The Free Soil Campaign of 1848


Many people have blamed the “third party” campaign of Ralph Nader as the reason Al Gore lost the election of 2000 to George W. Bush. This may or not be true, although Nader certainly gained almost all his votes at Gore’s expense and cost him at least two states, Florida and New Hampshire; with a victory in either of those two states, Gore would have won the election.

But Ralph Nader is not the first “third party” candidate to change the outcome of an election. We will define “third party” to be any independent party whose candidate wins electoral votes or a significant number of popular votes to affect the outcome of the election, or come very close to doing so. In one or two elections, third party candidates have come close to achieving their goal, but in one or two, they have actually changed the final result of the election.

The first true “third party” to change the result of a presidential election was the Free Soil Party in 1848. The two major parties in this election were the Democratic Party (the same one of today) and the Whig Party (in many ways the forerunner of the modern Republican Party).

The Whigs, having lost in previous elections with their leading politicians, this time nominated Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor. Taylor had no political experience, had never voted in an election and, until the Whig Party nominated him, had no political party affiliation or preference. The election was expected to be close, and New York, with its 36 electoral votes, would be the key to the election. The two parties were very close in New York, so the Whigs nominated the top Whig vote getter in the state, Millard Fillmore, for Vice President to help win that crucial state. The Democrats nominated popular Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan.

Many Democrats in New York were opposed to slavery and to their party’s neutral position on slavery. Other Democrats often called them barnburners, comparing them to a farmer who burns down his barn to get rid of the rats in it. This faction, along with other anti-slavery groups, formed the Free Soil Party. Their platform called for the protection of slavery where it already existed, but prohibited any further spread of slavery into the territories. They nominated former President Martin Van Buren to head their ticket.

Martin Van Buren, a former governor of the state, was the leader of the Democratic Party in New York and had been for many years. He had helped found the new party in the 1820s and had helped carry the state for Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828. For this, Jackson made him Secretary of State. Van Buren served as Jackson’s second Vice President and, with Jackson’s support, was elected President when Jackson retired.

Van Buren had been defeated for re-election in 1840. When he tried to make a comeback in 1844, he was defeated for the Democratic nomination by James K. Polk who had gone on to win the election. In 1848, Van Buren, long known for “fence-sitting” and trying to please all factions by compromise, had announced his strong opposition to slavery. This made him a very attractive candidate for the anti-slavery Free Soil Party.

Van Buren ran a strong, active campaign and took over 10% of the total popular vote. Although he did not win any electoral votes, he did have a profound effect on the voting in New York. As the most popular Democrat in the state, and with his many contacts among political leaders, Van Buren’s presence on the ticket split the majority Democratic vote in New York. Van Buren took 26.4% (120,497 votes) of the votes in New York. Cass, the regular Democratic candidate, took 25.1% (114,319 votes) of the vote in New York. Taylor, the Whig candidate, took 47.9% (218,583 votes), and won the state by a plurality, and with it the 36 electoral votes that made him the next President of the United States.

Had Van Buren not been on the ballot, most if not all of his votes would have gone to Cass, and Cass would have won New York’s electoral votes and the election. As it is, Van Buren actually took more votes than Cass in the state. With the Democratic majority split, Taylor won the state and the election.

Van Buren had a similar effect on the outcome in three other states: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. In all three states, Van Buren split the Democratic majority, giving the Whigs a plurality victory and all of the electoral votes from those states. In Massachusetts and Vermont, he again took more votes than Cass. It is safe to say that Van Buren took the election from fellow-Democrat Cass and gave it to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor.

Senator Lewis Cass must have felt much like former Vice President Gore did, only more so. Gore has every right to feel that Ralph Nader cost him the election. For Cass, it must have been even more frustrating in that Van Buren was a member of his own Democratic Party and a former leader of the party. Our electoral system limits the effect of third parties. Third parties rarely influence elections to this degree, but it has happened in the past, and as we saw in this past election, can always happen again.

An extra note: A third party candidate has changed the outcome of the election in other elections, most notably the famous “Bull Moose” campaign of 1912. In that election, Republican Teddy Roosevelt ran as the Progressive, or Bull Moose, candidate splitting the Republican majority with William Howard Taft thereby allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election with a plurality of the popular vote.