Political Parties

Political Parties

Although very similar on paper, the structure
of the national Democratic party differs substantially from that of
the Republican party in practice. The Democrats, torn by ideological
conflicts, have evolved into a factional party emphasizing the
mobilization and conciliation of party activists. The Republican
party has become a bureaucratic party devoted to winning elections by
focusing on raising money and providing consulting services to its
candidates. The result is that the Democrats have selected
presidential candidates with a decidedly liberal orientation, while
Republicans have fielded more moderate nominees capable of attracting
middle-class voters. Thus the numerical advantage of the Democratic
party has been offset by the electoral appeal of Republican

These generalizations, however, apply to
national-largely presidential elections. The parity of the two
parties breaks down at the state and local levels where party
strength varies by region. Moreover, the key organizational unit of
the party structure is located at the city, county, and state levels.
The national parties are little more than an affiliation of these
regional entities and lack any real control over them. Five distinct
types of local party organizations have developed.

1. The machine is a party
organization that recruits its members by the use of tangible
incentives and is characterized by a high degree of leadership
control over member activity. Machines, in their heyday, were

dependent on federal patronage jobs (such as in the post office),
kickbacks on contracts, payments extracted from officeholders, and
funds raised from businessmen. With the influx of poor immigrants
the machine adopted a social welfare function. The abuses of the
machine were curtailed through stricter voter registration laws,
civil service reforms, competitive bidding laws, and the Hatch
Act, which made it illegal for federal civil servants to take part
in most political activities. More important, increased income and
sophistication made voters less dependent on what the machines
could offer; so did the growth of the federal welfare system. It
is easy to scorn the machine as venal and self-serving; however,
machines mobilized a very high level of participation.
Furthermore, their interest in winning elections meant that
machines supported popular candidates, regardless of

2. Ideological parties value
principle above all else. Because of their unwillingness to
compromise, ideological parties are typically third parties such
as the Socialist, Prohibition, or Libertarian parties. However,
some local organizations within the two major parties fit into
this category. Ideological parties are marked by intense internal
conflict over issues, and leaders have little room for maneuvering
and bargaining.

3. Solidary groups are composed of
people who find politics fun. Such groups have the advantage of
being neither corrupt nor inflexible; however, often they will not
work very hard.

4. Sponsored parties can be created
without patronage, or ideology, or members who find the work fun
if some other organization provides money and workers for a local
party. These instances are rare, the UAW’s role in the Detroit
Democratic party being the best example.

5. Personal followings attracted by
the personality of the candidate have become much more important
as other forms of party organization have declined. Such a
following can allow a candidate to be independent, but the
politics of personality (as opposed to machine or ideological
politics) deprives the average voter of any reasonable basis for
judging most candidates.

The various types of local parties are all
important. But increasingly, political activists who become
nationally known enter that scene from interest groups such as the
National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Educational
Association (NEA), and the AFL-CIO.

Despite the concentration of power at the local
level, most Americans define the parties on the basis of their
national identities. Yet an odd role reversal seems to be taking
place, as each national party has begun to assimilate characteristics
of the other. The electoral fortunes of the parties have much to do
with this process. The string of presidential victories from 1980
through 1988 lulled Republicans into equating their
success with the conservative ideology of Ronald Reagan. This
assumption proved fatal in 1992. The genial personality of
Reagan had concealed the rough edges of his conservative principles;
voters were attracted more to the person than to the value system. In
the 1984 election, for example, pollster Louis Harris discovered that
Americans preferred the position of Democrat Walter Mondale to that
of Reagan on twelve of sixteen issues surveyed. George Bush, pushed
by a special-interest group (the religious right), moved to an
ideological extreme in 1992 and succumbed to the same fate as
previous Democratic candidates.

On the other hand, the Democratic party has
been embracing aspects of the Republican party structure, adopting

techniques like direct mail and the use of superdelegates to
insure a more “electable” candidate. Bill Clinton revealed himself to
be an untraditional Democratic nominee, purposely alienating himself
from certain African-American leaders (like Jesse Jackson) and
attacking liberal policy icons (like the welfare system and the ban
against prayer in the public schools). As the Democrats have moved to
the center, the Republicans have become more isolated on the
ideological extreme. Neither party is especially pleased by these
developments, with Democrats complaining about “selling out” and
Republicans complaining about the influence of the Christian
Coalition. The very soul of each party is up for grabs. Is it better
to win or to be ideologically pure? The two goals are seldom

It is remarkable that we have had only two
major parties for most of our history; most European democracies are
multiparty systems. Two factors account for this. First, our
elections are based on the plurality, winner-take-all
system. A vote for a minor party will be a wasted vote. Under
proportional representation, which is common in Europe, even very
small parties have a chance of winning something, and therefore have
an incentive to organize. Second, in spite of occasional bitter
dissent, Americans have not faced divisive and longstanding
controversies over the organization of the economy, the prerogatives
of the monarchy, and the role of the church. Thus they have agreed on
enough issues to make broad coalitions possible. Finally, state laws
make it exceedingly difficult for third parties to get on the ballot,
as third-party candidates George Wallace and John Anderson quickly
discovered in 1968 and 1980, respectively. Matters were only somewhat
better for Ross Perot in 1992.

Third parties have formed, however. They have
included ideological parties such as the Socialist,
Communist, and Libertarian parties; one-issue parties such
as the Free Soil or Prohibition parties; economic protest parties
such as the Greenback and Populist parties; and factional
such as the Progressive party in 1924 and the American
Independent party in 1968. Of these, factional parties probably have
had the greatest influence on public policy. This is due to the
impact of a factional split on the unity of a major political party
and the subsequent possibility of an electoral defeat.

The existence of the American two-party system
is linked to the winner-take-all character of the electoral system.
Unlike many European nations, the United States does not have a
proportional representation system (which encourages multiparty
systems) but rather a single-member district system whereby only one
candidate can win the public office being contested. Given the
additional middle-class/centrist nature of the American electorate,
preferring candidates from either one of the two major political
parties becomes a natural choice for most voters. Why waste a vote on
a thirdparty candidate who cannot possibly win (assuming that the
great bulk of registered voters belong to the two major

These effects have been a source of concern for
some political scientists, most notably Lawrence D. Longley and Neal
R. Peirce. These scholars described the electoral college as a
“fatally flawed means of determining the American president” that
“has the potential for … deeply eroding the security of our
democratic processes.” In The Electoral College Primer (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996, pp. 154-166), they list the
following deficiencies of this institution:

1. It is a distorted counting device :
Its winner-take-all mechanism exaggerates electoral margins, while
the allocation of electoral votes ignores differences in voter
turnout among the states.

2. Candidates’ campaign strategies are
shaped by these distortions, which consequently affect policy
decision-making and implementation. In particular, the concerns of
the large, swing states receive more careful consideration.
Concerns distinctive to the smaller states are more likely to be

3. The electoral college discriminates
against candidates from third parties and preserves the dominance
of the two major parties.

4. Faithless electors may further distort
the popular will-particularly in the event of a close election.
“In a very close electoral count, ambitious electors could
determine the outcome” (p. 160). Even worse, a deadlocked popular
vote could “set off a sequence of unsavory deals and actions” with
the electors deciding the outcome (p. 161).

5. “An election can produce a divided
verdict, with one candidate receiving the most popular votes and
the other candidate winning the election in electoral votes” (p.

Of course, the authors of the Constitution
would be surprised, first by the current functioning of the electoral
college, and second, by a desire to place such great reliance on the
popular will. As originally designed, the electoral college was
intended to mediate the popular will, ensuring that the people’s
passions did not lead to the selection of a corrupt national leader.
The notion that this institution should either merely reflect (if
exaggerate) the popular vote-as is currently and most frequently the
case-or be abolished is therefore a contradiction and even a
perversion of the Federalists’ expectations for the democratic



1. The national political parties have little
control over the behavior of their members or of the candidates
representing them. For example, David Duke-a former grand wizard of
the Ku Klux Klan — entered the Louisiana legislature as a
Republican despite radio broadcasts by President Reagan calling for
his defeat. How is the political system hurt by the loose
organization of political parties?

2. Voter loyalty to a particular party is
diminishing, 40 percent of voters could tell no difference between
the parties. Would a strengthened party structure prevent defections?
Would this be a positive development? Or would the power of the
states be restricted? Would candidates be less responsive to local

3. Suppose you wanted more powerful parties.
Which alternative in each pair would achieve this goal?

  • Public financing of campaigns or private
  • More primaries or more caucuses
  • More openness to outside political forces
    or more control by established political figures
  • More power in Washington or more power in
    state and local governments
  • More people in politics because of ideology
    or “principle” or more in it for jobs and money

4. Why is it almost always irrational for a
voter to vote for a party other than one of the two major ones? What
would a voter who found the Democrats insufficiently liberal have
gained by voting for a presidential candidate such as Democrat Eugene
McCarthy, who ran as an independent in 1976? What would a voter who
found the Republicans insufficiently conservative have accomplished
by voting for John G. Schmitz of the American Independent party in
1972? Can you conceive of circumstances where it would be rational to
vote for a minor-party candidate? What would a Republican voter have
gained by voting for John Anderson, a Republican who ran as an
independent in 1980? Use the 1992 and 1996 elections as examples in
your answer.

5. Are the two major political parties
different? If not, why do voters as different as blacks and Jews
consistently vote Democratic? If so, how do the parties differ? Are
the public’s evaluations rooted in genuine policy differences between
the parties?

Data for

The Democratic and Republican parties have
different structures. The Democratic party has adopted a
factionalized structure to embrace all relevant social groups. The
Republican party, on the other hand, is constructed around a
bureaucratic structure for purposes of efficiency. As a result, the
minority Republican party has achieved a high degree of electoral
success at the national level despite the paucity of its membership
numbers. In the process, the Republican party has developed a
competent campaign-financing operation. Thus structure has an
influence on party behavior. The Democratic party has belatedly
attempted to emulate some of these Republican practices. Is it more
important for a party to represent its membership interests or to win
elections? Both parties have arrived at the same conclusion: ideals
are secondary to winning.

With this change in focus, will Democrats
become more competitive in presidential elections? The data reveal
the comparative disadvantage of the Democratic party in fund raising.
The following table provides a comparison of political party activity
during the past ten election cycles:


























































1. Compare and contrast campaign spending by the Democratic and
Republican parties. Why do expenditures in presidential and midterm
elections vary?

2. Which party shows a stronger performance in
campaign fundraising? Compare amounts raised, amounts spent,
percentage increase on amounts raised, and various other measures.
Does a party’s control of the White House or of the Congress seem to
affect the success of its fundraising efforts?

3. Are there any similarities in spending
increases or decreases, as shown for both parties? For example,
Democratic campaign spending increased sharply in the1983-1984,
1987-1988, 1992-1993, and 1995-1996 election cycles. Republican
spending increased sharply in the 1979-1980, 1983-1984, and 1995-1996
election cycles. In most of these instances, the party whose spending
increased confronted a strong presidential incumbent. Why would a
party increase spending under these circumstances? Remember that
these are the races in which the party’s presidential and
congressional candidates are most likely to lose.

Data for

Although third parties, also referred to as
minor parties, have campaigned on behalf of their presidential
candidates in almost every such election in U.S. history, few have
succeeded in capturing even 10 percent of the popular vote. Those who
have are listed below.








Martin Van Buren

Free Soil



Millard Fillmore





John C. Breckinridge

John Bell

Southern Democrat

Constitutional Union



James B. Weaver




Theodore Roosevelt




Robert M. LaFollette




George C. Wallace

American Independent Party



Ross Perot

Independent (Reform Party)

Source: Rhodes Cook, “Third Parties Push to Present a
Respectable Alternative,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report
13, 1996): 1987. Lawrence D. Longley and Neal R. Peirce,
The Electoral College Primer. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1996, pages 167-176.


1. What factors might have contributed to the
success of these candidates? (Link the different kinds of third
partiesideological, one-issue, economic protest, and factional-to the
social and economic history of the United States.)

2. In 1992, Ross Perot received 18.9 percent of
the popular vote; in 1996 his percentage of the vote dropped to 8.0
percent. What could account for this sudden decrease in popularity?
Does Perot provide support for the theories and explanations students
developed in response to the first question?

3. Interest in third parties has sometimes been
related to the weakness of the incumbent president. However, the
party controlling the White House changed only in 1856 and 1924. Why
might dissatisfaction with the incumbent president not guarantee
success for third parties?

4. Should third parties be rewarded for strong
showings in a national election? If so, what should constitute a
“strong showing”? What type of reward should be provided?

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