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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 candidates.

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 ideology.

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 compatible.

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 parties 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 parties)?

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 ignored.

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. 161).

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 republic.


Discussion Questions

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 interests?

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

  • Public financing of campaigns or private contributions
  • 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 Analysis

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 Analysis

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 (July 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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