Guide to U.S. Political Parties


Edited by: Marjorie Randon Hershey

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    About the Editors

    General Editor

    Marjorie Randon Hershey is a professor of political science at Indiana University–Bloomington and is affiliated with the Indiana University School of Philanthropic Studies. She received a PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and has taught at Indiana for most of her professional career.

    Hershey is the author of the primary textbook on political parties, Party Politics in America (Pearson), now in its sixteenth edition. She has also written two other books about political campaigns and candidates: Running for Office: The Political Education of Campaigners (Chatham House, 1984) and The Making of Campaign Strategy (Heath-Lexington, 1974), as well as more than 40 articles in professional journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Communication, Polity, and the Social Science Quarterly, and chapters in edited volumes.

    Her research centers on the behavior of American political party activists and the degree to which they share views on issues and social-demographic characteristics with less active Americans. She has also published extensively on the ways in which media reports interpret the meaning of election results at the presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial levels and the process by which certain types of explanations of those vote totals become widely accepted as “fact,” even in the absence of much evidence to support them.

    She teaches about political parties and interest groups, environmental policy, and American political behavior at the graduate and undergraduate levels at Indiana University. She has received sixteen teaching awards, including seven Trustees' Teaching Awards from Indiana University, the 2011 CQ Press/American Political Science Association Award for Teaching Innovation in Political Science, and the 2010 Thomas Ehrlich Award for Excellence in Service Learning. The author of several articles about teaching, she directs her department's teaching program for graduate students. In 2007–2008 Hershey wrote a legal brief challenging Indiana's voter identification law, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008). She has also served as president of the Midwest Political Science Association and on program committees for the American Political Science Association's annual meetings and is a member of several journals' editorial boards.

    Associate Editors

    Barry C. Burden is a professor in the Department of Political Science and is affiliated with the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He earned his PhD at The Ohio State University in 1998 and has been at Wisconsin since 2006. In 2005 he was given the Emerging Scholar Award by the American Political Science Association's organized section on Political Organizations and Parties.

    Burden's research revolves around U.S. electoral politics, with a focus on voter turnout, public opinion about leaders and parties, minor party candidates, presidential nomination campaigns, and various aspects of election administration. This work has analyzed the consequences of election day registration, early voting, and selection methods for choosing local election officials. He has also published on topics including the influence of party and ideology in the U.S. Congress and the longevity and scope of federal programs.

    He is the author of Personal Roots of Representation (2007, Princeton University Press), coauthor with David C. Kimball of Why Americans Split Their Tickets (2002, University of Michigan Press), editor of Uncertainty in American Politics (2003, Cambridge University Press), and coeditor with Charles Stewart III of The Measure of American Elections (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).

    Burden has authored or coauthored articles in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, including the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Legislative Studies Quarterly, American Politics Research, Electoral Studies, and Public Opinion Quarterly.

    He teaches a variety of courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels on political behavior, elections, Congress, and research methodology.

    Christina Wolbrecht is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. She received her PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 1997, and her dissertation received the 1998 Best Dissertation Prize from the Women and Politics section of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

    Wolbrecht's research is in the areas of American political development, political parties, agenda setting, and gender and politics. Her previous and ongoing research examines party issue position taking, substantive and symbolic representation by female politicians, and the determinants of public support for political institutions, as well as National Science Foundation–supported research on the electoral behavior of women in the period immediately following the granting of women's suffrage.

    She is the author of The Politics of Women's Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change (Princeton University Press, 2000), which was awarded the 2001 Leon Epstein Outstanding Book Award from the Political Organizations and Parties Section of the APSA. She is the coeditor (with Karen Beckwith and Lisa Baldez) of Political Women and American Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and (with Rodney E. Hero) of The Politics of Democratic Inclusion (Temple University Press, 2005).

    Wolbrecht has authored or coauthored articles in a number of leading political science journals, including the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Legislative Politics Quarterly, Political Behavior, and Political Research Quarterly. She serves as editor, together with Karen Beckwith (lead editor) and Lisa Baldez, of Cambridge Studies in Gender and Politics.

    At Notre Dame, Wolbrecht offers undergraduate and graduate courses on American politics, political parties, interest groups, and women and politics.


    Kristi Andersen

    Maxwell School, Syracuse University

    Paul A. Beck

    The Ohio State University

    Justin de Benedictis-Kessner

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Mark D. Brewer

    University of Maine

    Edward M. Burmila

    Bradley University

    Thomas M. Carsey

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

    Jamie L. Carson

    University of Georgia

    Jennifer Hayes Clark

    University of Houston

    John J. Coleman

    University of Wisconsin

    Russell J. Dalton

    University of California, Irvine

    Logan Dancey

    Wesleyan University

    Daniel DiSalvo

    City College of New York-CUNY

    Casey B. K. Dominguez

    University of San Diego

    Daniel J. Galvin

    Northwestern University

    Jeffrey D. Grynaviski

    Wayne State University

    Paul S. Herrnson

    University of Connecticut

    Marjorie Randon Hershey

    Indiana University

    Marc J. Hetherington

    Vanderbilt University

    Lawrence R. Jacobs

    University of Minnesota

    Jeffery A. Jenkins

    University of Virginia

    David R. Jones

    Baruch College, City University of New York

    David Karol

    University of Maryland

    Vladimir Kogan

    Ohio State University

    Geoffrey C. Layman

    University of Notre Dame

    Frances E. Lee

    University of Maryland

    Jessica Gall Myrick

    Indiana University

    Hans Noel

    Georgetown University

    Helmut Norpoth Stony Brook University

    Barbara Norrander

    University of Arizona

    Bruce I. Oppenheimer

    Vanderbilt University

    Ronald B. Rapoport

    College of William and Mary

    Jesse H. Rhodes

    University of Massachusetts, Amherst

    Joel H. Silbey

    Cornell University

    Richard M. Skinner

    George Washington University

    Jeffrey M. Stonecash

    Syracuse University

    Gerald C. Wright

    Indiana University


    Many people made it possible for this volume to come together. First among these is Doug Goldenberg-Hart, formerly of CQ Press, whose idea it was to create a guide to U.S. parties and who shepherded it through most of its development. The project was greatly enhanced when so many of the nation's leading analysts of party politics, history, and elections agreed to contribute chapters. I am truly grateful to each of them and privileged to be associated with their work. Barry Burden and Christina Wolbrecht were amazing associate editors, advising chapter authors and seeing their chapters through to completion. We could not have succeeded without the generous and expert help we received from Carole Maurer, Anna Villasenor, Mark Bast, Jane Haenel, and others at SAGE, nor could we have survived without the support and love of our families and friends.

    With our thanks and great respect, we would like to dedicate this volume to the memory of two pioneers in the study of politics: Frank J. Sorauf and Austin Ranney, and to the many other distinguished scholars who made it possible for us to further our understanding of the nature, workings, and impact of political parties.

    Marjorie RandonHershey, Bloomington, Indiana
  • Conclusion

    Marjorie RandonHershey

    The introductory chapter in this volume points out that any working democracy must meet a number of challenges to survive. The most important of these challenges include maintaining an effective process of leadership selection, organizing elected officials to create policies in response to demands, and holding leaders accountable to citizens even in the face of widespread public disinterest in politics. The introduction contends that political parties can meet these challenges—in fact, that political parties are probably the only mechanism available to a democratic society to meet these challenges, at least to this point in U.S. history. Now, after dozens of chapters presenting analyses by thirty-eight of the leading political parties scholars, it is time to offer some conclusions as to how well the American parties have met these three major challenges.

    Selecting Leaders

    First, do political parties effectively solve the problem of leadership and ambition in a democracy? Do they provide a peaceful means by which some candidates step forward to compete in a particular election while others step back? In one sense, this is an easy standard to meet, in that it simply requires providing a mechanism that winnows candidates to a small number, from which voters can select a plurality winner. American political parties have long accomplished this task successfully, using different methods at different times. They have moved from giving the nominating power to a self-selected group of party notables in smaller caucuses to larger conventions of party activists and officials selected by state party leaders and finally to the minority of citizens who choose (or are mobilized) to take part in primaries and participatory caucuses.

    A more demanding criterion would be whether parties have helped to identify the most talented and competent individuals, promoted them to candidacy for office, and weeded out the less talented, the short-sighted, and the greedy. But until analysts can agree on the standards for judging which types of individuals are “talented” and “competent” to hold each of the different positions in each of the different branches and levels of government under different sets of conditions, this will not be an easy question to address. One reason for the disagreement is the tenacious impact of partisanship itself on people's views of government. In a 2013 poll, for instance, 84 percent of Democratic identifiers agreed that President Barack Obama can manage the government effectively, compared with only 15 percent of Republican identifiers.1

    Perhaps the biggest failure of American parties with respect to leadership selection is that so many elections are uncontested, especially local and state elections that shape policies central to the daily lives of all Americans, as Chapter 13 demonstrates.2 To give voters the choice that a representative democracy requires, at least two political parties must have produced sets of candidates that can then be winnowed. Yet for decades, only one major-party candidate's name has appeared on the ballot for a legislative seat in 33 percent to 40 percent of all state legislative elections. The percentage of uncontested elections is even higher at the local level, where controversies arise in many cities and towns as to whether to hold a primary election when none of the elective offices in a given year is sought by more than one candidate. Granted, serving as county assessor or surveyor may not provide the kind of fascination and glory that comes from having a four-year lease on Air Force One. But the inability of many local and even state party organizations to fill their tickets with candidates who can offer an option to the voting public raises serious questions about the parties' capabilities in generating prospective leaders at all levels of governing.

    This lack is not entirely the parties' fault. It has recently been accompanied by a decline in the number of competitive districts for the U.S. House of Representatives. Although presidential elections have long been highly competitive, interparty competition has declined dramatically at lower levels of office. More than one hundred House districts were regarded as competitive or “swing districts” in the 1992 election, but this was true of only about thirty-five in 2012.3 The ability of parties in state legislatures to gerrymander—to draw electoral district lines that favor their own party's candidates—plays a role here, but a more important cause is that minority populations, black Americans in particular, tend to be heavily concentrated in certain geographic areas, and those areas generate overwhelming support for Democratic candidates, leaving other geographic areas largely Republican. This sorting reduces the competitiveness in many districts. Institutional reforms such as the drawing of legislative district lines by independent redistricting commissions rather than those controlled by state legislatures or governors might help to create more competitive districts. In turn, that might rekindle some party organizational interest in recruiting candidates in areas where the party had previously been a hopeless minority. But institutional reforms can have as many unintended as intended effects, and state legislatures are understandably unimpressed by the idea of creating independent redistricting commissions to redraw their own constituency lines. (California's well-reputed independent commission was established by a voter initiative, but only a minority of states permit initiatives.)

    The Republicans and Democrats, of course, are not the only political parties that could offer candidates to voters. Are minor parties such as the Libertarians and the Socialists, which have the right to select and promote candidates in American elections, given the chance to do so? The two major parties have done a remarkable job of using their dominance of state legislatures to pass laws raising the costs for any other parties wanting to get their names and candidates listed on ballots.4 State legislators have been so prolific in this regard that every month, the newsletter Ballot Access News fills six pages with the most recent efforts of state legislatures to maintain the dominant positions of Democratic and Republican candidates.5 When so many elective offices are contested by only one major party's candidate, it is reasonable to ask whether different sets of rules should apply to different parties trying to contest the same election.

    Policy Coordination within Government

    The second major challenge political parties are thought to meet in preserving American democracy involves producing majorities for particular policy choices, sustaining coalitions for the long term, and facilitating policy coordination among the separate but intertwined branches and levels of government. The party system has had mixed success on this point. Especially in recent years, the parties' success in one aspect of this effort seems to have caused their failure in another. The cohesive teams produced by the current party polarization, especially when combined with the antimajoritarian features of American politics—most notably, the rules of the U.S. Senate—have often blocked the passage of any policy at all.

    One great benefit of the early American parties was that in a system of greatly divided powers—separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, staggered terms of office, differing constituencies—they provided a means by which like-minded people in different parts of government could coordinate their work. In fact, in the early years of the republic, parties probably kept this daring experiment in governance from checking and balancing itself into oblivion. This was no small feat, given the many expressions of James Madison's genius for devising checks and balances. The advantages of one relatively unified party facing another relatively unified party were that issues brought to government (and to the voters in elections) could be clarified, the implications of each party's proposals explored and compared, and a clear majority attained for one side of an issue.

    As John J. Coleman's Chapter 30 points out, Madison's design worked too well, most of the time, to permit a party to remain completely unified on policies at all levels of government, from Washington, DC, to Massachusetts to Salt Lake City. But the common bond of a political “team” encouraged at least some internal coordination. Even in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s when the Democrats and Republicans were both truly catch-all parties, each composed of warring factions, the parties were able to combine some internal coalition-building with support from segments of the other party to create major policy change. These landmark changes ranged from New Deal programs through the Clean Air Act and some redirection of federal money through “revenue sharing” to state and local governments. Especially during this time, the notion of genuinely unified, “responsible” parties was a longed-for vision, thought to bring the kind of accountability that proponents felt a democracy needed. Only the institutional rules were in the way.6

    Since that time, Americans have experienced more internally unified parties, which are more capable of bridging the separation of powers and holding majorities together. Greater party unity has not led to greater party accountability, however. As Frances E. Lee's Chapter 3 demonstrates, party unity and polarization in a system of checks and balances allows (and perhaps encourages) elected officials and parties to find ways to escape responsibility for their actions. The currently close competition between polarized parties at the national level motivates each party to block the other's initiatives to the point where credit claiming and blame placing become the primary aims of the political process. In this battle between the parties and the Constitution, the public interest loses.

    This will not be an easy problem to address. On one hand, the need to protect the party's “brand name” (discussed further in the next section) could motivate party leaders to act responsibly to safeguard the brand's future “sales.” As Thomas M. Carsey writes in Chapter 23, “Concern about maintaining a party's reputation helps give political leaders some incentive to consider the long-term consequences of their actions in a world that more typically rewards short-term behavior.” This incentive seems to operate at times; in the 2010s, for example, groups within the Republican Party actively debated whether changing the party's stance on immigration might improve its future chances of attracting nonwhites' votes. On the other hand, long-term thinking has been thin on the ground in recent Washington politics. Simply passing a federal budget—a basic task for any governing body—has proved to be almost as difficult as it would be to agree on a state religion.

    Politics, like most people's lives, is driven by short-term conditions. In fact, the writers of the Constitution counted on these short-term conditions to hold elected officials responsive to their constituents. James Madison was reluctant to extend the terms of members of the U.S. House of Representatives from one year to two years for that reason. Madison hoped that very short terms in office would keep these House members ever conscious of the need to listen to what the voters wanted, as a means of increasing their chance of winning the next election.

    Yet Madison and others understood that short-term thinking must be balanced by longer-term judgment to sustain a government. So they created a legislative branch that also included an upper house: a Senate, in which each state selected two members in any manner it chose, to serve much longer terms of office than did House members. The longer terms and more varied constituencies were supposed to make senators better able to consider the long-term national interest. But with primary elections and so many other Progressive proposals, reformers convinced a sufficient number of citizens to overturn the Founders' plans. Senators are now popularly elected, and many other changes in the American political environment, especially the combination of greater income inequality and U.S. Supreme Court decisions permitting unlimited sums to be spent in federal campaigns, have reduced senators' sense of relative political security. The consequence is to shorten their vision, like that of House members, to the nearer term. At least in contemporary American politics, the parties' ability to focus their elected officials on the longer term in order to protect the party's brand may thus be a bridge too far.

    Another of these Progressive reforms, the widespread use of primary elections, has allowed polarization to flourish in recent U.S. politics. Primaries typically have low levels of voter turnout; although reformers were able to double the number of elections per office, they did not succeed in doubling public interest in politics. As a result, these low-participation primaries have been dominated during the past several decades by party activists seeking candidates in the activists' own ideologically pure image. Some states have stopped holding primaries but have replaced them by even more purist-dominated, low-participation caucuses. Reforms of primary elections to encourage the success of more moderate candidates have not shown much success so far. The most obvious corrective to ideological polarization is for primary voters to reject extremist candidates. But that will take place only if the current activist pool is replaced by partisans who are tired of claiming moral high ground and instead want to win elections. In all these ways, the parties' capability of coordinating a fragmented government and producing majorities to pass policies has been shown to be limited.

    Holding Leaders Accountable

    The final challenge involves whether the parties have made it possible for citizens to hold their elected leaders responsible for government decisions, without requiring more information and effort than citizens find it rational to exert. Setting aside the thorny debates about whether all citizens deserve to have equal say in the choice of their representatives, do the parties encourage citizen participation in elections and help citizens understand what kind of governance they will be getting if they make a particular vote choice? Marc J. Hetherington's Chapter 18 shows that the major parties' brand names make it easier for a citizen to determine which candidate for any particular office is more likely to share the citizen's views or favor the social-demographic groups to which a citizen belongs. The fact that most Americans hold a party identification, though it varies in strength and predictive power from election to election, suggests that large numbers of citizens value this cost-cutting tool. And the increased polarization of the major parties has given these brand names more clearly differentiated policy content—labeling Democrats as liberals and Republicans as conservatives—which improves voters' ability to predict what a given candidate stands for. That is a necessary condition, if not a sufficient one, for holding elected officials responsible.

    Two major concerns limit the American parties' capability of enabling citizens to hold their government accountable. One is the unusually large proportion of Americans who choose not to vote, relative to other democratic nations. National voter turnout in presidential elections has rarely risen above 60 percent in recent years—one of the lowest voter turnout rates among industrialized democracies. Even lower turnout rates are found in congressional, state, and local elections held separately from presidential races and in primaries and initiatives, recalls, and referenda. This comparatively low participation rate does not bother some analysts, who feel that it is enough to permit citizens to vote, and even that a low voter turnout could be healthy for a democracy by muting the voices of those who are not interested or informed enough to bother. Others see it differently, arguing that democratic participation is an educational process that teaches citizens to identify their true political interests and to scrutinize candidate and party appeals.7 From this perspective, low voter turnout suggests a failure to educate.

    Many “usual suspects” are summoned to explain the comparatively low voter turnout rates in American elections. First on the list, typically, are the institutional barriers unique to the United States, such as the adoption of a voter registration system requiring prospective participants to fill out a registration form weeks prior to the election.8 To fulfill the voter registration requirement adopted as a part of the Progressive reforms of the late 1800s and early 1900s (see Jamie L. Carson's Chapter 2 and Jeffrey D. Grynaviski's Chapter 7), prospective voters usually have to locate the appropriate registration site, travel there (typically at least a month prior to the height of the campaign season), and complete a bureaucratic task that bears little resemblance to a choice among candidates. When people move, they usually have to repeat the process in their new voting district. That puts the onus of registering to vote on the individual. In the United States now, where advance registration is required in forty of the fifty states, about one-third of Americans have not registered to vote.

    How do other industrialized democracies compile voter lists without requiring advance registration? Their governments take on the task of producing a list of eligible voters, drawn from national identity cards or a national register of citizens maintained by a government agency (for instance, the national health insurance system) or local governments. Many Americans, however, object to the idea of such government registries; individual privacy and freedom are more central to American cultural values than to those of many other democracies.9

    A great deal of research shows that American registration requirements reduce voter turnout by up to 10 percentage points.10 In addition, most American elections are held on a weekday—a work day—whereas most other democracies hold elections on weekends, when prospective voters have more free time to get to the polls. That these institutional requirements reduce voter turnout would not come as a surprise to the people who initiated them. Registration requirements were designed at least in part to limit the ability of the immigrant-dominated urban political machines to bring large numbers of their dependents to the polls. Many other election rules were also intended to restrict participation. Democratic-dominated state legislatures in the southern states worked effectively for most of a century to deny the rights of (Republican-leaning) black Americans, and often poor white and migrant laborers as well, to take part in party primaries and general elections. More recently, Republican national and state parties have disproportionately increased the cost of voting for some types of Democratic-leaning demographic groups by requiring various types of identification to be shown at the polls—identifications that some social groups such as unemployed and disabled people, blacks, and Latinos are systematically less likely to have (because, for instance, someone who can't afford a car is unlikely to have a driver's license).11

    These institutional rules were usually devised by state legislatures dominated by one party aiming to disadvantage the other party by limiting the voting rights of its supporters. The parties have other means of influencing voter turnout as well. Turnout generally declined in presidential elections from 1960 to 2000, at a time when parties were spending less of their resources on door-to-door canvassing, which is generally regarded as the most effective way to get people to the polls.12 The parties may not have had much of a choice; the increasing mobilization of women into jobs outside the home reduced the available pool of canvassers for local party organizations. Candidates and parties put the bulk of their campaign money into expensive television advertising instead. As the national parties came to realize the effectiveness of in-person, door-to-door contact in getting voters to the polls during the early 2000s, and a new source of canvassers was available to be mobilized—those drawn to politics by their commitment to certain issues and strong partisan polarization—presidential election turnout went up. But canvassing is most likely to mobilize citizens who already have at least some engagement with or interest in party politics.

    As can be seen in each of these cases, the concern is not only that the parties have failed to bring large numbers of citizens into the electorate but that the parties' voter engagement efforts have been aimed at some types of citizens rather than others. Party activists, who take leading roles in a party's electioneering, tend to be better educated, wealthier, and more extreme in their issue preferences than the average citizen. Those most active in the parties hold different issue priorities from other citizens as well. Wealthier and better educated individuals are more likely to care about quality-of-life issues (environment, education, abortion), whereas lower-socioeconomic status people are more likely to focus on jobs and economic survival.13 The wealthier, better educated strong partisans would naturally try to mobilize other voters who share their values and who are thus likely to share their social-demographic characteristics as well.

    If party mobilization efforts have not done a good job of bringing poorer and less-educated Americans to the polls, neither have other political forces. For a variety of historical reasons, the United States has not developed a major working-class party to mobilize workers into politics, and the American labor movement's share of the labor force is in steep decline. With it has come a decline in voter participation that disproportionately affects less-educated, lower-income people (see Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash's Chapter 1). Citizens with postgraduate degrees are more than twice as likely to vote as are people who didn't finish high school. People with higher incomes (over $100,000 a year) are about 30 percentage points more likely to cast a ballot than are people with incomes under $11,000. Areas and groups with higher rates of voter turnout are more likely to get the attention of their representatives in Congress.14 After all, why should members of Congress be as concerned about the issues of importance to twentysome-things as they are about the issues that matter to the elderly, when they know that people aged sixty-five to seventy-four years are about 25 percentage points more likely to go to the polls and vote on their candidacies as are people aged eighteen to twenty years? As Carsey writes in Chapter 23, those who participate get listened to.

    A number of states have passed reform legislation that could increase registration and voting among lower-income people. These range from the “motor voter” law permitting voter registration in offices providing government social services to no-excuse absentee voting, so that some state parties can mail ballots to all registered voters in advance of election day. Yet most research suggests that these reforms have had only modest impact on diversifying the electorate.15 Neither these institutional changes, nor the parties' self-interest, nor their concern with voter mobilization, it seems, has led most party organizations to try bringing larger numbers of less-represented groups to the polls. Even the highly touted success of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns in increasing turnout among Latino and black Americans has been discounted by many strategists who argue that the increases could have been produced only by a minority candidate and that party efforts at a more diverse turnout would not work in the case of a nonminority at the top of the ballot. In fact, black turnout fell below that of whites in 2010, when President Obama was not running.

    Analysts should be concerned about American parties' lack of success in diversifying the electorate. If the current party system amplifies the voices of some types of people much more strongly than others, then the concern of many of the American Founders that parties are by their very nature “parts” of the whole—reflections of the needs and wants of only a segment of the population, often in conflict with the interests of the larger community—was well founded. Perhaps lower-income, less-educated Americans fail to see politics as a possible remedy for their problems because they receive less information about politics, or value this information less, due to more pressing concerns about day-to-day survival. Perhaps they are more likely to receive political information from “soft news” programming (see Chapter 28), which fails to enlighten viewers about the real impact of public policies on their lives. Yet these explanations don't help to explain why voter turnout among less-advantaged citizens, in addition to voter turnout overall, is lower in the United States than in many other industrial democracies.

    An alternative explanation is that the agenda of contemporary American party politics is less in tune with the needs and interests of less-advantaged citizens than is the case in many European nations—that disadvantaged Americans are pulling away from a national political debate that centers on topics they don't find relevant to their lives. In moving away from the less-distinguishable party platforms of the 1950s, the major parties may have grown so far apart in policy views that they reflect the concerns of the more extreme and the more affluent to a greater degree than those of poor and working-class people. Some researchers find nonvoters to be somewhat more liberal than voters on issues of welfare and economic redistribution, though others show few significant differences in policy preferences between voters and nonvoters.16 But even if nonvoters and voters were in perfect agreement on issues, the systematic social-demographic distortion in voter turnout deprives several groups of people—Latinos, Asian Americans, people in poverty, those under thirty years of age, and those especially residentially mobile—of the learning experience that democratic participation provides.

    One of the most serious criticisms of the democratic capabilities of the American parties is leveled by Lawrence R. Jacobs in Chapter 31. The data on recent increases in economic inequality in the United States, greater than during the period from the 1930s to 1973 and greater than in comparable European democracies, are hard to dispute. Jacobs and others have effectively argued that the American major parties have done little to prevent this inequality and, in fact, have often contributed to it.17 This is a serious indictment of the parties as democratizing forces in American politics and society. To many, parties are the institutions designed to prevent the hijacking of the political system's tangible, economic rewards by those who have greater resources than does the average citizen.18 Their reasoning is that although other resources will inevitably be distributed unequally in virtually any society, the vote is distributed equally—one person, one vote. Given that the parties need pluralities, if not majorities, to win elections, they are more motivated than most other political actors to pay attention to the concerns of all those with the right to vote, though many of these voters may have nothing else of value to offer prospective power holders. But disparities among groups in voter mobilization and turnout suggest that the party system has as yet failed to mitigate the growing economic inequality among Americans and, in fact, has helped to heighten those inequalities.

    How, then, is it possible to defend political parties as vital instruments of democracy, as so many of the authors in this volume do? One explanation is that the parties' democratic capabilities are real but have been undermined by rulings governing campaign finance. Ever since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has punched loopholes in the limited congressional efforts to level the playing field with respect to who can contribute to a federal campaign. The Court issued a sweeping decision in 2010 (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) permitting corporations and labor unions to spend money from their own treasuries directly on political and campaign ads at any point in the election cycle (see Paul S. Herrnson's Chapter 15).19 The campaign finance arms race had begun long before Citizens United, but the decision further disarmed the forces trying to keep huge quantities of interested money out of American elections. Interestingly, the financial free-for-all of American campaigns is not found in Britain, France, Germany, or other industrialized democracies, all of which have somewhat more limited guarantees of free speech and limit campaign spending to what would be considered pocket change in the United States. In many other democratic systems, even the content of candidates' advertising is regulated. In Japan, for instance, parties can purchase television advertising only to present material about issues and policies and cannot refer to the names or records of specific candidates. Other nations, including France, do not allow public opinion surveys to be published within a given period before an election, on the assumption that this knowledge might discourage some prospective voters from going to the polls. These limitations would probably be considered unconstitutional in American courts as a violation of the individual right to free speech.20

    On the other hand, for one side in a campaign to be able to promote its candidate using many more ads and other means of persuasion than the opposing side can, simply because the first side represents groups with more money to spend on politics, would seem to violate the norm of fairness in a representative democracy. The side with more money and other resources can thus provide more information and more persuasive appeals to voters. Candidates (such as U.S. House challengers) who are not able to reach an effective financial threshold are unlikely to have a realistic chance of reaching prospective supporters among voters. One could argue that candidates who raise more funds do so because they have more public support. But to permit these disparities adds to the influence of the majority candidate's supporters.

    That these contributions and ads are intended to purchase access, as opposed to simply express the views of the funders, can be easily seen in the fact that the median U.S. House incumbent outspends the median House challenger by a ratio of about twenty to one, and the incumbent advantage is even greater in Senate campaigns.21 Surely the views of individuals associated with the challenger, who represents one of the two major American parties, are not so extraordinarily rare that they would be found in only about 5 percent of all campaign communications. The difference between the incumbent and the challenger is not that one speaks for 95 percent of the constituency and the other holds views common to only 5 percent, but that one stands a great chance of winning, and then casting roll-call votes in Congress on legislation of concern to the campaign contributor, who desires access to that incumbent, and the other doesn't.

    What Happens Next?

    What can Americans expect from party politics in the coming years? Despite National Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra's claim that “it's hard to make predictions, especially about the future,” some predictions are sure bets. One involves the persistence of two-party politics in the United States. Multiparty politics has several attractive features. An array of smaller parties might give more people a choice and a sense that their views are being heard in politics. As Paul A. Beck points out in Chapter 5, it is difficult for two major parties to contain within them all the many interests in a large and extremely diverse population.

    Yet there is little realistic chance that a minor party will rise to the status of a serious contender. Beck shows that American electoral rules (single-member districts, plurality elections with runoffs) encourage a two-party system. Minor parties can arise under these rules, and they have done so at times when the major parties failed to incorporate all the concerns of the voting public, as Chapter 17 shows. Restrictive ballot access laws can be changed. But these “third” parties have not yet become serious contenders for power. Some, like the Reform Party, have faded quickly, and others, such as the Libertarians, have had greater staying power but have never won a major office. Independent candidates have performed better in the short term. It is not short-term success, however, that will alter the nature of the American party system. That would require new parties or independent challengers who can institutionalize their proposals and coalitions and win office over the long term. It is difficult to imagine that the coming decades could produce more unsettling changes or greater disgust with the major parties than have the past 160 years, during which two-partyism has survived.

    Despite the limitations of a two-party system, Hans Noel in Chapter 4 and David Karol in Chapter 10 demonstrate that the two major parties have adapted their views on major issues many times in response to electoral shifts and opportunities. Other chapters have shown the close relationship between the makeup of the parties' coalitions—the particular social-demographic groups that support each party at a given time—and the parties' policy stances.22 Even when a party has moved to attract the support of a group not previously associated with party politics (e.g., environmentalists prior to the 1970s), or previously linked with the other party (e.g., white southerners prior to the civil rights movement) primarily for strategic reasons, the party has soon incorporated the group's main concerns, at least some of its leaders, and its symbols and common language into the party's platform, party leaders' speeches, and the party's other communications such as websites. The party gains more support from the new group by adopting its language and concerns. Then, once the group gains a toehold in the party, it is better able to insist on even more incorporation of its concerns and symbols.

    During the mid to late 1900s, the gradual incorporation of blacks within the Democratic Party and of conservative Christians and other white southerners within the GOP has greatly affected the policy agenda of the parties and American politics more generally. Demographic change continues to challenge both national parties. The greatest demographic shift during the past decade has been the growing populations of Latino or Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. Minorities made up about 37 percent of the American population in 2013. In 2012, for the first time in the history of the American republic, census data showed that a majority of the babies born in the United States were people of color.23 And if immigration reform includes a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants, most of them from Central and South America, then the number of Latino American citizens eligible to vote will grow. To this point, turnout rates among Latino, Hispanic, and Asian Americans have been low: about 45 percent in presidential elections. And the proportion of Latinos who consider themselves independents is higher among younger than older people. If these turnout rates remain low and these groups' partisan independence continues, then change in the parties' demographic coalitions will be slow. But party organizations and candidates could increase their mobilization of these voters over time.

    In recent elections, about seven in ten Latino American voters have supported Democrats for president. Nearly the same proportion of Asian Americans has voted Democratic. Some of this support derives from the major mobilization efforts made by the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. Latino Americans tend to have lower socioeconomic status than white Americans do, and the two parties' differing stands on economic issues should incline Latino voters toward the Democrats. Greater Democratic Party support for a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an issue of real concern to many Latino Americans whose family members may be affected by immigration policy, should also push them in a Democratic direction.

    One set of issues could interfere with this trend, however. Many polling firms have found Latino and black Americans to take conservative positions on such issues as abortion, the rights of homosexuals, and other questions of traditional morality. These tendencies often reflect the close affiliation between black and Latino Americans and their churches, usually Catholic or evangelical Protestant. To this point, Democratic stands on civil rights and economic issues have overridden Republicans' appeal to black voters on values issues. But if the Republican leadership can use its positions against legalized abortion and same-sex marriage to peel off the more morally conservative and religious segments of the Latino community, the GOP success rate could improve. Most polls show that although abortion and homosexuality gain a great deal of media attention, they are not among the issues most Americans cite as most important.24 But previous research has shown that these issues can be more salient and more likely to act as partisan drivers within some groups.25

    Political leaders' personalities and records often have more influence on the attitudes and partisanship of groups that are younger, more independent, and newer to the electorate. Younger Latinos and Hispanics tend to hold a much higher approval rating of President Obama than do non-Hispanic whites.26 But as Vladimir Kogan points out in Chapter 13, Latinos and Asians seem not to have developed as strong a sense of partisanship as did previous immigrant groups. Will their approval of Obama transfer fully to the next Democratic presidential nominee, especially if he or she is not a person of color, and in particular if his or her Republican opponent is Hispanic or Latino?

    Change can also be expected in the nature of party organizations. Party organizational change over time has been closely related to changes in the technology, settlement patterns, and communication networks of the nation as a whole. All three of these forces are currently changing. Thus, it is not likely that the modern party organizations and their relative localism compared with most other democracies will remain constant. Many observers have wondered whether the development of super PACs and other nonparty groups will come to replace the party organizations as the real funders and directors of campaigns. As Herrnson's Chapter 15 indicates, these groups have quickly come to rival the party organizations' fund-raising and spending, especially since Citizens United. Yet the parties' adaptability to changing conditions is legendary (see Daniel J. Galvin's Chapter 14). If the adoption of primary elections, the decline of the political machines, and the rise of television and computers as alternative means to reach citizens have not destroyed the major parties' organizations, then it is not likely that super PACs will be able to do so.

    Summing Up

    As most of the chapters in this volume underscore, on balance, the parties have been a major force in furthering representative democracy in the United States. The constitutional system set up by Madison, Jefferson, and their coworkers has done a remarkable job in protecting Americans from tyranny by their own government. It has, in the process, also placed major hurdles in the way of responsive and responsible leadership. Political parties are organizations primarily concerned with getting what their supporting coalitions want: benefits for the various organized groups that give the party its activists, its contributions, and its driving force. At many points in U.S. history, these party efforts to benefit their supporters have resulted in benefits for the nation as a whole as well. An ongoing, reasonably stable system of candidate selection is among these benefits. So is the creation of majorities in governmental bodies at the state, local, and national levels and means of providing preoccupied citizens with shortcuts to determine which candidates will speak for the citizen's interests in those governmental bodies.

    With the benefits come costs, however. Self-interest—even the interests of large social-demographic or issue groups—does not always translate directly into community interest. Democratic citizens must have the opportunity to learn how their individual concerns affect the concerns of other individuals and how their short-term desires affect their long-term collective needs. As means of education as well as representation, political parties often fall short. Their need for victories in the upcoming election will almost always outweigh their longer-range vision. Parties' need for votes is increasingly balanced by their desire for campaign money, and the parties' money tends to come from the wealthier and more politically extreme activists. That is likely to make the wealthier, activist subset of voters increasingly more important to the parties than is the much larger group of citizens with fewer resources and more economic needs. And the limited political involvement of less-active citizens makes their voting choices less predictable. Thus, mobilizing these less-involved individuals is more of a gamble for parties and candidates deciding where to allocate their scarce resources.

    But no matter how much the parties' behavior can disappoint, a humble example demonstrates their indispensability to American political life. Former U.S. representative Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., wrote in 2013,

    When I served in the House decades ago and the “farm bill” came up, stitching a successful piece of legislation together depended on getting five organizations to find common ground … get them to agree on what the bill ought to look like, and we had a measure that could pass. This year, … after the House of Representatives sent the first version down to defeat, no fewer than 532 organizations signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to bring a bill back to the floor as soon as possible. The array of groups was striking. The Farm Bureau signed on, but so did avocado growers and peach canners, beekeepers and archers, conservationists of all sorts, and huge businesses like Agri-Mark.27

    As the American economy and society become more diverse and discordant, the story of the farm bill has echoes in the effort to find mutually acceptable answers to, quite literally, thousands of problems important to various interests.

    One could ask whether government is the best place to look for these answers, but it is not easy to identify any alternative mechanisms for dealing with large-scale conflict. The question then becomes how to control the government. What methods do citizens have to stand at least a chance of uniting with enough others to be heard by those with power in a way that helps them clarify their choices and learn whether their preferences have been followed? These chapters study political parties so closely not because parties are the best means of meeting the needs of citizens in a democracy; their failings have long been obvious. Analysts examine political parties because when 532 lobbying groups try to protect their own interests in the congressional effort to develop a farm bill, and the “public interest” is defined differently by each member of the public, institutions such as political parties cannot be avoided. In the end, then, political parties are the primary means of keeping a democracy workable.


    1. CNN/ORC poll released June 17, 2013, at

    2. See, for example, chapters in Michael P. McDonald and John D. Samples, eds., The Marketplace of Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006).

    3. The figures come from analyst Nate Silver in “So Few Swing Districts, So Little Compromise,” New York Times, December 28, 2012, p. A16.

    4. Marjorie Randon Hershey, “How American Election Law and Institutions Cripple Third Parties,” in Law and Election Politics: The Rules of the Game, ed. Matthew J. Streb (New York: Routledge, 2012), 208–229.

    5. Ballot Access News,

    6. See Austin Ranney, The Doctrine of Responsible Party Government: Its Origins and Present State (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

    7. See, for example, Benjamin Highton and Raymond E. Wolfinger, “The Political Implication of Higher Turnout,” British Journal of Political Science 31, no. 1 (2001): 179–192.

    8. On voter registration, see Steven J. Rosenstone and Raymond E. Wolfinger, “The Effect of Registration Laws on Turnout,” American Political Science Review 72, no. 1 (1978): 22–45; but see also Michael J. Hanmer, Discount Voting: Voter Registration Reforms and Their Effects (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

    9. For instance, a Pew Research study reported that 58 percent of Americans responded that they felt everyone having the freedom to pursue their life's goals without state interference was more important than the state playing an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need. This compared with only 30 percent to 38 percent of respondents in Britain, Germany, France, and Spain. See “The American-Western European Values Gap,” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, February 29, 2012, at

    10. Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone, Who Votes? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 74.

    11. See Tova Andrea Wang, The Politics of Voter Suppression: Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

    12. See Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, Get Out the Vote! 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

    13. Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), especially chap. 14.

    14. See, for example, Paul S. Martin, “Voting's Rewards,” American Journal of Political Science 47, no. 1 (2003): 110–127.

    15. See, for instance, Highton and Wolfinger, “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout,” and, for a summary, Benjamin Highton, “Voter Registration and Turnout in the United States,” Perspectives on Politics 2, no. 3 (2004): 507–515.

    16. Christopher R. Ellis, Joseph Daniel Ura, and Jenna Ashley-Robinson, “The Dynamic Consequences of Nonvoting in American National Elections,” Political Research Quarterly 59, no. 2 (2006): 227–233.

    17. See also Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

    18. See the discussion in Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

    19. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

    20. John Sides, Daron Shaw, Matt Grossman, and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns & Elections: Rules, Reality, Strategy, Choice (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 380.

    21. See Marjorie Randon Hershey, Party Politics in America, 16th ed. (New York: Pearson, forthcoming), chap. 12.

    22. See, for example, Hershey, Party Politics in America, chap. 7, and David Karol, Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

    23. Carol Morello and Ted Mellnik, “Census: Minority Babies Are Now Majority in United States,” Washington Post, May 17, 2012, p. A1.

    24. Lydia Saad, “Abortion Is Threshold Issue for One in Six U.S. Voters,”, October 4, 2012, at

    25. Greg D. Adams, “Abortion: Evidence of an Issue Evolution,” American Journal of Political Science 41, no. 3 (July 1997): 718–737.

    26. Frank Newport and Joy Wilke, “Hispanics of All Ages Tilt Democratic,”, July 15, 2013, at

    27. Lee H. Hamiton, “Why Governing Is So Difficult,” Comments on Congress newsletter, Indiana University Center on Congress, July 24, 2013.

    Suggested Reading
    Abramowitz, Alan I.The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
    Bartels, Larry M.Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
    Beck, Paul Allen, Russell J.Dalton, StevenGreene, and RobertHuckfeldt. “The Social Calculus of Voting: Interpersonal, Media, and Organizational Influences on Presidential Choices.” American Political Science Review96, no. 1 (2002): 57–73.
    Burden, Barry C.Personal Roots of Representation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
    Duverger, Maurice. Political Parties. New York: John Wiley, 1954.
    Gilens, Martin. Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
    Herrnson, Paul S., and John C.Green, eds. Multiparty Politics in America.
    2nd ed.
    Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
    Hershey, Marjorie Randon. Party Politics in America.
    16th ed
    . New York: Pearson, forthcoming.
    Karol, David. Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
    Michels, Robert. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1962.
    Noel, Hans. Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
    Ranney, Austin. Curing the Mischiefs of Faction: Party Reform in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
    Rapoport, Ronald B., and Walter J.Stone. Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
    Rosenstone, Steven J., Roy L.Behr, and Edward H.Lazarus. Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
    Schlozman, Kay Lehman, SidneyVerba, and Henry E.Brady. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
    Stonecash, Jeff. Class and Party in American Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
    Wolbrecht, Christina. The Politics of Women's Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

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