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Political Parties in the United States

Political Parties in the Electorate

Development of the Two-Party System

A two-party system developed early in the United States as a result of disagreement over how much power the national government should have, and two-party politics have persisted with the Democratic and Republican Parties dominating political life since the 1850s.

A political party is an organized group or association that seeks to attract members, field like-minded candidates, and direct government policymaking. George Washington, who served as the first president of the United States, warned against "organized factions," or political parties, in his Farewell Address of 1796. Washington believed such factions fostered a "baneful [seriously harmful]," divisive spirit. Yet the beginnings of the first American political parties can be traced to Washington's administration. While the identity—and the positions—of the major political parties have changed over time, U.S. politics has been largely dominated by the contest between two political parties from the early years of the republic.

Political parties as we know them today developed in the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party grew out of Andrew Jackson's belief that common people, as opposed to the wealthy, should have more say in government. In the modern era, the Democratic Party is one of the two major political parties in the United States, typically more liberal in political ideology. Democrats tend to accept a greater role for government in people's lives. The Republican Party was formally founded in 1854 when several groups combined to oppose slavery. Six years later, the Republicans won the presidency when Abraham Lincoln was elected. The modern Republican Party is one of the two major political parties in the United States, typically more conservative in political ideology. Republicans tend to prefer low taxes and less government.

At the most basic level, parties seek to attract people to support their candidates. When citizens register to vote, they are generally given the option of registering as the member of a party or as an independent. Those who join a party as official members are called the rank and file. As party members, they can participate in party functions, such as meetings where candidates are nominated for office, though only the most committed members do so. They can vote in all primary elections, even those that are closed to nonparty members. A primary election is an election in which voters select the candidates who will run in the general election.

Party Identification

More voters have tended to identify as Democrats than Republicans, but the intensity of voter identification varies, and a substantial minority of the electorate is independent.

Party identification, an individual's loyalty to a particular political party, is developed in a number of ways. First, a child may be influenced by the partisan affiliation of his or her parents. There may also be environmental factors, such as the partisan lean of the neighborhood, town, or state where an individual is raised. Individuals also may identify with a particular party based on their stances on a range of issues. As people age and their life circumstances or experiences change, or as the parties themselves change, a person's party identification may change over time.

Political scientists seeking to understand partisan behavior divide citizens into three groups. Strong party identifiers consider themselves closely aligned with the party's goals and principles. People in the "strong" categories for a party are also described as that party's base—the group of voters who almost always support a particular party's candidates. These party identifiers are most likely to vote in party primaries. Many political analysts believe that the outsize role that members of the base play in primaries has contributed to increased polarization of American politics in which extreme differences in positions between the two major political parties have appeared and are strongly held. For example, the base—which strictly adheres to the party's ideology—may insist on the ideological purity of their candidates. When the bases of both parties behave in this way, the candidates they nominate are more likely to be further apart on where they stand on important issues and less able to compromise on government action.

Weak party members tend to identify and agree with a party's ideas and candidates but show more flexibility. They may split their ticket when voting, voting for members of their party for some offices and for members of another party for other offices. Because they are less committed to the party than the base members, they may also choose not to vote in primary elections but only in general elections. A person in the "independent" category for each party is called a leaner, a nonaligned voter who tends to favor the programs and candidates of a particular political party but does not firmly identify with that party.

Some individuals are purely independent, a voter who chooses not to align with any political party. Studies show that these voters are independent for three major reasons. First, they believe that the two major parties care more about special interests than about average Americans. Second, they agree with Republicans on some issues but with Democrats on others. Third, they do not trust either party.

Party Identification from 1972 to 2012

Category 1972 1980 1988 1996 2004 2012
Strong Democrat 15% 18% 18% 18% 17% 20%
Weak Democrat 25% 23% 18% 19% 16% 15%
Independent Democrat 11% 11% 12% 14% 17% 12%
Independent Independent 15% 15% 12% 10% 10% 14%
Independent Republican 10% 10% 13% 12% 12% 12%
Weak Republican 13% 14% 14% 15% 12% 12%
Strong Republican 10% 9% 14% 12% 16% 15%

Source: Data from The American National Election Studies