US Political Parties


History of the Parties

  • Federalists - party of George Washington & John Adams, represented commerican and business interests of the new republic and wanted a more centralised government.
  • Anti-federalists - party of Thomas Jefferson (3rd and 4th president), represented agricultural and land-owning interests and wanted a more decenralised government.

Development of the Parties:

  • 1854 - Republican Party (Grand Old Party, GOP) developed - anti-slavery, based in the north.
  • 1856 - Scott vs Stanford - Supreme Court ruled that slavery couldn't be limited to the south.
  • 1860 - Abraham Lincoln (Republican) elected president - civil war (1861-65), south was defeated - humiliation for Democrats.
  • 1864-1908 - Democrats only won twice; Republicans were supreme in Washington D.C.
1 of 14

Party Organisation

  • 19th & 20th centuries - parties were more active at local and state levels rather than federal.
  • 1970 onwards - national party structures were strengthened due to:
  • new campaign finance laws - more $ going to parties and candidates
  • television - allowed candidates to appeal to voters directly
  • opinion polls - allowed candidates to better understand the voters
  • new technology - allowed parties to target voters via email, and now via social media
  • parties becoming more cohesive, politics becoming more partisan
  • national party systems recruiting and training state and local officals.
  • Now, party structures are more 'top-down' than 'bottom-up'.
2 of 14

National Committees (1)

  • The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) both have offices in Washington, and each has a chair who is normally elected by the committee members (but, by tradition, an incumbent president can recommend a chair themselves.
  • 2016 - Trump nominated Ronna Romney McDaniel (Mitt Romney's niece) to be the new RNC chair.
  • Feb. 2017 - DNC elected Tom Perez as chair; victory for Hillary Clinton's wing, as Perez beat out Keith Ellison of Bernie Sanders' wing.
  • Roles of National Committees:
  • raising money,   hiring staff,   coordinating election strategy,   organising the NPC.
3 of 14

National Committees (2)

  • DNC
  • made up of the chair & vice-chair of each of the 50 state Democratic parties, plus a further 200 elected members appointed to the state parties on the basis of state population.
  • all DNC members are admitted as super-delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
  • RNC
  • consists of the chair of each state Republican party, plus 2 committee members from each state party - 1 man and 1 woman.
  • Congressional Leadership and Committees
  • at the national level, each party also has its own congressional leadership and committees to oversee elections to each house of Congress.
4 of 14

Party Ideology

  • Party names don't always suggest ideology, so ideological labels are often attached ahead of party names; e.g. liberal Democrat, conservative Democrat, moderate Republican, etc. George Bush called himself a 'compassionate conservative' in the 2000 election campaign.
  • Ideology and region are often linked; South = more conservative, northeast and west coast = more liberal. So parties have to take on the ideological shades of different regions:
  • Southern Democrats (e.g. Senator Bil Nelson of Florida) are often more conservative than New England Democrats (e.g. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut).
  • New England Republicans (e.g. Senator Susan Collins of Maine) are more liberal than Southern Republicans (e.g. Senator Richard Burr of California).
  • It used to be conventional wisdom that there was very little difference between the two parties; Lord Bryce stated that parties were 'like two bottles with different labels, both of them empty'. 
5 of 14

Growth of ideological differences

  • Survey in 1972: 44% of people saw no important differences between the Republicans and Democrats.
  • Survey in 2012: 81% of people saw important differenced between the two parties.
  • People were also asked if they though one party was more conservative than the other; in 2012, 73% thought Republicans were more conservative, 10% thought Democrats, 18% saw no difference.
  • Democrats are more liberal; support LGBT rights, abortion, gun restrictions and federal activism, etc.
  • Republicans are more conservative; oppose abortion and some LGBT rights, support the death penalty, etc.
  • Voting by ideology in 2016:
  • Liberal voters = 26% of electorate --- 10% voted Republican, 84% voted Democrat.
  • Conservative voters - 35% of electorate --- 81% voted Republican, 15% voted Democrat.
6 of 14

Democrats and Ideology

  • Not all Democrats are liberal - espcially not those who live in the South or Midwest.
  • Many identify as 'moderate Democrats' but after 2016 this may have changed; Hillary Clinton appealed more to the centrist/moderate wing of the party, Bernie Sanders appealed more to the left wing.
  • Exit polls showed that liberal Democrats preferred Clinton over Sanders (53% to 46%) and non-liberals also preferred Clinton (61% to 36%).
  • Difference in vote share between the two ideological sub-groups stood at 8 percentage points for Clinton and 10 for Sanders - less than expected.
7 of 14

Republicans and Ideology

  • Not all Republicans are conservative, for example those in the northeast or the west coast.
  • Social conservatives - reserved on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. but moderate on economic issues; known as the 'Christian Right'.
  • Fiscal conservatives - joined the Tea Party movement to reduce national debt and the budget deficit and to reduce government spending, etc.
  • Compassionate conservatives - sought to use traditional conservative beliefs in order to improve the lives of those who felt neglected by the government or by society.
  • Moderate Republicans - fading out; party has become more homogenous in its ideology at a national level.
8 of 14

Weaknesses of US Parties

US parties could be desribed as weak beacuse of:

  • Separation of powers - weakens political ties between the branches of government.
  • Federalism - parties are organised at state level; 50 Republican and Democrat parties each.
  • No mass membership.
  • No party leaders.
  • No party manifesto
  • Finance is raised by candidates, not the parties.
  • Candidates are selected through primaries and caucuses, not the parties.
9 of 14

Two-Party System

  • Two-party system: a system in which 2 major parties regularly win at least 80% of the popular vote in general elections, thereby virtually discounting any third or minor parties.
  • Reasons for a two-party system in the US:
  • the FPTP system - support for 3rd partues is widespread and shallow so a lower majority is needed for the winning candidate.
  • big tent parties - all ideologies are covered by the 2 main parties; little need or demand for 3rd parties unless they address a specific issue which is unlikely to be long-term.
  • no protest voting - primaries make parties more accountable so there is minimal need for protest voting.
  • Challenges to the two-party idea:
  • homogeneity over policies (e.g. Clinton's "the era of big government is over" could have been a Republican policy).
  • could say the US actually has a 50-party system; parties are highly decentralised.
  • both parties often have control at the same time; one in the White House, one in Congress.
10 of 14

Third Parties (1)

  • Types: permanent (e.g. Greens), temporary (e.g. Reform), issue-based (e.g. Prohibition), ideological (Socialist).
  • Power of third parties:
  • They have a limited combined popular vote; 1992, Ross Perot (independent) won over 19,000,000 popular votes, in 2016 there was a combined vote of 6% across 3rd parties.
  • They can be crucial in deciding the outcome of a presidential election; 3rd parties affected the outcomes in 1968, 1992 and 2000; Ralph Nader (Green) won 2.7% in 2000 and cost Al Gore the presidency.
  • They can also influence congressional elections: 2008, Dean Barkley won 15% of the popular vote in Minnesota's Senate Race, defeating Republican Norm Coleman, leaving Al Franken the winner (less than 300 votes). 
  • Electoral disadvantages to 3rd parties:
  • FPTP works against them - 1968, George Wallace won 45 EC votes and 13% of popular vote, 1992 Ross Perot won 0 EC votes with 19% of popular vote.
  • Financially disadvantaged - federal funding is only given to parties with 5% of the vote in previous elections.
  • Ballot access - 1980, John Anderson needed 1.2m signatures and $3m in funds; couldn't get on the ballot.
  • Campaigning - cannot secure media coverage so are not well-known and don't get any national attention.
  • Portrayal of candidates - are often seen as ideological extremists due to the two big-tent parties covering most neutral and controversial policies.
  • Co-opting - major parties steal 3rd party policies after seeing the support they get; e.g. Perot's Flagship Policy.
11 of 14

Third Parties (2)

  • Yes:
  • Ross Perot won 19% of the vote in 1992, contributing to Bush's defeat.
  • Ralph Nader's 2.7% in 2000 contributed to Al Gore's defeat.
  • 3rd parties may lose elections but win influence by changing the policies of major parties.
  • Some states (e.g. Alaska, New York) have quite vibrant 3rd parties that are significant in state and local elections.
  • No:
  • The two main parties dominate the presidential elections by a long stretch.
  • The two major parties always control Congress.
  • The two major parties control state politics.
  • The two main parties co-opt the policies of successful 3rd parties, curtailing their electoral success.
12 of 14

Theories of Party Decline

  • Candidate Selection - the parties have lost control over this; until the 1960's candidates were selected by party bosses in 'smoke-filled rooms' but are now selected in primaries and caucuses.
  • Communication with voters - parties were traditionally the communicator between the president/candidates and the voters, through organising party rallies, etc. Now, candidates communicate via TV and social media, and the voters through opinion polls, so the role of the party was greatly reduced.
  • Emergence of movements - people are now more likely to join movements (e.g. Tea Party, Occupy, etc.) than parties; want to influence the parties from the outside rather than the inside. e.g. Trump, 2016: his campaign was more of a movement, and was described by some as a 'hostile takeover' - he was opposed by many Republicans.
  • These theories were popular in the 70's and 80's but recently it has been argued that parties are under renewal; increased partisanship in Congress suggests this.
13 of 14

Current conflicts - Main Parties

  • Democrats
  • In poor shape after 2016; minority pary in both houses of Congress.
  • After 8 years with Obama they went from 29/50 state governorships to just 16.
  • Early 2017 - decision of who would be chair of the DNC; some wanted to try and work with Donald Trump, some wanted to fight him. The election of Tom Perez was a status-quo approach.
  • Bernie Sanders still wants to create a grassroots party which speaks for the working people.
  • Republicans
  • The Tea Party grew out of dissatisfaction with Obama's response to the banking collapse and economic problems.
  • It stood for limited government, less taxation, reduction in debt and was against healthcare reforms, and it worked through the Republican party.
  • In some respects it gave way to Donald Trump; but conflicts are inevitable as not all Republicans support him.
14 of 14


No comments have yet been made

Similar Government & Politics resources:

See all Government & Politics resources »See all US Political Parties resources »