Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Third Party Candidate

I keep seeing a really stupid meme showing Abraham Lincoln’s face with the words, “In 1860 I was third party. Was your vote wasted?” Obviously, this is meant to encourage people to vote for fringe candidates Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. It’s also the kind of derp that comes from people not being taught history.

In the 1860 elections, the Republicans not only took the White House; they also won a majority of seats in both the Senate and the House. That’s a third party?

Yes, the Republican Party was relatively new, but it was never really a “third” party. Here’s the history:

Let’s go back to 1850. We aleady were locked into a two-party system, and the two major parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The Whig party imploded in 1854 over the issue of slavery. Pro-slavery Whigs mostly joined the Democrats. Anti-slavery Whigs and some other factions met later that year to form the beginning of the Republican Party.

In the 1856 elections the Republicans won 90 out of 237 seats in the U.S. House, and they held 15 seats in the Senate, so the Republican Party very quickly took the place of the defunct Whigs to become one of the two major parties. It was never really a “third” party.

In 1860, the Republicans nominated Lincoln and the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. But Democrats in slave states were pissed off at Douglas for supporting the statehood of Kansas as a non-slave state, so the southern Democrats met separately to nominate John Breckinridge. The Democratic Party split in half, in other words. And finally there was a party of “third way” types who were anti-secession but didn’t take a position on slavery; this was the Constitutional Union party, which nominated John Bell. There were some other parties in the running but they didn’t win any electoral votes.

Historians today consider Breckinridge and Bell to be the “third party” candidates in that election, and Lincoln and Douglas were the major party candidates. Any freshman-level American history textbook would tell you this.

With the votes split four ways, Lincoln won 39.8 percent of the popular vote and 180 out of 303 electoral college votes, which at the time was enough to give him the victory without it going to the House. Douglas came in second in the popular vote but fourth in the electoral college.

Once again, in 1860 the Republicans also won the majority of seats in both the House and Senate, which is one of the things that triggered the secession crisis. In 1860, the GOP wasn’t just one of the two major parties; it was the dominant party.

On the other hand, a party that’s been around for many years but has never elected anyone to Congress and is (currently) running at about 4 percent in national presidential polls — yeah, I’m talking about the Greens — really is a third party and in no way, shape or form is in the same position as the Republicans in 1860. I hope that’s clear.

Yes, this record shows us a new party becoming very successful, but note that the Whig Party had to die first. As long as the two major parties we have now are both intact, third parties are not likely to achieve the same success.

Update: For some of you not catching on — We’re locked into a two-party system because of the way we hold elections. Our political system supports only two major parties at a time, period, especially at the national level. This article explains why that is pretty well, and also explains why it would probably require amending the Constitution before third parties can become viable. People have been trying to establish successful third parties since the 1830s, and not one has lasted very long. See also a blog post I wrote about this awhile back.

So you started off with the Whigs and Democrats; the Whigs fell apart, and a portion of the Whigs re-formed into the Republicans, while most of the rest of the Whigs joined the Democrats. The Republican Party was basically an update of the Whig Party. Because of those circumstances, the Republicans were able to step into the niche formerly occupied by the Whigs and become one of the two major parties fairly quickly. Most of the guys elected in 1860, including Lincoln himself, were well known to the public as former Whigs.