Choosing Not To Choose
When we left off, the Democratic and Whig parties were the components of the second party system. The two were nearly-equally popular in all parts of the country; north, south, and the newly-forming west. And so, both had to take care not to take sides in any regional conflicts, as that could cost them an election. Only one problem: the most important issue in the country, the focus of every debate and every headline, pitted north against south. Slavery. Neither party would take a stance on the issue. Democrats in the north were opposed, by needed the assistance of the slavery-dependent farm-owning Democrats in the south to win elections, and the story was similar for the Whigs. Everyone in America had a strong view on the issue, but with the axis of party alignment completely skew to it, it seemed a resolution on the issue would be impossible. The Whigs cracked first. Arguments over their party nomination in 1852 (and their subsequent loss in the election) shattered the party. Early in 1854, former Whigs began meeting as newly-minted Republican, Know-Nothing, and other party members.
In 1856, it was the Democrats chance for a nomination fight, settling on northerner-with-southern-sympathies, James Buchanan. That sympathy (and a southern running mate) was enough to defeat the clearly north-favoring Republican (as well as the border state Know-Nothing) candidate. As president, Buchanan's refusal to act or even speak out decisively about the rising calls for secession turned the whole nation against him, and in 1860, the Democratic party broke in half over the nomination of his replacement. The southern faction walked out, held their own convention, and nominated Buchanan's vice-president, John Breckinridge. The northern faction proceeded alone, and nominated Stephen Douglas, although many members left to join with the Republican party instead. A few border and western states, desperate to avoid war, combined the Know-Nothings with the few remaining (and still unaligned) former Whigs to create the short-lived Constitutional Union party, and nominated John Bell. The Republicans settled on a former Whig congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.
The election was brutally close. Republican's didn't even bother to get on the ballot in 9 southern states. In three of the states Lincoln won—California, New York, and Oregon—he received less than half of the popular vote; in California, he received less than one third. Had he lost New York—where his margin of victory was less than seven and a half percent—then no candidate would have had the required electoral vote majority and the election would have been decided in the House. All told, Lincoln received a smaller percentage of the popular vote—39.8%—than Walter Mondale did in his 1980 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.
Before Lincoln could even be sworn in, the Civil War had begun. When it was over, the Republican and Democratic parties would be the two to emerge from the ashes, nominally the same two parties we have today; although a lot has changed between then and now.
So, what do we learn from this? Another way to disrupt the two-party system is to find an issue both major parties are split over, so strongly that you can cause nomination fights in both in rapid succession. Then, while the parties fracture you can promote one of the pieces as your new third party, building it on a coalition from both parties that support your issue. Abusing the weaknesses of plurality election with more than two strong candidates, as well as the specifics of electoral rules, you can game the system just enough to slip your unpopular candidate in to office. But watch out for war. This is painful lesson on the inevitable, almost predictably periodic failures of a two-party system. The important issues were ignored in order to secure electoral victories, and they were ignored because they fell outside the domain that served to originally define the existing major parties. A new party was necessary in order to address the issue, but the two-party system held back its emergence, until it burst forth, violently.