Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and his vice presidential running mate Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left, campaigning down to the wire on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, in hard-fought Ohio.
Political parties play an important role in facilitating voting by organizing elections and simplifying choices. They are both a consequence of democracy and an instrument of it.
This chapter begins by examining why parties are so vital to the functioning of democracy and then discusses their evolution. We will assess how parties have furthered democracy as institutions, in government, and in the electorate, and explore the prospect for party reform and renewal.
Political parties seek political power. They try to elect people to office who will help party positions and philosophy become public policy. The U.S. has a two-party system, Democrats and Republicans, although there are also some third parties that are built around ideologies such as communism.
Political parties serve a number of functions in democracies. American political parties function both as an ideological organization and a catalyst of policy, to greater and lesser degrees of success.
Parties nominate candidates, and then support them by raising money, providing training, and mobilizing voters to volunteer and vote for them.
Political parties may have internal conflicts but they work to present a unified front to voters. Parties are often identified with single issues, like gun control. However, they generally avoid this identification in order to appeal to more voters both within and outside their party.
Congress and state legislatures are organized along party lines. In Congress, the majority party selects the committee chairs and has a majority in each committee. This is clearly important when when it comes to passing legislation. In addition, majority parties can select people to serve in government jobs. We will talk about this patronage, also known as the spoils system, later in this chapter.
Elected party members must support party policies but in general they have limited success in setting the course of national policy. Their best chance is during the honeymoon period after an election, before the media and opposition party begin to criticize the party in control.
Political parties help inform and motivate voters. Here, a senior and political science major at Western Kentucky University makes calls from the local Republican Party headquarters urging voters to support GOP candidates.
Candidates for public office are selected by parties in various ways. In a caucus, local party members meet to choose both party officials and candidates, and decide the platform. They played an important part in pre- and post-Revolutionary politics until giving way to more representative party conventions.
Today, voters vote for party nominees in the direct primary. In open primaries, voters can vote for candidates from any party. In closed primaries, only voters registered for a party can vote and they must vote for party candidate.
Local caucuses choose delegates to attend regional meetings, which in turn select delegates to state and national conventions where they nominate party candidates for offices.
Iowa’s Democratic caucus is an unwieldy and complex process. Here, a precinct captain takes a head count to determine support for various candidates.
Party systems differ in countries with different governmental structures. The American presidential system has two main parties, Democrats and Republicans, and some minor parties.
Parliamentary governments are often multiparty systems. Winners are determined through proportional representation. The parties receive a proportion of the legislators corresponding to their share of the vote. That is, seats are apportioned in the legislature based on the percentage of the vote won by each party. In such a system, even small parties can gain seats and perhaps a place in the governing coalition.
In multiparty systems, parties at the extremes are likely to have more influence than in our two-party system. Thus, legislatures more accurately reflect the full range of the views of the electorate. However, multiparty parliamentary systems are often unstable. Coalitions can form and collapse, leading to dramatic swings in policy when party control changes.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Party, which has a majority in the Bundestag (Parliament) thanks to an alliance with two other parties.
Merkel has been under pressure domestically not to go too far in assisting the European Union&apos;s struggling economies and under international pressure to be as supportive of them as possible.
The United States has a single-member district, winner-take-all system. The candidate who receives a plurality of the vote—not necessarily a majority—gets the seat. There is no advantage to coming in second. Candidates for small parties are unlikely to win and it’s hard to convince people that a vote for them is not a wasted vote.
Two-party systems produce governments that tend to be stable and centrist, and as a result, policy changes occur incrementally.
Let’s take a closer look now at these smaller, third parties. The United States has minor parties, or third parties, which have been centered around both candidates and ideologies.
Candidate-based parties usually last only as long as the candidate. However, minor parties that are organized around an ideology have more staying power. Communist, Libertarian, and Green Parties are of the ideological type. Although often visible, minor parties have never won more than a handful of congressional seats and their influence on national policy and on the platforms of the two major parties has been limited.
How does the percentage of popular vote received compare to the electoral votes received? How can you explain the difference in these numbers?
Activity: Discuss how the structural “rules of the game” in American politics include single, plurality, winner-take-all district elections; encourage a two-party system; and make it almost impossible for a minor or third party to win. Have the class discuss whether proportional representation electoral rules (at least in the House of Representatives and state legislatures), which would create a multiparty system, would improve politics and democracy in the United States.
We began this section with a look at how candidates are chosen to run for office. Can you answer this question now?
Caucuses are a more complicated process than direct primaries.
The Founders did not set up the American two-party system, and in fact were concerned that factions might create too much conflict. In this section, we will learn the history of American political parties and how they have evolved over the past 230-plus years. This evolution and development of political ideas and organizations has been highlighted by key individuals, events, and elections.
Parties began to form as citizens debated the ratification of the Constitution. People realized that in order to get laws passed laws in Congress, officeholders had to have similar views. In order to usher measures through the first Congress, the Washington administration, under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, formed a coalition of factions and legislators called the Federalist party.
In response, those politically opposed, led by Thomas Jefferson, formed a counter-coalition, known as Republicans, then as Democratic-Republicans, and finally as Democrats.
The two-party system has remained constant but about every 32 years, realigning elections involve more voters and change the relationships of power within the broader political community.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson, aided by Martin Van Buren, knitted together a combination of regions, groups, and political doctrines to win the presidency. By 1837, the Democrats had become a large movement with national and state leadership, a clear party doctrine, and a grassroots organization.
The 1860 election was won by the fledgling Republican Party with Abraham Lincoln as its candidate and the support not only of financiers, industrialists, and merchants but also of many workers and farmers. Republicans dominated the White House until the early twentieth century.
In 1896 , the Republican Party realignment evolved and advanced its industrial-progressive view and reinforced its majority status.
The 1932 election swept Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt into office in a landslide in response to the Great Depression. The New Deal fundamentally altered the relationship between government and society; the dividing line between Republicans and Democrats became the role of government in the economy.
The 1932 election is seen as a “critical election” resulting in an enduring realignment. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats enlarged the role of government in response to the Great Depression. Roosevelt is seen here greeting farmers in Georgia in October 1932 as he campaigned for the presidency.
Major shifts in party demographics have occurred in recent decades, most notably in the South. Once controlled by Democrats, many white Democrats left the party when leaders passed civil rights legislation. The exodus continued as Democrats supported more liberal stands on abortion and social issues and the Republican South reinforced the shift to conservatism.
Since 1953, there has been divided government, where one party controls Congress and another the White House, more than there has been united government.
Unified party control of government, when it has occurred, has been more volatile than earlier realignments. The 2008 election saw an increase in voter turnout. It also produced the Tea Party Movement. Tea Party activists are conservatives and predominately Republicans, who helped the GOP gain a majority in the House of Representatives.
Let’s test your understanding of realignments with this question.
Realigning elections feature intense voter involvement; without this, the elections would have little impact on political power and the formation of new groupings.
Most voters think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans and typically vote for candidates from their party. Collectively they contribute millions of dollars to the two major parties. Both national parties and most state parties are moderate in their policies and leadership, appealing to a majority of the voters from their own constituency.
Both major parties meet every four years at a national party convention to nominate a presidential and vice presidential candidate and ratify the party platform.
The national committee and chair draft the party’s platform, which details the issues and where the party stands on them. The typical party platform is often a vague and ponderous document, the result of many meetings and compromises between groups and individuals. The platform-drafting process gives partisans an opportunity to express their views.
The two major parties are decentralized. There are organizations for national, state, and local levels of government that prepare for elections at each level. The state and local levels are structured much like the national level.
Each state has a state committee headed by a state chair, and below the state committees are county committees, which vary widely in function and power.
Here we see Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus at the 2012 GOP Convention with Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
A National Election survey tracks responses to the question, “Do you think there are any important differences in what the Republicans and Democrats stand for?” Why would people be more likely to see differences between parties in presidential election years than in midterm election years?
Activity: For an interesting class discussion, first ask students whether there’s any difference between Republicans and Democrats. Then repeat the question, focusing on specific political issues—for example, abortion, obscenity, environment, and tax policy—and which social groups identify with each party.
Congress takes its parties seriously. Members have more power and influence when their party is control of the House or Senate. The chairs of all standing committees are from the majority party.
Partisanship is also important in presidential appointments to the highest levels of the federal workforce, including nearly all senior White House staff and members of the Cabinet.
The judicial branch of the national government is designed to operate in an expressly nonpartisan manner; however, appointment process for judges has always been partisan, and today, party identification remains an important consideration when nominating federal judges.
The importance of party in the operation of local government varies among states and localities.
People choose party affiliations for a number of reasons. Factors include:
• their stand on the issues
• personal or party history
• religious, racial, or social peer grouping
• and the appeal of their candidates.
The purpose of party registration is to limit the participants in primary elections to members of that party and to make it easier for parties to contact people who might vote for their party.
Party activists invest time and effort in political parties. They tend to fall into three broad categories: party regulars, candidate activists, and issue activists. Party regulars place the party first, while candidate activists are followers of a specific candidate and see the party as the means to elect their candidate. Issue activists want to push the parties in a particular direction on a single issue or a narrow range of issues.
We see in this photo Texas Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz in 2012 on the night of his primary election victory, when he defeated a more established candidate. A favorite of the Tea Party and the son of a Cuban immigrant, Cruz went on to win the general election.
Most people begin to identify with a political party in childhood. Peers and early political experiences reinforce party identification as part of the political socialization process.
Party identification ranges from strong Democrat to strong Republican, with pure Independents as the median. Strong Republicans and strong Democrats participate more actively in politics than any other group. They are generally better informed about political issues, and most predictably partisan in their voting behavior.
Although new voters have been added to the electorate, partisan preferences of the public as a whole have remained remarkably stable during the last fifty years. Party identification is the single best predictor of how people will vote.
As we can see in this table, Independents typically lean toward one party. The stronger the identification, the greater the political interest and participation.
Based on this graph, what share of the vote do third parties generally get? How many elections since 1952 have been exceptions to this?
Some experts argue that Independents are increasing in number, suggesting that the party system may be in a period of dealignment, in which partisan preferences are weakening.
However, two-thirds of all self-identified Independents are really partisans in their voting behavior and attitudes. Despite the reported growth in numbers, pure Independents make up approximately the same proportion of voters today as in 1956.
In years that were good for Democrats in congressional elections, like 2004 and 2008, what support did they have that they didn’t in weaker elections, like 1994 and 1998?
We’ve discussed at length factors that affect how voters vote. Can you answer this question now?
People tend to vote according to their party affiliation, which is generally acquired in childhood.
Political parties, like candidates, rely on contributions from individuals and interest groups to fund their activities. Political action committees (PACs) give more to candidates than party committees.
Political parties had been allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money, called soft money, for party-building purposes. However, parties spent this money to elect or defeat candidates. Finally, in 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to regulate this unrestricted soft money.
Party committees can contribute a limited amount of money to support candidates and for coordinated expenditures in competitive elections. They can also spend unlimited amounts for and against candidates as long as the expenditures are independent of the candidate or a party committee.
Party-independent expenditures must use money raised with normal “hard money” (limited and disclosed) contribution limits. The surge in individual contributions following the 2002 soft-money ban has demonstrated that the Democrat and Republican parties could find alternatives to unregulated money.
Now that we’ve discussed how parties raise and spend money, can you answer this question?
When parties were limited in the use of soft money, they compensated by increasing their donor base of individual contributions.
Political parties have been criticized for not taking meaningful positions on issues. Some claim that that party membership is essentially meaningless and that because parties try to appeal to middle of the ideological spectrum, they are incapable of progress. Even worse, extremes have captured both parties’ agend. As a result, there is political gridlock throughout the government.
Other analysts point out the long-term adverse impact that allowing Independents to vote in primaries had on parties. The increase in national, state, and local elections has made it harder for parties to influence the election process.
Further, the rise of television and electronic technology and the parallel increase in campaign, media, and direct-mail consultants have made parties less relevant in educating, mobilizing, and organizing the electorate.
Is there a future for political parties?
In 1968, there were riots outside the the Democratic National Convention. The party responded to disputes about the fairness of delegate selection procedures and agreed to a number of reforms. Reforms included greater use of direct primaries. More women, minorities, and younger people were elected as delegates.
Another reform was the abolition of the winner-take-all rule and its replacement by a system of vote proportionality. This meant that candidates won delegates based on the proportion of votes they received.
To keep the party leadership onboard as delegates, without having to first be elected, the party created superdelegate positions.
Chicago police officers push a protestor&apos;s head against the hood of a car as they restrain him after he climbed onto a wooden barricade near the headquarters of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and waved a Vietcong flag during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, August 1968.
Throughout the 1970s, Republicans emphasized grassroots organization and membership recruitment. They held seminars and training workshops for young party professionals. State parties were encouraged to increase the participation of women, minorities, youth, and the poor.
Until 2004, Republicans had cultivated a larger donor base and were less reliant on soft money contributions that became so controversial in recent elections.
In the 2010 election cycle, the Democratic Party committees all raised and spent more than the Republican Party committees. However, both sides raised substantial contributions, much of it from small donors.
Political parties remain vital to the functioning of democracy by organizing electoral competition and unifying large portions of the electorate. They simplify democracy for voters, and create policy. Similarly, parties are just as important in organizing the government. Because parties are the means by which politicians secure office, they also provide an important way for citizens to influence American government.
Let’s recap what we’ve just discussed with this question.
Along with the Democratic Party, in the 1970s the Republican Party made some reforms. They used grassroots organization and increased its membership recruitment in the 1970s. They organized seminars on how to give speeches and held conferences to train young party professionals.