Third Parties in the American Political Process

The topic of the lesson is the role of third parties in the American political process. My students will be investigating the development of third parties in the United States focusing on the Progressive and Prohibition Parties, parties active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I want students to understand the important role third parties play even though a third party candidate has never won the presidency. Students will also use contemporary primary sources to see if the role of third parties has changed over the course of the last century. The lesson fulfills Virginia Standard of Learning CE.5b – Third parties – introduce new ideas and/or press for a particular issue and often revolve around a political personality (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt).

Historical Background

The American political process is characterized by a two-party system, however, third or minor parties play a key role in the political process even though they rarely win major elections. Third parties often develop around a well-known political personality as in the presidential election of 1912 when the Progressive or Bull Moose Party split from the Republican Party and formed around Theodore Roosevelt, a former and popular president of the United States. Other third parties develop to bring new ideas or support for a particular issue to national attention. The Prohibition Party (1872) formed to rally support for banning the sale of alcohol in the United States, an issue they felt was not being addressed by either of the two major parties.

While third parties rarely win major elections, never the presidency, they have been successful in changing the outcome of elections by drawing enough political support away from one of the two major party candidates. In the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt played the “spoiler role” by garnering enough support to cost William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, the election. Theodore Roosevelt received 88 electoral votes to William Howard Taft’s 8 electoral votes. However, Roosevelt’s 88 could not compete with Woodrow Wilson’s 435 electoral votes. Many historians believe that Theodore Roosevelt’s inclusion in the election as a third party candidate allowed Woodrow Wilson to emerge the victor.

To successfully complete the lesson, students will use a variety of historical thinking skills.See Overview of Activity/Standards of Learning.

Lesson Objective

  • What is the role of third parties in the American political process?
  • Students will be able to identify reasons that third parties develop.
  • Students will be able to understand how third parties differ from the two major parties.
  • Students will be able to understand the impact of third parties on the American political process.



  1. To preview the lesson, students will watch a montage of photographs of Theodore Roosevelt while listening to his The Right of the People to Rule speech.
  2. Next, we will review the definition of a third party.
  3. The first poster will be analyzed as a class in order to practice sourcing, close reading, and contextualization (students practiced these skills in the previous lesson on political parties).
  4. The teacher will guide the exercise by asking the questions on the organizer including: What do you see? Who is the intended audience?
  5. The teacher will record student responses on the Promethean board (or circle items on poster) as students record the answers in their notebooks.
  6. Students will analyze the second poster with a partner following the same procedure described above. We will review as a whole class.
  7. Students will then compare both posters answering questions Do the two posters share a similar purpose? If yes, what is the purpose? At this point in the lesson, the teacher will give students notes on third parties to include in their notebooks.
  8. Students will then repeat the above described procedure with the two political cartoons – first we will analyze as a class, second with partners and then review as a class.
  9. Students will then compare the two cartoons looking for a common message about the role of third parties in the American political process. To corroborate the meaning of the two political cartoons, we will view the American Presidency website and view the results of the 1912 presidential election.


Students will complete the homework worksheet as assigned.


Students will research a defunct (no longer exists) or a current American third party and create a political campaign poster for the third party highlighting the party’s idea/issue (purpose) and candidate. Students will need to be creative in order to sell their third party candidate – remember no third party candidate has ever won the presidency.


“My Hat is Still in the Ring, 1912 (Theodore Roosevelt) – Springtail Postcard.” Postcard. Schmidt Brothers and Company: 1912. From the Steven R. Shook Flickr collection. (accessed November 9, 2011).

Orangemenace. “Nader Enters the Race, Cartoon by Gary Markstein.” MNP: Politricks, blog entry posted February 24, 2008. (accessed November 9, 2011).

Cohen, M.e. “Shoo Fly.” Cartoon. Editorial Cartoon Archive, February 23, 2004. (accessed November 17, 2011).

Peters, G., and John Woolley. “Election of 1912.” Map. The American Presidency Project. (accessed November 9, 2011).

“Principles of the Prohibition Party.” B&W film copy negative. Washington, D.C.: September 11, 1888. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (accessed November 9, 2011).