Chapter Study Outline


Political parties are teams of politicians, activists, and voters whose goal is to win control of government. To do so, parties perform essential tasks of recruiting and nominating candidates, garnering the resources needed to run campaigns, and pursuing a policy agenda that can help them appeal to voters. Although Americans tend to be suspicious of “party rule,” the Democratic and Republican parties are essential to the daily operation of government and the conduct of American democracy in elections. This two-party system helps to structure voters’ electoral choice and provide coordination to America’s otherwise divided and separated governing institutions.

  1. Functions of the Parties
    What fundamental problems do political parties help politicians and voters overcome? Once formed, what are the essential functions that political parties perform in American democracy and governance?
    • Political parties are institutions that seek to control the government through the winning of office; whereas interest groups are “benefit seekers” looking for policy gains, parties tend to be composed of office seekers.
    • Political parties recruit candidates for the thousands of races at the national, state, and local levels.
    • Parties also nominate candidates to be their standard bearers for each race; although nominations are sometimes made in party conventions, the dominant means of nominating candidates is by primary elections, which can be either closed primaries (that is, restricted only to party members) or open primaries (where voters declare their party affiliation on the day of the primary).
    • Parties conduct voter registration drives and mobilization efforts on Election Day in order to counter the free-rider problem and to increase voter participation.
    • Parties facilitate mass electoral choice by providing voters with a “brand name,” thereby lowering the information costs potential voters encounter in making electoral choices.
    • In addition to their many roles in elections, parties also influence the national government.
      • In attempting to make their party a “big tent,” party leaders often advance policies to build coalitions and to broaden the party’s appeal to new constituencies; there is, however, a tension between these coalition-building efforts and the need for the parties to present distinct alternatives to voters and to satisfy their most partisan “base” constituencies.
      • Congressional organization depends heavily on party; the majority party leads each chamber and dominates the committee system.
      • The president is often seen as the leader of his or her party, but some presidents are better, more engaged party leaders than others.


  2. Political Parties Today
    How are contemporary political parties organized? What functions do they serve and what services do they offer to candidates?
    • Political parties exist at virtually every level of government and are usually organized as committees of active party members.
    • The most important party institution at the national level is the national convention, which is responsible for nominating the party’s presidential candidate, establishing the party’s rules, and drafting its platform.
    • Each party’s national committee operates between conventions to raise funds, mediate disputes within the party, and enhance the party’s media image.
    • The congressional campaign committees raise funds and develop strategies for House and Senate election campaigns.
    • State and local party organizations recruit candidates, conduct voter registration drives, and provide financial assistance to candidates.
    • Contemporary parties have evolved into “service organizations” in the modern, candidate-centered era; most notably, national parties provide money, resources, and expertise to their candidates who are increasingly independent.


  3. Party Systems
    What is a “party system”? What have been the major “party systems” throughout American political history? What is the place of third parties in the American party system?
    • By “party system,” scholars mean the number of parties that compete for power (that is, the United States has a “two-party system”) as well as the organization of the parties, the balance of power between and within party coalitions, the parties’ social and institutional bases, and the issues and policies around which party competition is organized.
    • Changes in political forces and alignments have produced six party systems in American political history.
    • The first party system pitted the Federalists against the Democratic-Republicans, two groups of competing political elites, each of which had only loose ties to the electorate; party organization tended to focus on political clubs and party newspapers. After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party gave way to the dominance of Democratic-Republicans.
    • The second party system represented competition between the Democrats and the Whigs; the Democrats, led by Andrew Jackson, were the popular and dominant political party of the era, although the Whigs became competitive by organizing popular support as well.
    • The third party system emerged out of the Civil War, wherein Lincoln’s newly founded Republican Party dominated the Democratic Party, which had its primary base in the states of the former Confederacy.
    • The fourth party system lasted from 1896 to 1932 and was largely dominated by Republicans, although repeated internal party differences hampered Republican governance during the era.
    • The fifth party system emerged out of the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt built a broad-based Democratic coalition that dominated American national politics until the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.
    • Though some scholars disagree as to when (and if) there has been a sixth party system, a good case can be made that the current party system emerged with Richard Nixon’s 1968 election, as the Democrats’ “Solid South” succumbed to Nixon’s “southern strategy” to convert disaffected former Democrats to Republicanism.
    • Although America is dominated by two parties, third parties representing social and economic protests have emerged throughout American political history. Although the emergence of third parties is a somewhat regular occurrence and can be relatively successful at state and local levels, they seldom succeed nationally, both because the major parties usually absorb any successful themes and because many electoral laws along with the single-member district plurality election system work against successful third parties.