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. Why Do Political Parties Form?

What fundamental problems do political parties help politicians and voters overcome?

  • Political parties are institutions that seek to control the government through the winning of offices; whereas interest groups are “benefit seekers” looking for policy gains, parties tend to be composed of office seekers.
  • Parties organize to facilitate collective action in the electoral process; indeed, the shape of party organization itself reflects this electoral motivation as party organizational units mirror district or geographical units where elections are held. For voters, parties lower information costs by providing a “brand name” that conveys important information about the candidates running under the party label.
  • Parties form lasting coalitions within government designed to induce cooperation and to resolve the problems associated with collective choice in the policy-making process.
  • Parties also regulate the career advancement of ambitious officeholders and help resolve the potential problems of competition between ambitious party members.

2. What Functions Do Parties Perform?

Once formed, what are the essential functions that political parties perform in American democracy and governance?

  • 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.
  • By promoting party identification in the electorate, parties facilitate mass electoral choice; even when party identification fails to persuade voters, by providing voters with a “brand name” parties lower 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 alternative 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.

3. Parties and the Electorate

How and how well do political parties organize the electorate? What groups tend to identify with Democrats and Republicans, respectively?

  • Political parties are made up of millions of rank-and-file members who develop psychological ties to, or identifications with, their parties. In addition to these rank-and-file identifiers, parties also rely on a particularly committed group of party activists who contribute time, energy, and effort to support the party and its candidates.
  • In the United States, a variety of characteristics are associated with party identification. These include race and ethnicity, religion, class, ideology, and region.
    • In terms of race and ethnicity, African American voters are overwhelmingly Democratic while Latino voters are more divided (Cuban Americans are generally Republican, for example, whereas Mexican Americans favor Democrats by a small margin).
    • There exists a gender gap whereby women are more likely to support Democrats and men are more likely to support Republicans.
    • Different religious groups have different party identifications: Jews tend toward Democrats, Protestants are more likely to be Republicans, and Catholics—while traditionally a Democratic constituency—have been moving slightly toward Republicans since the 1970s.
    • Although class tends to be muted in American politics, upper-income Americans tend to be Republicans whereas lower-income Americans are more likely to identify with Democrats.
    • Ideology and party identification are closely linked, with liberals identifying with the Democrats and conservatives identifying as Republicans.
    • The formerly “solid” Democratic South is now becoming solidly Republican, as is much of the West and Southwest; the Democratic base is now in the Northeast; and the Midwest is a more or less evenly divided battleground.
    • Age is also associated with partisanship, as individuals older than fifty are more likely to be Democrats while those younger than fifty are fairly evenly divided.

4. Parties as Institutions

How are contemporary political parties organized? What functions do they serve and what services do they offer to candidates?

  • Political parties are neither tightly disciplined nor hierarchically organized. Rather, they are extensive networks of individuals that exist at virtually every level of government that 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.

5. 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.
      • During this era, party machines used the spoils system and control over political nominations to rise to prominence.
      • In response to the abuses of party machines, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Progressives pushed for reforms of the political system, including the Australian ballot, merit systems of civil service, and direct primaries that weakened party organizations.
    • 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.