You hear a lot about political parties in a presidential election year. Mostly you hear about the two major ones: the Democrats and the Republicans. Together they have held on to the White House for all but a few years in our nation’s long history.

We didn’t start out this way. George Washington did not belong to a political party, unlike each president who has followed him. In his 1796 “farewell address,” Washington warned that political parties were a danger to the new nation because they divided people rather than united them. He feared splits based on where people lived or how much money they had. And he said that parties would seek more and more power to advance their own interests and punish their opponents.

Washington’s warning went unheeded. The nation’s first two political parties, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, were already heatedly debating the merits of a strong national government (Federalists) versus individual and states’ rights (Democratic-Republicans).

Two of Washington’s Cabinet members led this division. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and his supporters pushed for a strong central government that was pro-business. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his allies favored limited government and protections for the working class.

The Federalists faded from view in the early 1800s, having elected just one president, John Adams. Power was now in the hands of the Democratic-Republicans.

The story gets a little confusing at this point because the Democratic-Republicans — also called Jeffersonian Republicans and, sometimes, simply Republicans — are the ancestors of today’s Democratic Party. Once the Federalists were gone, they squared off against a new party called the Whigs.

When the Whigs broke apart in the 1850s, many members joined a new, anti-slavery party called the Republicans. This is the Republican Party we know today. In a four-way contest in 1860, they elected their first president, Abraham Lincoln. Even though Lincoln got less than 40 percent of the popular vote, his election made the Republicans one of the country’s top two parties.

For the past 42 presidential elections, dating back to 1852, the winner has been a Republican or a Democrat. Some third-party candidates popped up along the way and tried. A few even got enough votes to act as spoilers, tilting the election to one of the two heavyweights. But no third-party candidate other than Lincoln has come close to winning the big prize. (See story at right.)

So how did the United States settle into a two-party system in contrast to multiparty democracies such as France, Germany and Canada?

Historians say the pattern was set in motion two centuries ago with the embrace of winner-take-all elections nationally and locally — that means that coming in second or third place in most elections is worthless. As two major parties emerged and grew in power, third parties found it harder to attract public notice and get their candidates invited to debates or listed on ballots. In addition, voters who supported these candidates but never saw them win eventually drifted away, and third parties found it harder to create enthusiasm, given their likelihood of losing.

And that brings us to our current national election. On the Republican side, Donald Trump is seeking a second four-year term as president. The Democrats have Joe Biden, a former vice president, atop their ticket. It’s a classic battle of traditional, conservative stances such as lowering taxes and spending more on the military (Republicans) versus a platform built on social equality and environmental protection (Democrats).

Early voting is underway for the November 3 election. We don’t know who will win, but we can guarantee it won’t be a Whig.

Long-ago parties: Dixiecrats,
Know-Nothings and Bull Moose

More than 30 people are running for president this year in addition to Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. The list includes environmentalists, a former child actor, a rapper and a man who spent a year in prison for mine safety violations.

Only two of the candidates — Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Howie Hawkins of the Green Party — appear on ballots in enough states that they could, in theory, pull off a huge upset. Jorgensen, a university lecturer, embraces the Libertarian platform of personal freedom and less government in people’s lives. Hawkins, an environmental activist, supports a “Green New Deal” to halt climate change and invest in clean renewable energy.

The rest of the third-party and independent candidates, some of whom are running in just one state, have zero chance of winning.

So why run at all?

Their reasons vary. As in past third-party campaigns, some have issues that they are passionate about. Others are unhappy with the major political parties and want to offer an alternative. And some may be in it for the chance to be the spoiler in the 2020 presidential race.

It’s happened before — perhaps as recently as four years ago.

In 2016, the Green Party’s Jill Stein got enough votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to keep Trump’s Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, from possibly winning those states and the election.

In 2000, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader won more than 97,000 votes in Florida, a state that Democrat Al Gore lost by 537 votes to George W. Bush. That was a close election tipped in favor of the Republican.

Third parties have acquired colorful names and nicknames over the years: Dixiecrats. Free Soilers. The Pirate Party. The Know-Nothings.

One of the most colorful names and candidates was the Bull Moose Party headed by former president Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, Roosevelt, who had been out of office four years, was unhappy with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination.

Roosevelt breezed through the primaries, but delegates at the party’s national convention threw their support to Taft anyway. A miffed Roosevelt decided to form his own party, the Progressives, which adopted the name “Bull Moose” because Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, often said he was “fit as a bull moose.”

In a four-man race that November, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote. Roosevelt got 27 percent to Taft’s 23 percent, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, with 42 percent, coasted to victory.