After an open battle between different factions of the GOP during the government shutdown, there is some speculation that the more right-wing tea party will split from the GOP to form its own third party.
Due to the so called "spoiler effect" third parties tend to have on elections in a winner-take-all system — which the U.S. has — it would not be the first time that a third party made waves in the United States.
Though no third party has ever managed to get a president elected, third parties can have dramatic effects on an election, and indeed the very political foundation of the country. They can cause the major parties to adapt and to change or bring them crashing down around them.
Here's a look at some third parties in the U.S. and the effects they have had.
Founded in 1828 amidst growing mistrust of Freemasons and their "elitist" control over the mechanics of government, the Anti-Masonic Party is considered the nation's first third party.
Officially the party only had a single platform: dislike of Freemasons. Although its attempts to become a national leading party on this single issue obviously failed, it nevertheless did gain support in the New England area, enough to gain two governors — William A. Palmer of Vermont and Joseph Ritner of Pennsylvania.
Though the party faded and was absorbed into the emerging Whig Party after roughly a decade, the Anti-Masonic Party managed to leave its mark on the election cycle in the United States, being the first party to implement party conventions and party platforms.
The Anti-Masonic Party held the nation's first nominating convention in the 1832 presidential election and nominated Attorney General William Wirt as its candidate.
This was slightly ironic as Wirt was himself a former Mason who stated that he had no personal issues with Masons.
Nevertheless, Wirt managed to take Vermont and 7.8 percent of the popular vote in the general election, becoming the first member of an organized third party to win a state in a presidential election.
In 1856, the Whig Party, one of the two main parties in the United States for 20 years, collapsed on itself after issues such as slavery, immigration and states' rights proved irreconcilable within the party. Mixed in with the fact that the Democratic Party publicly threw out President Franklin Pierce in the middle of his term, the U.S. had the setting for one of its most interesting races in history.
Parties such as the American "Know-Nothing" Party, Southern Democrats, Republicans and the North American Party all competed on the national stage.
Although at the beginning of the race the Know-Nothing Party was considered the prime opposition to the Democrats, by the time the election was over its candidate, former President Millard Fillmore, only managed to win Maryland and 22 percent of the popular vote. The Republicans under John C. Fremont ended up winning 33 percent of the vote and 11 states, but because of the split, the Democrats under James Buchanan managed to win the presidency with 45 percent of the vote.
Things only got worse for the 1860 election, this time with the Democratic Party suffering from hemorrhage between Northern and Southern Democrats, leading to multiple split off Democratic parties.
The Southern Democratic Party split off from the Democratic Party and gave the strongest electoral showing of any third party in U.S. history, gaining 18 percent of the popular vote, 72 electoral votes and 11 Southern states for its candidate, John C. Breckinridge. This left Democratic nominee Stephen A. Douglass with 30 percent of the popular vote but only winning one state and 12 electoral votes.
In fact, not one but two third parties would outperform one of the major parties in this election, with John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party taking roughly 13 percent of the vote but taking three states and 39 electoral votes.
In the end, the Democratic split enabled Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln to win 17 states, 180 electoral votes and 40 percent of the popular vote to win the presidency.
As the industrial revolution took hold in America, various pro-labor and agrarian parties sprouted up in the nation. Though these tended to be regional instead of national movements, in 1891 several such parties and groups combined to form the Populist Party.
The party performed well in the 1892 presidential election, managing to obtain 8.5 percent of the vote and 22 electoral votes and four states in the 1892 election under its candidate, James B. Weaver.
The success of the party, and the increasing role grass-roots populism was taking during the turn of the century, led to Republicans and Democrats attempting to woo over the Populist Party.
The Democrats would effectively merge with the Populist Party by the 1896 elections, with William Jennings Bryan being a Populist-endorsed candidate the Democrats agreed to nominate. Jennings would run for president three times in 1896, 1900 and 1908.
After a four-year hiatus from politics, Teddy Roosevelt found himself dissatisfied with the direction of the Republican Party and his successor, President William Howard Taft. So he started his own party, the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party for its stubbornness.
The Progressive Party failed to launch Roosevelt into a third term in the 1912 presidential election, gaining 27 percent of the vote and 88 electoral seats from six states. However, the 1912 election does represent the best a third party has ever done.
It is also an example of the spoiling effect third-party candidates can have, with the split between Progressives and Republicans allowing Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson to win with a mere 41 percent of the popular vote.
The Progressive Party was eventually absorbed by the Democratic Party.
In 1924, erstwhile Republican Robert M. La Follette Sr. was fed up by the lack of progressivism in his party and decided to run on the ticket of the Progressive Party. At the same time, many progressive Democrats were dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, leading to a GOP politician being backed by Democratic voters.
Although he only managed to get one state and 13 electoral votes, Follette managed to get 16 percent of the popular vote and for once didn't cause a spoiler effect, as Calvin Coolidge had a commanding lead of 54 percent of the popular vote and the majority of the electoral college.
This was the last time the Progressive Party waged an effective campaign on its own. Since 1924, progressives have tended to stick with the Democratic Party and its platform.
In both 1948 and 1968, "Dixiecrats" ran on separate platforms than the Democratic Party and gained a reasonable amount of success from it. Both Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) ran as segregationist candidates.
In 1948, Thurmond managed to gain 2.5 percent of the vote, and more importantly 39 electoral votes and carry four states.
In 1968, Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote as the last major segregationist candidate, and won 46 electoral votes and five states. The 1968 election marked the last time a third-party candidate won a state.
In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot funded his own campaign for president, running simply as an independent with no official party affiliation.
Over the previous decades, the impact of third-party candidates and parties had lessened, at least in the public eye, with no third-party candidate carrying a state or even breaching the 1 percent threshold on the popular vote. Perot's campaign on a platform of a balanced budget found widespread support from the voting population, and Perot managed to gain 18.9 percent of the vote but failed to win any states or electoral votes.
Overall, it was the best any third-party candidate had done since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, and though Perot failed to win any states or electoral votes, he did manage to launch discussion on the federal budget into the political limelight.
With the recent open conflict in Congress between the "established" GOP and the grass-roots tea party movement, many (including those within the tea party) are speculating that it might be time for the more fiscally conservative branch of the GOP to break away from "the moderates" in Congress and form its own party to better represent its ideals.
While history tells us this would be bad for both the GOP and the tea party, with its chance of winning a national election effectively halved, and its overall chance of it happening slim, it is important to look at the effect third parties can have on the major parties in promoting change of ideals and platforms.