This map looks at alternate scenarios where major third-party challenges actually won their presidential elections. These challenges are Ross Perot’s run in 1992, John B. Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, and Robert Lafollette in 1924. To calculate which states they would have needed to win, a “uniform swing” model was used. Basically this means that, across every state, one point would be added to the third-party candidates total and a half-point would be subtracted from each of their opponents. This would be repeated until the third-party challenger achieved the necessary number of electoral votes for a majority. Obviously this is an oversimplification of how a third-party win would occur, they may have drawn more votes from one candidate or another, and likely wouldn’t have gained ground in all states at the same rate. Nonetheless, it is a fun way to take a look at what their winning coalitions could have looked like. Let’s go through them one at a time:
Perot ran in 1992 (and less successfully in 1996) as a budget-balancing businessman, who was anti-free trade and anti-immigration, but held some liberal positions on social issues and infrastructure spending. A Perot win would have required him to reach 36% of the popular vote, a 17 point increase over the 19% he actually achieved. California is the state that would ultimately put Perot over the top of 270 electoral votes. He won no states in 1992, but in this alternate scenario his coalition would be broad. He sweeps the Western US except for Hawaii and New Mexico, and scores wins in small north-east states and the industrial Midwest. His two major areas of weakness are the South (winning only Missouri and Florida), and the Mid-Atlantic states (with only a win in Delaware). The states he lost line up well with states that had large minority populations, which suggests that Perot’s coalition was largely a white coalition.
John B. Anderson, a republican congressman, ran as an independent in 1980 on a moderate platform that included raising the gas tax, fiscal responsibility, and social liberalism. He only got 6.6% of the vote, and would have needed a huge 29.5% bump to get all the way up to 36.1% of the popular vote to win the electoral college in 1980. His coalition looks shockingly like the Democratic coalition of states from 2000 and 2004. The only difference between his set of states and Al Gore’s was that Gore won DC and New Mexico (but lost the electoral college due to a decrease in the number of votes held by Democratic states from 1980 to 2000). Anderson’s coalition is thus a precursor of today’s more liberal Democratic party, which ended up jettisoning states Carter won in 1980 like Georgia and West Virginia.
George Wallace ran a populist, racist, and segregationist campaign in 1968, gathering 13.5% of the vote and winning 5 Deep South states. The South is the bedrock of his hypothetical support, with a boost of 26% points needed to get him to 39.5% of the popular vote and an electoral college win. However, to get enough electoral college votes his coalition would need to be larger than just the South, expanding into northern states with working-class voters where he was gaining popularity as part of the backlash against expanding government, busing, and fair housing. The regions most resistant to his campaign were the West and the Northeast.
This one is going really far back into history. Robert Lafollette is mostly forgotten today, but the Progressive Senator ran a campaign for president in 1924 based around nationalizing the railroads and electrical utilities, banning child labor, access to credit for farmers, and strong support for unions. In reality he won onnly 16.6% of the vote and his home state of Wisconsin. Shockingly, because his support was overwhelmingly concentrated in the Western states, he would need a gain of 30 points at the national level to win the electoral college, putting his total popular vote at 46.6% in a three way race. It would require this huge boost to allow him to carry most of the Midwest, a handful of border states, and New York.