5 Independent Presidents Who Won in U.S. History

Why It's So Difficult for Third Party Candidates to Win

H. Ross Perot
The billionaire Texan Ross Perot won a startling 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump has said he might run for president in 2016 as an independent if he doesn't get the respect or the nomination from Republicans. And if you think launching an independent presidential campaign is a fool's errand — the chances of winning are infinitesimal — consider the impact Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and others like them have had on the electoral process. 

What Is an 'Independent' Candidate?

The primary role of the independent candidate in modern politics is that of spoiler. And while spoiler is an unpopular role to play he is often able to leverage his position to curry favor for himself and friends. Trump's currency of choice seems to be attention, and as long as he's getting some it's very likely the billionaire real estate developer might just blow enough of his own money to hang around through the 2016 general election.

The question Republicans are asking is whether Trump would siphon off enough votes from the Republican presidential nominee so as to hand the presidency to the Democrats. Many conservatives had openly raised the theory that Donald Trump ran as an agent of the Democratic Party, and in particular the Clintons, so as to hand the White House to Hillary.

So which independent presidential candidates have done the best? And how many votes did they pick up?

Here's a look at the most successful independent presidential candidates in history and how they affected the results.

Ross Perot

The billionaire Texan Ross Perot won a startling 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election in what many believed was the beginning of a third party in American politics. Democrat Bill Clinton won the election and unseated Republican incumbent President George H.W. Bush, a rare defeat in American politics. Perot also won 6 percent of the popular vote in the 2006 election.

Ralph Nader

The consumer and environmental advocate Ralph Nader won nearly 3 percent of the popular vote in the close 2000 presidential election. Many observers, primarily Democrats, blame Nader for costing Vice President Al Gore the election against Republican nominee George W. Bush

John B. Anderson

Anderson's name is one few Americans remember. But he won nearly 7 percent of the popular vote in the 1980 presidential election won by Republican Ronald Reagan, who pushed Democrat Jimmy Carter out of the White House after one term. Many people blamed Anderson for Carter's loss.

George Wallace

In 1968 Wallace won 14 percent of the popular vote. Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey in that election, but Wallace's showing was impressive for an American Independent. 

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt won more than 27 percent of the vote in 1912 when he ran as a progressive candidate. He didn't win. But carrying a quarter of the vote is impressive, especially when you consider the Republican nominee, William Howard Taft, carried only 23 percent. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won with 42 percent of the vote.