Political Parties: What are they and how do they function?

Symbols of the two major political parties in the U.S.--an elephant and a donkey Symbols of the two major political parties in the U.S.: the Republican Party symbolized by the elephant and the Democratic Party by the donkey. (Credit: modification of work--Rooster Teeth "Political Party Symbol Change" at http://roosterteeth.com/forum/politics-%26-current-events/topic/2232075)

Learning Objectives: Political parties

  • Describe political parties and what they do.
  • Describe the effects of winner-take-all elections.
  • Compare plurality and proportional representation.
  • Describe the institutional, legal, and social forces that limit the number of parties.
  • Discuss the concepts of party alignment and realignment.

While people love to criticize political parties, the reality is that the modern political system could not exist without them.

Collective action problems are very common in societies, as groups and entire societies try to solve problems or distribute scarce resources. There are many groups, all with opinions about what should be done and a desire to influence policy. But at some point, a society must find a way of taking all these opinions and turning them into solutions to real problems. That is where political parties come in.

Political parties are organized groups of people with similar ideas or ideology about the function and scope of government, with shared policy goals that work together to elect individuals to political office, to create and implement policies, to further an agenda, and to gain control of the government and the policy-making process. Parties gain control over the government by winning elections with candidates they officially sponsor or nominate for positions in government. Political parties nominate candidates to run many levels of government including the national level, Congress, and the presidency; but, they nominate for state and local levels as well. They also coordinate political campaigns and mobilize voters.

In Federalist No. 10, written in the late eighteenth century, James Madison noted that the formation of self-interested groups, which he called factions, was both natural and inevitable in any society. Interest groups and political parties are two of the most easily identified forms of faction in the United States.

consider the original

|| Federalist No. 10 || 

The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

From the New York Packet.

Friday, November 23, 1787.

James Madison

[...] liberty, which is essential to political life, [...] nourishes faction, [...] the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man [...] a zeal for different opinions concerning [...] government [...] an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power [...] have, in turn, divided mankind [...][35]

Political parties are points of access/linkage institutions available to the public, though they are not themselves government institutions. Neither interest groups nor political parties are directly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Where interest groups often work indirectly to influence our leaders, political parties are organizations that try to directly influence public policy through nominating and officially sponsoring members who seek to win and hold public office. This is a key difference. Interest groups do not officially nominate or nominate candidates for public office, although they may support them politically and even contribute dollars to their campaign.

Parties accomplish this by identifying and aligning sets of issues that are important to voters in the hopes of gaining support during elections. In this respect, parties provide choices to the electorate, something they are doing that is in sharp contrast to their opposition. These positions on these critical issues are often presented in campaign documents or political advertising. During a national presidential campaign, they also frequently reflect the party platform, which is adopted at each party’s presidential nominating convention every four years.

If successful, a party can create a large enough electoral coalition to gain control of the government. Once in power, the party is much more likely to be able to deliver, to its voters, the policy preferences they choose by electing its partisans to the government.Political parties organize political campaigns to win public office for those they nominate.

link to learningYou can read the full platform of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party at their respective websites.  Or, check out the Green Party at http://www.gp.org/platform and the Libertarian Party at https://www.lp.org/platform/.

Chart reviewing the functions of political parties--nomination, organization, education and coordination.

Party Ideology and Polarization

Political parties exist for the purpose of winning elections in order to influence public policy. This requires them to build coalitions across a wide range of voters who share similar preferences. As identified in a prior discussion of political ideology, the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism, while not representing the entire spectrum of U.S. political ideologies are predominately concentrated where conservatives find their major home in the Republican Party while liberals primarily associate with the Democrat Party. In considering libertarianism and populism, these ideologies historically add many libertarians to the Republican ranks and many populists to the Democrat ranks.

The 2016 election offered a partial variation to this general pattern with a not insignificant number of those adhering to populist viewpoints voting for the Republican Party standard bearer, Donald Trump.

This chart illustrates the general distribution of party and ideological adherence. This chart illustrates the general distribution of party and ideological adherence.

Since most U.S. voters identify as moderates,[36] the historical tendency has been for the two parties to compete for "the middle" while also trying to mobilize their more loyal bases. 

Using the chart above, it might be assumed that the two parties would try to appeal to voters toward the center where ideological lines intersect. However, there is evidence that the political party adherents (symbolized in the chart above by party shape) are moving farther apart, making appeals to moderates more difficult. Today, polling agencies have noticed that citizens’ beliefs have become far more polarized, or widely opposed, over the last decade.[37]

To track this polarization, Pew Research conducted a study of Republican and Democratic respondents over a twenty-five-year span. Every few years, Pew would poll respondents, asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements. These statements are referred to as "value questions" or "value statements," because they measure what the respondent values. Examples of statements include "Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good," "Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person," and "Society should ensure all have equal opportunity to succeed." After comparing such answers for twenty-five years, Pew Research found that Republican and Democratic respondents are increasingly answering these questions very differently. This is especially true for questions about the government and politics. In 1987, 58 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that the government controlled too much of our daily lives. In 2012, 47 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement. This is an example of polarization, in which members of one party see government from a very different perspective than the members of the other party.[38]

Chart shows the widening partisan differences in political values between 1987 and 2012. In the center of the chart is a vertical axis line. On the right side of the line are the years 1987 through 2012 marked with ticks. On the left side of the line are percentages, labeled Over the years, Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart in their beliefs about the role of government. In 1987, Republican and Democratic answers to forty-eight values questions differed by an average of only 10 percent, but that difference has grown to 18 percent over the last twenty-five years.

According to some scholars, shifts led partisanship to become more polarized than in previous decades, as more citizens began thinking of themselves as conservative or liberal rather than moderate.[39]

Consider the Original

Excerpt from a Transcript of President George Washington's Farewell Address (1796)

[...] All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion [...].[40]

Critical Elections and Realignment

If voters’ preferences remained stable for long periods of time, and if both parties did a good job of competing for their votes, we could expect Republicans and Democrats to be reasonably competitive in any given election. Election outcomes would probably be based on the way voters compared the parties on the most important events of the day rather than on electoral strategy.\

There are many reasons we would be wrong in these expectations, however. First, the electorate is not entirely stable. Each generation of voters has been a bit different from the last.

It sometimes happens that over a series of elections, parties may be unable or unwilling to adapt their positions to broader socio-demographic or economic forces. Parties need to be aware when society changes. If leaders refuse to recognize that public opinion has changed, the party is unlikely to win in the next election. Groups that have felt that the party has served their causes in the past may decide to look elsewhere if they feel their needs are no longer being met. Either way, the party system will be upended as a result of a party realignment, or a shifting of party allegiances within the electorate.[41]

The 1932 election is considered an example of a critical election, one that represents a sudden, clear, and long-term shift in voter allegiances. Roosevelt won the election with almost 58% of the popular vote and 472 electoral votes, compared to incumbent Herbert Hoover's 59 electoral votes.

After this election, for many years, the political parties were largely identified as being divided by differences in their members' socio-economic status. Those who favor stability of the current political and economic system tended to vote Republican, whereas those who would most benefit from changing the system usually favored Democrat candidates. Based on this alignment, the Democratic Party won the nixt 5 consecutive presidential elections and was able to build a political coalition that dominated Congress into the 1990s, including holding an uninterrupted majority in the House of Representatives from 1954 to 1994.

The realignment of the parties did have consequences for Democrats. African Americans became an increasingly important part of the Democratic coalition in the 1940s through the 1960s, as the party took steps to support civil rights.[42] This impacted a critical element of the 1932 FDR Democratic party coalition--the solid south support for the party. Most changes were limited to the state level at first, but as civil rights reform moved to the national stage, rifts between northern liberal Democrats and southern conservative Democrats began to emerge.[43] Southern Democrats became increasingly convinced that national efforts to provide social welfare and encourage racial integration were violating state sovereignty and social norms. By the 1970s, many had begun to shift their allegiance to the Republican Party, whose conservative ideology shared their opposition to the growing encroachment of the national government into what they viewed as state and local matters.[44]
Almost fifty years after it had begun, a realignment of the two political parties resulted in the flipping of post-Civil War allegiances, with urban areas and the Northeast now solidly Democratic, and the South and rural areas overwhelmingly voting Republican. The result today is a political system that provides Republicans with considerable advantages in rural areas and most parts of the South.[45] Democrats dominate urban politics and those parts of the South, known as the Black Belt, where the majority of residents are African American. However, there is no single critical election that led to this current alignment of political parties. It happened gradually, but especially after the 1968 election.[46]
Most elections are not critical elections, but are known as maintaining elections in which the coalitions of population groups and geographic regions supporting one political party's presidential candidate over the other party's candidate remain somewhat stable. Even in these types of elections political analysts will look for shifts form previous elections. Only if the shifts seem to endure for several elections might it be concluded that another electoral realignment has occurred.

A look at the 2012 presidential election shows how the opinions of different demographic groups vary. For instance, 55 percent of women voted for Barack Obama and 52 percent of men voted for Mitt Romney. Age mattered as well—60 percent of voters under thirty voted for Obama, whereas 56 percent of those over sixty-five voted for Romney. Racial groups also varied in their support of the candidates. Ninety-three percent of African Americans and 71 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama instead of Romney.[47] Conversely, 59% of white voters supported Romney.

A group of charts show how groups voted in the 2012 presidential election. When divided by sex, 45% of men voted for Obama, and 52% voted for Romney, while 55% of women voted for Obama and 44% voted for Romney. When divided by race, 39% of whites voted for Obama while 59% voted for Romney; 93% of African Americans voted for Obama; 73% of Asians voted for Obama while 26% voted for Romney; 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama while 27% voted for Romney; and 58% of “Other” voted for Obama while 38% voted for Romney. When divided by age, 60% of 18-29 year olds voted for Obama, while 37% voted for Romney; 52% of 30-44 year olds voted for Obama, while 45% voted for Romney; 47% of 45-64 year olds voted for Obama while 51% voted for Romney; and 44% of “65 and over” voted for Obama while 56% voted for Romney. When divided by income, 60% of those who made under $50,000 voted for Obama while 38% voted for Romney; 46% of those who earned between $50,000 and $90,000 voted for Obama and 52% voted for Romney; and 44% of those making more than $100,000 voted for Obama and 54% voted for Romney. When divided by education, 64% who received some high school education voted for Obama while 35% voted for Romney; 50% of high school graduates voted for Obama, while 48% voted for Romney; 49% of students who received some college education voted for Obama, while 48% voted for Romney; 47% of college graduates voted for Obama while 51% voted for Romney; and 55% of students who received postgraduate study voted for Obama, while 42% voted for Romney. When divided by party, 92% of Democrats voted for Obama, and 93% of Republicans voted for Romney. 45% of Independents voted for Obama and 50% voted for Romney. At the bottom of the chart, a source is cited: “Roper Center, University of Connecticut. “How Groups Voted in 2012.” January 10, 2013”.
Breaking down voters by demographic groups may reveal very different levels of support for particular candidates or policies among the groups.

The 2012 election results show clear advantages for Democratic candidates among women, indicating a gender gap between the parties. In 2012, those with the least education and those with the most education (post-graduate study) tended to vote democratic. This pattern also existed among the least educated and those with the least yearly income.

Over time, the United States has become more socially liberal, especially on topics related to race and gender, and millennials—those aged 18–34—are more liberal than members of older generations and have shown a pattern of voting democratic.[48] The electorate’s economic preferences have changed, and different social groups are likely to become more engaged in politics now than they did in the past. Surveys conducted in 2016, for example, revealed that candidates’ religion is less important to voters than it once was. Also, as young Latinos reach voting age, they seem more inclined to vote than do their parents, which may raise the traditionally low voting rates among this ethnic group.[49] Internal population shifts and displacements have also occurred, as various regions have taken their turn experiencing economic growth or stagnation, and as new waves of immigrants have come to U.S. shores.

Based upon data from the National Exit Poll, the 2016 election showed both continuity and change in voting among socio-economic groups. It is obviously way too early to determine whether the changes are permanent leading to a new voting coalition for the Republican Party or rather an exception to normal voting patterns.[50]

In 2016, the gender gap continued among voters with Democrat Hillary Clinton winning females 54% to 41%, but Democrats continued to show weakness among males with Clinton losing to Trump 41% to 52%. If anything, the losing gap among males has widened for Democrats.[51]

While voting among the 18-24 age group still significantly favored the Democratic candidate (56% to 34%), this margin was down from 2012 when candidate Barak Obama received 60% of this group's votes.[52]

One of the most significant 2016 changes occurred when comparing voting by educational background. Democrats continued, in fact increased, their positive margins with those having post-graduate study; but, they also increased among the college educated. A very traditional democratic group--those with high school education or less--was lost to Republicans, with Trump gaining 51% of this group. When the data is differentiated by both race and education, the Trump support among those without a college degree was shocking to most analysts. That is, 66% of all whites without college degrees supported Trump and 71% of white, non-college men supported Trump.[53]

While Democrats won the majority of those in the lowest income bracket (under $50,000 per year), the margin dropped by 7%. Also, Democrats maintained their majority among union households, but by a significantly reduced margin.[54]

Following the tradition patter, identified party voters did support their own party's candidate although by a slightly reduced margin, indicating some greater support for third party candidates. Despite a heated nomination fight among Republicans, the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, still received an estimated 88% of all those who identified themselves with the Republican party.[55]

Set of bar graphs illustrating how various groups voted in the 2016 election including breakouts for gender, income, race, age, education, and party affiliation.

How does the two-party system work?

Winning elections and implementing policy would be hard enough in simple political systems, but in a country as complex as the United States, political parties must take on great responsibilities to win elections across the many local, state, and national governing bodies. Indeed, political differences between states and local areas can contribute much complexity. If a party stakes out issue positions on which few people agree and therefore builds too narrow a coalition of voter support, that party may find itself marginalized. But if the party takes too broad a position on issues, it might find itself in a situation where the members of the party disagree with one another, making it difficult to pass legislation, even if the party can secure victory. Throughout the history of the United States, the political arena has been dominated by a series of two main parties with a periphery of third parties also involved in the process.

One of the cornerstones of a vibrant representative republic is citizens’ ability to influence government through voting. In order for that influence to be meaningful, citizens must send clear signals to their leaders about what they wish the government to do. It only makes sense, then, that voters have several clearly differentiated options available to them at the polls on Election Day. Having these options means voters can select a candidate who more closely represents their own preferences on the important issues of the day. It also gives individuals who are considering voting a reason to participate. After all, you are more likely to vote if you care about who wins and who loses. The existence of two major parties, especially in our present era of strong parties, leads to sharp distinctions between the candidates and between the party organizations.

The two-party system came into being because the structure of U.S. elections, with one seat tied to a geographic district, tends to lead to dominance by one of two major political parties. Even when there are other options on the ballot, most voters understand that minor parties have no real chance of winning even a single office. Hence, they vote for one candidate of the two major parties in order to support a potential winner. Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, only a handful identify as something other than Republican or Democrat. Third parties have fared no better in presidential elections. No third-party candidate has ever won the presidency.

Election Rules and the Two-Party System

A number of reasons have been suggested to explain why the structure of U.S. elections has resulted in a two-party system. The most frequent explanation has been the process used to select its representatives. First, most elections at the state and national levels are winner-take-all: The candidate who receives the greatest overall number of votes wins. Winner-take-all elections with one representative elected for one geographic district allow voters to develop a personal relationship with "their" representative to the government. They know exactly whom to blame, or thank, for the actions of that government. Since voters do not like to waste votes, third parties must convince voters they have a real chance of winning races before voters will take them seriously. This is a tall order given the vast resources and mobilization tools available to the existing parties.

In a system in which individual candidates compete for individual seats representing unique geographic districts, a candidate must receive a fairly large number of votes in order to win. A political party that appeals to only a small percentage of voters will always lose to a party that is more popular.[56]

Winner-take-all systems of electing candidates to office, which exist in several countries other than the United States, can require that the winner receive either the majority of votes or a plurality of the votes. U.S. elections are based on plurality voting. Plurality voting, commonly referred to as first-past-the-post, is based on the principle that the individual candidate with the most votes wins, whether or not he or she gains a majority (51 percent or greater) of the total votes cast. Plurality voting has been justified as the simplest and most cost-effective method for identifying a victor in a democracy. A single election can be held on a single day, and the victor of the competition is easily selected.

Abandoning plurality voting, even if the winner-take-all election were kept, would almost certainly increase the number of parties from which voters could choose. The easiest switch would be to a majoritarian voting scheme, in which a candidate wins only if he or she enjoys the support of a majority of voters. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round of voting, a run-off election is held among the top contenders. Some states conduct their primary elections within the two major political parties in this way.

Because second-place (or lower) finishers will receive no reward for their efforts, those parties that do not attract enough supporters to finish first at least some of the time will eventually disappear because their supporters realize they have no hope of achieving success at the polls.[57] The failure of third parties to win and the possibility that they will draw votes away from the party the voter had favored before—resulting in a win for the party the voter liked least—makes people hesitant to vote for the third party’s candidates a second time. This has been the fate of all U.S. third parties—the Populist Party, the Progressives, the Dixiecrats, the Reform Party, and others.

Third parties, often born of frustration with the current system, attract supporters from one or both of the existing parties during an election but fail to attract enough votes to win. After the election is over, supporters experience remorse when their least-favorite candidate wins instead. For example, in the 2000 election, Ralph Nader ran for president as the candidate of the Green Party. Nader, a longtime consumer activist concerned with environmental issues and social justice, attracted many votes from people who usually voted for Democratic candidates. This has caused some to claim that Democratic nominee Al Gore lost the 2000 election to Republican George W. Bush, because Nader won Democratic votes in Florida that might otherwise have gone to Gore.[58]

Image A is of Ralph Nader standing behind a podium. Image B is of Al Gore standing behind a podium. Ralph Nader, a longtime consumer advocate and crusader for social justice and the environment, campaigned as an independent in 2008 (a). However, in 2000, he ran for the presidency as the Green Party candidate. He received votes from many Democrats, and some analysts claim Nader’s campaign cost Al Gore the presidency—an ironic twist for a politician who would come to be known primarily for his environmental activism, even winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (b) for his efforts to inform the public about climate change. (Credit a: modification of work by "Mely-o"/Flikr"; Credit b: modification of work by "kangotraveler"/Flickr)

A Proportional Electoral System

In a proportional electoral system, however, parties advertise who is on their candidate list and voters pick a party. Then, legislative seats are doled out to the parties based on the proportion of support each party receives. While the Green Party in the United States might not win a single congressional seat in some years thanks to plurality voting, in a proportional system, it stands a chance to get a few seats in the legislature regardless. For example, assume the Green Party gets 7 percent of the vote. In the United States, 7 percent will never be enough to win a single seat, shutting the Green candidates out of Congress entirely, whereas in a proportional system, the Green Party will get 7 percent of the total number of legislative seats available. Hence, it could get a foothold for its issues and perhaps increase its support over time. But with plurality voting, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Moving to a proportional electoral system would involve the abandonment of the winner-take-all approach and would increase the number of parties in the U.S. system.

Two voting ballots side-by-side, one in English and one in Russian. While a U.S. ballot (a) for first-past-the-post elections features candidates’ names, the ballots of proportional representation countries list the parties. On this Russian ballot (b), the voter is offered a choice of Social Democratic, Nationalist, Socialist, and Communist parties, among others.

One proposal to implement proportional representation in the United States would be to allocate legislative seats based on the national level of support for each party’s presidential candidate, rather than on the results of individual races. If this method had been used in the 1996 elections, 8 percent of the seats in Congress would have gone to Ross Perot’s Reform Party because he won 8 percent of the votes cast. Even though Perot himself lost, his supporters would have been rewarded for their efforts with representatives who had a real voice in government. And Perot’s party’s chances of survival would have greatly increased. However, this proposal would be a major constitutional change requiring successful passage of a constitutional amendment.

Electoral representation systems are not the only reason the United States has a two-party system. We need only look at the number of parties in the British or Canadian systems, both of which are winner-take-all plurality systems like that in the United States, to see that it is possible to have more than two parties while still directly electing representatives.

The two-party system is rooted in U.S. history. From the first parties to our current situation, no more than two major parties ever formed. Instead of parties arising based on region or ethnicity, various regions and ethnic groups sought a place in one of the two major parties. What are other possible explanations? Scholars of voting behavior have suggested at least three other characteristics of the U.S. system which explain the persistence of our two-party system.

  • The Electoral College and Electoral Voting
  • Demobilized Ethnic Groups
  • Campaign and Election Laws

First, the United States has a presidential system in which the winner is selected through the Electoral College. The winner-take-all system also applies. In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the total of the state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the plurality of the popular vote in that state. Even if a new, third party is able to win the support of a lot of voters, it must be able to do so in several states in order to win enough electoral votes to have a chance of winning the presidency.[59]

Besides the existence of the Electoral College, political scientist Gary W. Cox has also suggested that the relative prosperity of the United States and the relative unity of its citizens have prevented the formation of "large dissenting groups" that might give support to third parties.[60] This is similar to the argument that the United States does not have viable third parties, because none of its regions is dominated by mobilized ethnic minorities that have created political parties in order to defend and to address concerns solely of interest to that ethnic group. Such parties are common in other countries.

Finally, party success is strongly influenced by local election laws. Someone has to write the rules that govern elections, and those rules help to determine outcomes. In the United States, such rules have been written to make it easy for existing parties to secure a spot for their candidates in future elections. But some states create significant burdens for candidates who wish to run as independents or who choose to represent new parties. For example, one common practice is to require a candidate who does not have the support of a major party to ask registered voters to sign a petition. Sometimes, thousands of signatures are required before a candidate’s name can be placed on the ballot, but a small third party that does have large numbers of supporters in some states may not be able to secure enough signatures for this to happen.[61]

An image of one person holding a clipboard, shaking hands with another person. A third person stands nearby. Costa Constantinides (right), while campaigning in 2013 to represent the 22nd District on the New York City Council, said, "Few things are more important to a campaign than the petition process to get on the ballot. We were so pumped up to get started that we went out at 12:01 a.m. on June 4 to start collecting signatures right away!" Constantinides won the election later that year. (Credit: modification of work by Costa Constantinides)

link to learningVisit Fair Vote for a discussion of ballot access laws across the country.

Given the obstacles to the formation of third parties, it is unlikely that serious challenges to the U.S. two-party system will emerge. But this does not mean that we should view it as entirely stable either. The U.S. party system is technically a loose organization of fifty different state parties and has undergone several considerable changes since its initial consolidation after the Civil War. Third-party movements may have played a role in some of these changes, but all resulted in a shifting of party loyalties among the U.S. electorate.

Nomination Stage and the Political Party Role

Although the Constitution explains how candidates for national office are elected, it is silent on how those candidates are nominated. Political parties have taken on the role of selecting or officially sponsoring nominees for offices, such as the presidency and seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Once nominated, the candidate is considered the official representative of the party for that public office, and the party supports that candidacy with the voters. Because there are no national laws and minimal national guidelines, there is much variation in the nomination process. States pass election laws and regulations, choose the selection method for party nominees, and schedule the election, but the process also greatly depends on views of the respective political parties at the state level.

States, through their legislatures, often influence the nomination method by paying for an election to help parties identify the nominee the voters prefer. Many states fund elections because they can hold several nomination races at once. In 2016, many voters--at the same time--had to choose a presidential nominee, U.S. Senate nominee, House of Representatives nominee, and state-level legislature nominee for their parties.

Primary Elections

The most common method of picking a party nominee for state, local, and presidential contests is the primary election. In the primary election, voters cast a ballot to indicate which candidate they desire for the party nominee. The United States is fairly unique among governments world-wide in using the election primary process as the driving force to decide who will be the nominee of a particular party. In most other countries, this decision of who to officially sponsor as a party nominee is made by small insider groups of party officials either by some form of central committee or convention. Despite the ease of voting using a ballot, primary elections have a number of rules and variations that can still cause confusion for citizens. In a closed primary, only members of the political party selecting nominees may vote. A registered Green Party member, for example, is not allowed to vote in the Republican or Democratic primary. Parties prefer this method, because it ensures the nominee is picked by voters who legitimately support the party. An open primary allows all voters to vote. In this system, a Green Party member is allowed to pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot when voting. Modified primary (sometimes called semi-closed) allows independent voters, who are not affiliated with any political party, to enter the party primary of their choice.

For state-level office nominations, or the nomination of a U.S. Senator or House member, some states use the top-two primary method. A top-two primary, sometimes called a jungle primary, pits all candidates against each other, regardless of party affiliation. The two candidates with the most votes become the final candidates for the general election. Thus, two candidates from the same party could run against each other in the general election. In one California congressional district, for example, four Democrats and two Republicans all ran against one another in the June 2012 primary. The two Republicans received the most votes, so they ran against one another in the general election in November.[62] More often, however, the top-two system is used in state-level elections for non-partisan elections, in which none of the candidates are allowed to declare a political party.

In general, parties do not like nominating methods that allow non-party members to participate in the selection of party nominees. In 2000, the Supreme Court heard a case brought by the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, and the California Libertarian Party.[63] The parties argued that they had a right to determine who associated with the party and who participated in choosing the party nominee. The Supreme Court agreed, limiting the states’ choices for nomination methods to closed and open primaries.

The Caucus System

Despite the common use of the primary election system, in 2016 fourteen states used a caucus system.[64] A caucus is a meeting of party members in which nominees are selected informally. Caucuses are less expensive than primaries because they rely on voting methods such as dropping marbles in a jar, placing names in a hat, standing under a sign bearing the candidate’s name, or taking a voice vote. Volunteers record the votes and no poll workers need to be trained or compensated. Similar to primary elections, caucuses can either be closed, open, or modified.

An image of a group of people standing in a room. Caucus-goers gather at a Democratic precinct caucus on January 3, 2008, in Iowa City, Iowa. Caucuses are held every two years in more than 1650 Iowa precincts. (Credit: OpenStax posted image)

The party members at the caucus also help select delegates, who represent their choice at the party’s state- or national-level nominating convention. The caucus system receives the most national media attention when it is part of the presidential nomination process. Very often this is a multiple step process whereby delegates selected at the first level of the caucus system then select delegates to conventions at the state level who eventually select delegates pledged to the national convention to cast the official vote for that state's choice for party nominee.

The Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus is well-known for its spirited nature. The party’s voters are asked to align themselves into preference groups, which often means standing in a room or part of a room that has been designated for the candidate of choice. The voters then get to argue and discuss the candidates, sometimes in a very animated and forceful manner. After a set time, party members are allowed to realign before the final count is taken. The caucus leader then determines how many members support each candidate, which determines how many delegates each candidate will receive. Likewise, the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucus also kicks-off the presidential nomination process and requires its members to go to special meeting places to express their preferences for a nominee and delegates pledged to a particular candidate.

The caucus has its proponents and opponents. Many argue that it is more interesting than the primary and brings out more sophisticated voters, who then benefit from the chance to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. The caucus system is also more transparent than ballots. The local party members get to see the election outcome and pick the delegates who will represent them at the national convention. Opponents point out that caucuses take two to three hours and are intimidating to less experienced voters. Voter turnout for a caucus is generally 20 percent lower than for a primary.[65]

The Nomination Schedule

Regardless of which nominating system, the primary election or caucus, the states and parties choose, states must also determine which day they wish to hold their nomination. When the nominations are for state-level office, such as governor, the state legislatures receive little to no input from the national political parties. In presidential election years, however, the national political parties establish rules to govern the primary or election process and how candidates can acquire the necessary number of pledged delegates to the national convention to be officially nominated by their party. Finally, the order in which the primary elections and caucus selections are held shape the overall race.[66] Only Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are given express permission by the national parties to hold presidential primaries or caucuses to allocate convention delegates in January or February. Both political parties protect the three states’ status as the first states to host caucuses and primaries, due to tradition and the relative ease of campaigning in these smaller states. Generally, these three contests, have played a major role in reducing the number of viable candidates running for the nomination of their respective parties.

Other states, especially large states like California, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, often have been frustrated that they must wait to hold their presidential primary elections for delegates later in the season. Their frustration is reasonable: candidates who do poorly in the first few primaries often drop out entirely, leaving fewer candidates to run in caucuses and primaries held in February and later. In 2008, California, New York, and several other states disregarded the national party’s guidelines and scheduled their primaries the first week of February. In response, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries to January and many other states moved forward to March. This was not the first time states participated in front-loading and scheduled the majority of the primaries and caucuses at the beginning of the primary season. It was, however, one of the worst occurrences. States have been front-loading since the 1976 presidential election, with the problem becoming more severe in the 1992 election and later.[67]

The first major strategy to front-load was to hold an early March "Super Tuesday" primary with multiple state contests on the same date. This practice expanded so that in 2016 twelve states held primaries on March 1. Usually, after "Super Tuesday," there is a clear leader among nominees of their respective parties. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had nearly an insurmountable lead among delegates. The 2016 Republican presidential nomination campaign was somewhat unusual in that the early March primaries had not really established a clear favorite. This situation of no clear leader also occurred in the 2008 Democratic nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Political parties allot presidential delegates to each state for their national nomination conventions based on the number of registered party voters in each state. When the national political parties want to prevent states from front-loading, or doing anything else the deem detrimental, they can change the state's delegate count, which in essence increases or reduces the state's say in who becomes the presidential nominee.

The national committees of each party do not dictate to the states whether they should have a primary or a caucus or the voting eligibility rules (open, close, modified) that govern the state presidential nomination process. They have made rules on how the delegates should be divided among those who participate in the contest. That is, in the Democratic Party, candidates win delegates to the national convention in proportion to the outcome of the primary or caucus. This principle of proportional division of winners of 15% of the vote, governs all nomination contests in the Democratic Party. The rules are different in the Republican Party, where they allow winner-take-all delegate outcomes for contests after March 15, but restrict earlier primaries before that date to proportional division of those receiving at least 15% of the votes.

In the case of the Democratic Party, the national committee has set aside approximately 15% of delegates as guaranteed delegate spots for key party officials--known as "Super-Delegates." The Republican party has no comparable set-aside provision. Therefore, in the Democratic party nomination process, and additional factor besides primaries and caucuses becomes important. That is, contenders for the party nomination must seek support fro 712 "Super-Delegates," who are not pledged to support the candidate who happened to win the primary in the state where they reside.

Changes in the Presidential Nominating Process

The rise of the presidential primary and caucus system as the main means by which presidential candidates are selected has had a number of anticipated and unanticipated consequences. For one, the campaign season has grown longer and more costly. In 1960, John F. Kennedy declared his intention to run for the presidency just eleven months before the general election. Compare this to Hillary Clinton, who announced her intention to run nearly two years before the 2008 general election. Today’s long campaign seasons are seasoned with a seemingly ever-increasing number of debates among contenders for the nomination. In 2016, when the number of candidates for the Republican nomination became large and unwieldy, two debates among them were held, in which only those candidates polling greater support were allowed in the more important prime-time debate. The runners-up spoke in the other debate.

A photo of Ted Cruz giving a speech at a campaign event. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), though disliked by the party establishment, was able to rise to the top in the Iowa caucuses in 2016. Ultimately, Cruz bowed out of the race when Donald Trump effectively clinched the nomination in Indiana in early May 2016. (Credit: Michael Vadon)

Finally, the process of going straight to the people through primaries and caucuses has created some opportunities for party outsiders to rise. Neither Ronald Reagan nor Bill Clinton was especially popular with the party leadership of the Republicans or the Democrats (respectively) at the outset. The outsider phenomenon has been most clearly demonstrated, however, in the 2016 presidential nominating process, as those distrusted by the party establishment, such as Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who never before held political office, raced ahead of party favorites like Jeb Bush early in the primary process.

Primaries offer tests of candidates’ popular appeal, while state caucuses testify to their ability to mobilize and organize grassroots support among committed followers. Primaries also reward candidates in different ways, depending on the party rules and the date of the primary.

The rise of the primary has also displaced the convention itself as the place where party regulars choose their standard bearer. Once true contests in which party leaders fought it out to elect a candidate, by the 1970s, party conventions more often than not simply served to rubber-stamp the choice of the primaries. By the 1980s, the convention drama was gone, replaced by a long, televised commercial designed to extol the party’s greatness. Without the drama and uncertainty, major news outlets have steadily curtailed their coverage of the conventions, convinced that few people are interested. The 2016 elections seem to support the idea that the primary process produces a nominee rather than party insiders. Outsiders Donald Trump on the Republican side and Senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side had much success despite significant concerns about them from party elites. Whether this pattern could be reversed in the case of a closely contested selection process remains to be seen.

The Political Party Role in the National Convention

Party conventions are typically held between June and September, with state-level conventions earlier in the summer and national conventions later. Conventions normally last four to five days, with days devoted to platform discussion and planning and nights reserved for speeches. Local media covers the speeches given at state-level conventions, showing speeches given by the party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, and perhaps important guests or the state’s U.S. senators. The national media covers the Democratic and Republican conventions during presidential election years, mainly showing the speeches. Some cable networks broadcast delegate voting and voting on party platforms. Members of the candidate’s family and important party members will generally speak during the first few days of a national convention, with the vice presidential nominee speaking on the next-to-last night and the presidential candidate on the final night. The two chosen candidates will then hit the campaign trail for the general election. The party with the incumbent president will hold the later convention, so in 2016, the Democrats will hold their convention after the Republicans.

Image A is of Reince Priebus standing at a podium in front of a crowd of people. Behind Priebus is an elephant symbol, colored red and blue with three white stars along its back. Image B is of a hat with an American flag, red and blue stars, and a political pin attached to it. Reince Priebus, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, opens the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012 (a). Pageantry and symbolism, such as the flag motifs and political buttons shown on this Wisconsin attendee’s hat (b), reign supreme during national conventions. (Credit a, b: modification of work by Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour)

There are rarely surprises at the modern convention. Thanks to party rules, the nominee for each party is generally already clear. In 2008, John McCain had locked up the Republican nomination in March by having enough delegates, while in 2012, President Obama was an unchallenged incumbent and hence people knew he would be the nominee. The naming of the vice president is generally not a surprise either. Even if a presidential nominee tries to keep it a secret, the news often leaks out before the party convention or official announcement. In 2004, the media announced John Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate. The Kerry campaign had not made a formal announcement, but an amateur photographer had taken a picture of Edwards’ name being added to the candidate’s plane and posted it to an aviation message board.

Despite the lack of surprises, there are several reasons to host traditional conventions. First, the parties require that the delegates officially cast their ballots. Delegates from each state come to the national party convention to publicly state who their state’s voters selected as the nominee.

Second, delegates will bring state-level concerns and issues to the national convention for discussion, while local-level delegates bring concerns and issues to state-level conventions. This list of issues that concern local party members, like limiting abortions in a state or removing restrictions on gun ownership, are called planks, and they will be discussed and voted upon by the delegates and party leadership at the convention. Just as wood planks make a platform, issues important to the party and party delegates make up the party platform. The parties take the cohesive list of issues and concerns and frame the election around the platform. Candidates will try to keep to the platform when campaigning, and outside groups that support them, such as super PACs, may also try to keep to these issues.

Third, conventions are covered by most news networks and cable programs. This helps the party nominee get positive attention while surrounded by loyal delegates, family members, friends, and colleagues. For presidential candidates, this positivism often leads to a bump in popularity, so the candidate gets a small increase in favorability. If a candidate does not get the bump, however, the campaign manager has to evaluate whether the candidate is connecting well with the voters or is out of step with the party faithful. In 2004, John Kerry spent the Democratic convention talking about getting U.S. troops out of the war in Iraq and increasing spending at home. Yet after his patriotic and positive convention, Gallup recorded no convention bump and the voters did not appear more likely to vote for him.

General Elections and Political Party Strategy

The general election campaign period occurs between mid-August and early November. These elections are simpler than primaries and caucuses, because there are only two major party candidates and a few minor party candidates. About 50 percent of voters will make their decisions based on party membership, so the candidates will focus on winning over independent voters and visiting swing states where the election is close.[68]

Since the United States has a presidential system in which the winner is selected indirectly by a group of electors known collectively as the Electoral College, a situation with "swing states" has arisen. The electoral system is mainly winner-take-all except for two states (Maine and Nebraska), where the total of the state's electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the plurality of the popular vote in the state. This has led to campaigns where the objective is to earn 270 electoral votes with primary focus on states that are considered "swing states," in which the state winner is unclear because neither political party is dominate in that state. Essentially, the other states are either solid or strongly leaning to one party or the other. In recent election cycles, 12 swing states have emerged.

Map showing key swing states for 2016. (Credit for Map: USA Today Research by Kevin A. Kepple, Jerry Mosemak, Julie Snyder, Robert Aherens, USA TODAY)

Questions to Consider

  1. Could the modern political system exist without political parties?

  2. What are political parties?

  3. Why have political parties become so highly structured?

  4. Why does it seem that parties today are more polarized than they have been in the past?

  5. What impact, if any, do third parties typically have on U.S. elections?

  6. In what ways do political parties collude with state and local government to prevent the rise of new parties?

Terms to Remember

caucus--a form of candidate nomination that occurs in a town-hall style format rather than a day-long election; usually reserved for presidential elections

closed primary--an election in which only voters registered with a party may vote for that party’s candidates

coattail effect--the result when a popular presidential candidate helps candidates from his or her party win their own elections

critical election--an election that represents a sudden, clear, and long-term shift in voter allegiances

delegates--party members who are chosen to represent a particular candidate at the party’s state- or national-level nominating convention

district system--the means by which electoral votes are divided between candidates based on who wins districts and/or the state

Electoral College--the constitutionally created group of individuals, chosen by the states, with the responsibility of formally selecting the next U.S. president; a presidential system in which the winner is selected not directly by the popular vote but indirectly by a group of electors

majoritarian voting--type of election in which the winning candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the votes, even if a run-off election is required

midterm elections--the congressional elections that occur in the even-numbered years between presidential election years, in the middle of the president’s term

party platform--the collection of a party’s positions on issues it considers politically important

political parties--organizations made up of groups of people with similar interests that try to directly influence public policy through their members who seek and hold public office

party realignment--a shifting of party alliances within the electorate

platform--the set of issues important to the political party and the party delegates

plurality voting--the election rule by which the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of vote share

proportional representation--a party-based election rule in which the number of seats a party receives is a function of the share of votes it receives in an election

swing states--states, in a presidential election year, which neither of the two major political parties are able to dominate; and, therefore the state winner of the electoral votes are unclear until votes are tabulated; non-swing states are solidly leaning to one party or the other

third parties--political parties formed as an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties, also known as minor parties

top-two primary--a primary election in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, become the nominees for the general election

two-party system--a system in which two major parties win all or almost all elections

winner-take-all system--all electoral votes for a state are given to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state

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  42. Philip "Bump, \"When Did Black Americans Start Voting So Heavily Democratic?\" The Washington Post, 7 July 2015."
  43. Edward "Carmines and James Stimson. 1989. Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press."
  44. Ian "Haney-Lopez, \"How the GOP Became the ‘White Man’s Party,’\" 22 December 2013, https://www.salon.com/2013/12/22/how_the_gop_became_the_white_mans_party/ (March 16, 2016)."
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  57. Jeffrey "Sachs. 2011. The Price of Civilization. New York: Random House, 107."
  58. James "Dao, \"The 2000 Elections: The Green Party; Angry Democrats, Fearing Nader Cost Them Presidential Race, Threaten to Retaliate,\" The New York Times, 9 November 2000."
  59. Bruce "Bartlett, \"Why Third Parties Can’t Compete,\" Forbes, 14 May 2010."
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  62. Harold "Meyerson, \"Op-Ed: California’s Jungle Primary: Tried it. Dump It,\" Los Angeles Times, 21 June 2014."
  63. California "Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000)."
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