This has always been a pet poli -sci nerd peeve of mine, even more so now that Gary Johnson supporters are using it. Let’s review some historical facts, shall we?
- The two major parties in America from 1833-1854 were the Democrats and the Whigs. The last Whig majority in the House was the 30th Congress (1847-1849) and their last Senate majority was the 28th Congress (1843-1845). The Whigs were annihilated in the presidential election of 1852, carrying only 4 states with a total of 42 electoral votes for Winfield Scott versus 27 states and 254 electoral votes for Franklin Pierce. Clearly, the party was already on its last legs.
- There were four candidates for the presidency in 1860: Lincoln for the Republicans, his longtime rival Stephen A. Douglas for the Democrats, sitting Vice President John C. Breckenridge for a breakaway faction of rabidly pro-slavery Southern Democrats, and John Bell for the hastily-assembled “Compromise party,” the Constitutional Unionists. The Whigs couldn’t even drum up a candidate. In fact, they had already been reduced to lamely endorsing the Know Nothings in 1856;
- The Republicans were already a major force in Congress, despite having only been formed in 1854. The 34th Congress (1855-1857) started with 9 Republican Senators and only 8 Whigs; it ended with 13 Republicans and 7 Whigs. In the House, all of the non-Democratic members united in an Opposition Party. The 35th Congress (1857-1859) ended with 20 Republican senators and no Whigs; 92 Republican House members and no Whigs. At the time of the 1860 election, Congress had a majority of 26 Republican senators and 116 Republican House members. Again, there were no Whigs left.
- By any reasonable measure, then, the two major political parties in America by at least 1860 were the Democrats and the Republicans. Lincoln was not by any stretch of the imagination, a third party candidate.