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Political Parties in the United States



Political parties are organized groups that seek office so they can direct the policy making of government. In the United States, two major parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—have dominated politics since the 1850s. Political parties are active at the national, state, and local levels, nominating candidates for election, developing platforms of policy positions, raising funds, and shaping legislation and policy. Each major party has regional and demographic strengths and weaknesses. Key issues on which the Democrats and Republicans usually differ include taxation, government's role in the economy, abortion rights, health care, criminal justice, and national security. From time to time, third parties have influenced the outcome of presidential elections. However, third parties have found it difficult to overcome institutional barriers.

At A Glance

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Political parties are organized at the local, state, and national levels, where they work to develop a platform of party positions on policy issues, choose candidates for office, and then strive to ensure that their candidates are elected.
  • The party in government works to have the party's agenda enacted or to block or modify undesired policies of the other party.
  • Democrats have strong support in urban areas and along the coasts, except in the southeast. Republicans have strong support in the South, the interior, and more rural areas. Democrats are strong among minorities and women, while Republicans have more support among whites, men, evangelical Christians, and those with the highest incomes.
  • While there are differences in issue positions within each party, Republicans favor a smaller role for government in general and for the federal government in particular. Democrats favor a larger government role and tend to favor federal over state power.
  • Though the U.S. political system has been dominated by two major parties, third parties have played significant roles at various points in U.S. history. Third-party ideas can be adopted by the major party and turned into policy, and third-party candidates have impacted several presidential elections.
  • Third-party campaigns can be regional or national in focus and can be based primarily on ideology or on the appeal of a particular candidate.
  • Third-party campaigns have difficulty challenging the two parties' grip on power due to institutional and political barriers, including difficulties being listed on the ballot, gaining media attention, and raising money. In addition, the system of simple majority elections in single-member districts favors the two major parties.