Party or Movement? American Minor Parties and Political Campaigns

By Catherine Kane

K.B.: “What is the value of parties?”

Dr. Stein: “Those of us who do not have [wealthy backers], and that is most American people…we need to work together, and we need to build. Parties are how we work together across multiple issues, across time, and build from election to election. That is the only way we are going to change things.”

2012 Independent Political Report Interview of Green Party Presidential Nominee Jill Stein.

Conversations about American political campaigns focus on the major parties, their candidates, and increasingly on the social movements that ally with or protest them. Discussions of social movements in electoral politics highlight the dichotomy between these two forms of organization. Political parties compete in the election while movements take action through alignment with parties (e.g. endorsements, issue advocacy, mobilization), protest against parties (e.g. contesting platforms, disrupting events, or raising awareness of alternatives), or some combination of the two. Meanwhile, minor parties and their candidates enter the debate, only figuratively, through discussions of their capacity to spoil the election or to expand the representativeness of the American party system. This addresses only the electoral behavior of minor parties during political campaigns. In reality, minor parties take on the behaviors of both party and social movement organizations (SMOs). They run for office while also aligning with and protesting major party actions. Minor parties in America present an interesting form of movement and party interaction through their incorporation of both into one hybrid organization form.

During campaigns, some minor party candidates compete against major party candidates, but minor parties also act as a resource for major parties. For example, the American Freedom Party endorsed Donald Trump and made robocalls in Iowa in January 2016. Over the summer, the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) rallied in support of Trump’s Republican Party nomination and the American Independent Party nominated Trump to be their party’s presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the Green Party offered Bernie Sanders their presidential nomination and disputed over supporting him for the Democratic Party nomination, despite having their own presumptive nominee. Minor parties also use campaigns to raise awareness for their own positions. The TWP’s pro-Trump activity has greatly increased its national profile. In August 2015, Socialist Workers Party members attended a Sanders rally to raise awareness for their party’s platform. In May, the Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Vice Presidential candidate criticized Sanders for not being socialist enough to deserve the support of socialist voters. The Libertarian Party posted upcoming ballot initiatives critical to Libertarians. These examples show the links between minor and major parties during campaigns but also highlight the movement-oriented activity of minor parties during American political campaigns.


(image taken from


CK2.png ck3(images taken from New York Times and The Atlantic websites)

In my research with Kanisha Bond, we identified over fifty organizations in the U.S. that form as parties but look and act a lot like SMOs. Largely due to significant electoral barriers (i.e. single-member districts, plurality rules, ballot access restrictions, media coverage, lacking name recognition), they take on movement tactics to increase access and visibility. They protest, frame new issues, develop alternative political identities, and challenge the political status quo. They refer to themselves in the collective as a third party movement against America’s two-party tyranny. Yet, individually they retain the party label. It seems reasonable that minor parties choose to call themselves parties to cultivate specific expectations, signaling electoral tactics and policy-oriented goals despite their adoption of movement tactics in the present. But how does the public respond to the use of the party label in the context of our two-party system?

In a recent survey experiment, I compare how individuals respond to the party and movement labels. Respondents were equally willing to support the movement and party organizations but in terms of success, I found a statistically significant difference in the frequency of predicting success. Respondents were more likely to predict the organization would be successful when it was called a movement, than when it was called a party, despite espousing identical goals. This suggests the American public views minor parties as less capable of achieving their goals compared to SMOs. Minor parties are thus doubly doomed. In addition to the numerous barriers to electoral success, their organization label hinders their success. By calling themselves a party, they gain no advantage in recruiting support and they tarnish public perception of their potential success. Moreover, respondents were 35% points more likely to support the organization if they predicted it to be successful. In short, American minor parties would be better off calling themselves movements.


(image accessed through Google images)

A second implication of these findings is that support between movement and party organizations during campaigns may be fluid. Individuals appear to be equally willing to support movement and party organizations, across several different measures of support. As discussed in Heaney and Rojas’ book, individuals transition in and out of participation with partisan aligned movement organizations. In terms of this election campaign, involvement in movement protests against a major party may not indicate an absence of partisan participation come Election Day.

Finally the data suggests that high levels of expressed support for minor parties may not translate to participation in political campaigns. In my survey experiment, 64% chose to support the organization in some capacity. Yet, the most popular action was following on social media and the least popular were donating and volunteering. Within the same sample, 61% of respondents said they would consider voting for a third party but only 5% had done so in the past. The same applied to donating and identify as a member of a third party. Thus we should view spikes in support for third parties in polls and media attention to the possible explosion of third party support in the 2016 presidential election with some skepticism. A 2015 Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey found between 40-45% agreed or strongly agreed that a third party is needed, is a viable alternative, and would consider voting for a third party. A September 2016 Gallup poll found that 57% think a third party is needed (a trend since 2012). The percentage is highest among independents with 73% indicating a need for a third party.


This may be good news for minor party organizers, especially given the rising number of independents. A recent PEW survey found that 34% of Americans identify as independents, more than identify with either major party (again, a trend since 2012). Yet only 8% of those independents do not lean toward one of the two major parties and only 4% identify with a minor party. Moreover, in the data there is no significant correlation between identifying as an independent and supporting the idea of a third party. Expressed support for a third party may not translate to a vote for, donation to, or identification with that party.

Minor parties in America represent a form of movement and party interaction, both in their structure and in their behavior during political campaigns. They call themselves parties and compete in elections, but also ally with and protest major parties. What does this combination of party and movement activity mean for perceptions and participation with these organizations? Findings suggest that Americans are equally willing to support an organization regardless of its label as a movement or a party. Meanwhile, Americans do perceive an organization called a party, without Republican or Democratic in front, as less likely to achieve its goals than an SMO. For political campaigns, this means minor parties are unlikely to be successful, individuals are not likely to turn to third party options, and individuals may transition between movement and partisan activity.

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