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  • Created on: 09-01-13 13:22

Politics Parties - Two Party System


Best defined by being a system in which two major parties regularly win at least 80% of the popular vote in general elections – making the US a very obvious two-party system

In 11 presidential elections (1968 – 2008) the Democrats and Republicans have accounted for more than 80% of the popular vote.

 This is the same within Congress – in 2008 only two out of 100 seats in the Senate were held by independents.

The system is also present within state legislatures – in 2009 – all 50 state governors were either Democrat or Republican.

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Reasons for the US two-party system

First past the post system – this makes it difficult for third parties to have a chance – they’re support is usually wide but very shallow – they pick up a fraction of the vote in many states but the winner takes all system means they are never rewarded

Umbrella parties – the two major parties cover such a broad ideological spectrum – there isn’t much room left for other parties to attract sufficient support

Primaries – they encourage the major parties to be more responsive and aware of the electorate – meaning there is less discontent and little need for a third option.

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Arguments against

-The two major parties have become so similar – that there can’t possible be a two-party system in the US

-1990s : Democrats adopted Republican issues on welfare reform and deficit reduction

-Bill Clinton declare during his term : “the era of big government is over” – very much a Republican view

-Some would argue that the two parties are identical – only disagreeing on a minority of issues

 50-party system – a two-party system would suggest two distinctive parties, disciplined, centralised national parties – however, this isn’t the case

A 50-party system is consequence of federalism and where much of the party organisation and elections are state based, run under state laws by state officials  

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Structure of Major Parties

National committees : this is the only form of party structure at national level – the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC)

Congressional committees : each party has committees in both the House and the Senate – they oversee policy and campaigning. Eg. the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Charles Schumer of New York was given much of the credit for the successful 2008 Senate campaign – the party won 8 seats.

 •State-level organisation : everything else to do with parties is done at state level – there are State Party Committees and State Party Conventions existing at county, city and ward levels

They both have offices in Washington DC – a chair that is elected by the committee members They organise the National Conventions – they are fairly weak and it is argued that parties are mostly decentralised, state based parties.

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Polarisation – break-up of the Solid South :

•The Solid South : -The break up of the solid south led to the two parties becoming ideologically distinct -Some politicians also moved. Eg. Phil Gramn and Strom Thurmond once belonged to the Democrats but moved to the Republicans   -By the mid-1990s the Democratic hold of the ‘solid south’ had collapsed -There is now a new term (after 2008 elections) – the Solid Northeast – the Democrats having more a hold over the liberal northeast.

The break up of the solid south led to the two parties becoming ideologically distinct

Some politicians also moved. Eg. Phil Gramn and Strom Thurmond once belonged to the Democrats but moved to the Republicans

By the mid-1990s the Democratic hold of the ‘solid south’ had collapsed.

There is now a new term (after 2008 elections) – the Solid Northeast – the Democrats having more a hold over the liberal northeast.

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‘The 50-50 nation’ and ‘red vs. blue’

 •1996,2000,2004 – increasingly polarised electorate in two phases :

A 50-50 nation’ – the results of the 2000 presidential and congressional elections : both major party candidates ended up with around 49% of the popular vote – EC divided 271-267, House was 221-212 and the Senate exactly 50-50 – after 2000/04 – the electorate looked even more divided.

‘Red vs. Blue – the US was seen as two rival societies : Red America and Blue America.

Red America : more male, majority were white (increasing Hispanic), Protestant, wealthy, rural or suburban and very conservative – they’re main concerns in 2004 were moral issues and terrorism.

•Blue America : more female, coalition of white, black, Asian and Hispanic, church wasn’t important, less wealthy, mostly urban and very liberal – they’re main concerns in 2004 were the economy, jobs and the war in Iraq (they disapproved).

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‘The 50-50 nation’ and ‘red vs. blue’

Shades of Purple : the red vs. blue debate makes things too simplistic – makes things seem more polarised than they are.

In the presidential race, there are some states that vote consistently for the Democrats (New York, California) and some that vote Republican (Wyoming and Oklahoma) however, in 2008 nine states that voted Bush in 2004 supported Obama.

Red vs. Blue seems too simplistic – not always so evenly cut.

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Republican Party Factions

Factions within the Republicans party :

Fiscal Conservatives :
-They mostly focus on the economy and trade but hold traditional Republican social views.
-They advocate; free-market economics, a minimalist government approach to the economy and a balanced federal budget
-They promote a programme of; reduced business and personal taxation and cutting government expenditure
-Their influence has been evident by the raise of the Tea Party Caucus in both the House and Senate
-They adopted entrenched views during the 2011 budget negotiations
-Key members include : Michele Bachman, Ron Paul and Marco Rubio.
Social Conservatives :
-They are very traditional  - also known as the ‘religious right’ or the ‘New Right’ (along with the fiscal conservatives).
-They are made up of several Christian groups who have a set of deeply conservative views, including; anti-divorce, same sex marriage and stem cell research.
-Many members of the Republican party have been forced to adopt a more orthodox stance in order to secure the party’s nomination for president. Eg. Mitt Romney and John McCain
Key members include : John Boehner, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry.
Moderate Conservatives (Rockefeller)
They take a less conservative stance on social/fiscal views however, believe that the poor need to be taken care of.
They want to bring people together not divide them
-They have more moderate/centrist views – their influence was dominant but has recently decreased. Eg. McCain despite winning the nomination struggled to get funding for many conservative groups because of his liberal stance – he only managed to secure funds after he took a more conservative stance.

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Republican Party

 Support :

-High – income business professionals (income over $100,000) = 51% : they agree mostly with fiscal conservatives. Eg. 2010 negotiations over tax cuts – the Democrats unsuccessfully tried to abolish lower rate taxation for those earning over $250,000 = considerable republican opposition.

-White southerners = 54% : due to the historic breaking of the ‘solid south’ – now a republican stronghold. Eg. the success of the ‘southern strategy’ – aimed at disaffected white southerners and church goers.

-Rural voters = 53% : they favour the limited government regulation supported by the Republican – especially their opposition to gun control. Eg. there was an increase in gun sales after Obama’s victory in 2008 because they feared new controls.

-Protestant Christians = 54% : they support traditional social views ; opposition to abortion, same sex marriage.

-White males = 57% - tend to support the social values – don’t support affirmative actions. Eg. shown by the 2004 Democrat platform – supporting affirmative action – many white males opposed this.

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Democratic Party : factions

Factions within the Democratic party :
Moderates :
-They are committed to a more liberal agenda; defending rights threatened by the Republicans, wider healthcare provisions, upholding a number of rights for gay people, racial minorities and women (specifically abortion) -They have had a raising influence – the success of the 100-Hour-Plan and the 6 for ‘06 agenda
-Key individuals include : Nancy Pelosi, Sherrod Brown and Barack Obama. 

 Moderate Liberals – DLC biggest and most popular group:
- Modern day faction – creation came with the attempts to win back the White House under Bill Clinton – establishment of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – attempted to appeal to both the conservatives and the more progressive sections of society
- Seem to loose influence with the loss of Al Gore in 2000 – they seem to gain more influence after the loss of the House and the 2010 midterms – there is a greater need for compromise and bipartisanship
Key individuals – Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Gabrielle Gifford.

Conservative Liberals (Blue Dogs)  :

-These are the most right-wing section within the Democratic party – broad set of ideas – in favour of reducing taxes and adopting conservative social policies -Numbers grew largely following 2006 Democrat electoral victories -Eg. they achieved success in watering down the eventual 2010  Healthcare Act. -They have little influence – a ‘dying breed’ – they lost half their numbers in the 2010 midterms – remaining members, after the redistricting in 2012 are likely to come up against strong republican challengers. -They are a declining force -Key members include: John Barrow and Ben Nelson.

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Democratic party Support

Support : -Low-income, working class with income under $30,000 = 60% : unionised members – favouring the more interventionist approach. Eg. the Fair Minimum Wage Act 2007 – raising the wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour – showing Democratic support to this group.

-Gays and lesbians = 70% : favour more liberal stance on social values/gay rights. Eg. Obama has made clear his support for the Respect for Marriage Act – forcing federal government to recognise same sex marriage.

-Latinos = 67% : they tend to be loyal to the Democrats – attracted to their less hostile approach to immigration. Eg. the Democrats have looked to offer some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. In contrast – Republican states (Arizona, Alabama) introduced strict immigration laws.

-Women = 56% : young, single women – party’s more pro-choice stance.

-African – American = 95% : most loyal to the Democrats – voting never falling below 90%. Eg. upholding civil rights (1960s) – greater support for affirmative action.

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Third Parties definition + examples

•There are national, regional, state based, temporary, permanent, issue based and ideological third parties

•The best known third parties are national – the Reform Party, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party

•They are both important and unimportant in the US – they have never won an election or come close but it could be argued that they have influenced the outcome. Eg. in the 2000 presidential election Nader cost Gore his chance of becoming president.


(right wing) Christian Liberty Party
(left wing) Ocialist party USA 

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Difficulties faced by third parties

-Electoral system: first-past-the-post : winner takes all system makes things difficult for third parties – eg. 1968 George Wallace won 45 EC votes with 13% of the vote but this wasn’t enough to make a difference.
-They way they qualify for ‘matching funds’: major candidates qualify by raising $5000 in contributions of $250 or less in at least 20 states – third party candidates only qualify by winning at least 5% of the popular vote in the previous election, very few third parties – this has only happened three times (68,80,92,96)
State ballot access laws they regulate how third party candidates can quality to get their name on the ballot – some states are harder than others – Eg. Tennessee requires 25 signatures – in New York a third candidate must gain a number of signature in ever county in a state.
Lack of resources – it is hard for them to qualify for ‘match funds’ – they must spend much of their money on access petitions rather than on their campaign – people are reluctant to give money as they don’t think they’ll win.
-Lack of media coverage – third party candidates aren’t seen as sufficiently newsworthy – they can rarely afford to produce/air adverts – they are usually barred from presidential debates (nationally/state). Eg. in 2000 only Bush and Gore appeared in the presidential debates – Nader was excluded.
Lack of well – known, well qualified candidates – it is hard for third party candidates to attract suitable running mates. 

 Third party candidates portrayed as extremists – major parties have little difficulty in showing them as this – many of them are extremists otherwise they’d fall under the umbrella of either the Democrats/Republicans. The US has a deep seated fear of extremism.

 The two major parties absorbing policies – third party policy is usually adopted by the major parties if they are seen as successful. Eg. Perot’s policy on the federal budget deficit was adopted by Bill Clinton (Democrat).

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Third Parties: some succcess

•Third party presidential candidates have started attracting more attention. Eg. Ross Perot in 1992/1996 – in 1992 he achieved 19% of the vote.

•1998 – Jesse Ventura become a third party Governor of Minnesota.

•Some mainstream politicians have decided to stand as independents – Eg. Bob Barr and Alan Root were Republican – changed to the Libertarian Party.

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Third parties aren't successful / Impact

Third Parties Aren't successful:

 -Trends should not be over estimated – the proportion of third party votes hasn’t increased

-Recent performances haven’t been so successful. Eg. in the 2008 election they received less than 2% of the vote

-Many of the policies held by third parties are taken on by the major parties

-EC system makes it hard for third parties to ever make a significant difference/impact.


Despite the lack of success – they do still have an indirect impact on politics

 This has been achieved through influencing the political agenda and pushing certain issues Eg. Perot’s success in 1992 concerning the budget deficit.

They have also had an indirect on the outcome of the presidential election. Eg. 2000 election for president – Nader gained 100,000 votes in Florida arguable costing Gore the election. 

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Theories of Party Decline

modern day campaigns ‘television era’ – they have become less party – centred and more candidate/issue base – voters vote because they like the candidate or the issue they are standing for not the party.

split-ticket voting – this is when voters vote for candidates of different parties for different offices at the same election. Eg. voting for a Republican president but a Democratic congressman – this reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s 

There has also been a raise in independent voters – those that will stand for office but not affiliate with a major party. 

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Theories of party renewal :

Decline is exaggerated – parties may be less important but they still play a significant role. Eg. the Republicans ‘death’ happened with the Watergate affair and the resignation of Nixon however, they were back in office just 6 years later. – the two major parties have always controlled the White House, Congress and a majority of the state governorships throughout the 20th century.
-Regained some control over the presidential nominationeg. the Democrats introduced Super Delegates – accounting for nearly 20% of the vote.
-Changes to party structure – the Republicans : the Brock reforms – strengthened the standing of the Republican National Committee. Eg. 1990s the chair of the Democratic National Committee did the same – developing computerised direct-mail facilities and a permanent headquarters in Washington.
-Soft money – both major parties took advantage of the unregulated funds that could be used for ‘party building’ or ‘get-out-the-vote activities’ – enhanced their role significantly in national campaigns.  
-Moves towards the nationalising of electoral campaignsEg. the Republican party in the mid-term elections of 1994 and 2002 – 1994 the party campaigned around the Contract with America: it was supported by nearly all Republican House candidates. – In 2002 : another successful campaign which resulted in them gaining seats in both Houses.
-Increased levels of partisanship in Congress – in 1995 : highest partisanship in the Senate since 1992 and in the House since 1910 – became even higher during the impeachment of Clinton – the votes in the House on the Articles of Impeachment were along party lines – increased partisanship in reaction of Supreme Court rulings (Bush v. Gore 2000) prolonged stand offs between presidents (Clinton and Bush) and the Senate on their nominations to the federal courts.

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