Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Consider the interrelationship between party goals and the “institutional procedures” of campaigns and elections.
  • Provide comparative evidence of the ideological distribution of the American public generally and party and campaign activists specifically.
  • Explore the reasons why mounting an adequate campaign organization and competing in the overall electoral process might feed party polarization rather than ideological convergence.

The Goals of Political Parties

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose.

What, then, are the goals of political parties? How do parties compete to achieve those goals?

In An Economic Theory of Democracy, political scientist Anthony Downs developed a logic of party competition. Downs claimed that most voters in American politics can be found in the middle of the ideological spectrum and that political parties compete to win the support of the pivotal “median voter.”

The Goals of Parties

Downs defined political parties in terms of their goals: “a political party is a team of men [and women] seeking to control the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election” (p. 25).

The Logic of Party Convergence

Downs argued that, because voters (including the median voter) calculate the ideological distance between themselves and each of the parties, both parties will seek to move to the ideological middle to attract the most votes.

Ideological Distribution, Liberal to Conservative 2008

Answer the following questions:

1. How does the actual ideological distribution of the American public confirm or disconfirm Downs’s assumptions?
2. What are the dangers to political parties of moving to the center?
3. Given these dangers, why do parties nevertheless move toward the middle?

Party Goals in Institutional Context

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures.

Individuals have different goals that are shaped, channeled, and filtered through relevant processes.

Political parties’ goals of winning office and the logic of converging toward the middle must be understood in a broader context of institutions that provide countervailing forces such as:

  • Exciting the party base of activists
  • Inspiring party professionals and volunteers to work for the campaign
  • Raising campaign contributions

Ideological Distribution, Party, and Campaign Activists 2008

Answer the following questions:

4. How does the ideological distribution of campaign activists (those who attend rallies, those who work for the campaign, and those who contribute money to the campaign) differ from the overall ideological distribution of the public?
5. If campaigns and contributions are important, how might this data explain why parties and candidates sometimes resist the temptation to converge toward the middle?
6. How might other factors like primary elections and declining voter turnout (in both primary and general elections) further contribute to the polarization between the parties?


  • The American National Election Study 2008. Preliminary. Analyzed on-line at “SDA: Survey Documentation & Analysis,” University of California at Berkeley, (accessed 10/4/09).
  • Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.
  • Shafer, Byron E., and William J. M. Claggett. The Two Majorities: The Issue Context of Modern American Politics. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 1995.

Submit to Gradebook:

First Name:
Last Name:
Your Email Address:
Your Professor's Email Address: