded by a third place finisher since 1872. The party ran its last presidential candidate in 1976.
In both of Hass’s third place finishes, his vote total was actually surpassed by the number cast for Democrats running as unpledged electors because they were unhappy with the national party candidate’s stand on civil rights legislation. In 1960, such electors carried Mississippi, ran well in Louisiana and delivered a few more electoral votes to Virginia Senator Harry Byrd. In 1964 an unpledged Alabama group finished third nationwide.