Political Parties


Parties pertain to three areas

Label: an organization that voters identify with; weaker than 100 years ago. Biggest evidence for weakening of label: split ticket frequency

Organization: recruits and campaigns for candidates; much weaker since 1960s

Set of leaders: organize congress, etc.

In europe, this is very different; parties have much more control.

Federalism in america decentralizes parties

There is no prime minister selected by party in charge


History of American Political Parties

The Founding: founders thought of parties as factions motivated by self-interest. Before parties could become legitimate, it was necessary for people to separate differences in policy and opinion from disputes over legitimacy of new government. First organized party were jefferson’s Democratic Republicans. Hamilton had his Federalists. Jefferson’s party won in the peaceful revolution of 1800. After this, Federalists quickly disappeared. Weakness of first party system can be explained by lack of party loyalty.

The Jacksonians: from Jackson’s campaign to Civil war; Distinct feature was mass-participation, as a result of extension of sufferage. Decline of caucus system. Party convention emerges, with first convention of the Anti-Masonic party in 1831.

The Civil War and Sectionalism: Slavery and sectionalism were issues that the parties couldn’t straddle. Republican party began as 3rd party, gained major status. Republicans came to support union; democrats opposed. Bryan’s campaign split parties more along north-south lines. Since states were now mostly single-party, campaigns began being conducted inside the party. Stalwarts were the old guard who wanted to build up party machinery, acquire and dispense patronage; mugwumps or progressives disliked patronage and wanted to see parties tackle more controversial issues.

The Era of Reform: Progressives wanted to overhaul the entire corrupt system (eliminate voter fraud, graft, create civil service reform, etc.). California was able to institute Direct Primary, and created initiatives and referendums. Result: less corruption and less control by party bosses. The flipside? Parties quickly began to become less influential and lose control.

Modern Party Structure

At all levels there are organizations that operate largely independent of one another.


National convention: meets every 4 years to nominate a candidate for president

National committee: made up of delgates from each state

Congressional campaign committee: helps those running for congressional office

National chairman: full-time paid employee for party

During the 1960s, the republican party became a beuractratized one and the democratic party became a factionalized one.

Republicans took advantage of computerized mailings.

Raised massive amounts of money

Essentially ran national political consulting firm

A lot of RNC money goes to commissioning public opinion polls.

National Convention

National committee decides where delegates come from.

System of choosing where delegates come from is very complex.

Attempt to create "intraparty democracy"

Equal division of delegates between men and women.

Open delegate selection procedures

Selection of 75% of delegates at the level of congressional district or lower

Superdelgates: elected officials who are also delegates

As a result of reforms, parties ended up representing two distinct ideologically different middle-class groups

Types of party organizations

The Machine (yes, Strom, The Machine)

Party organization that recruits members based upon tangable benefits

High degree of leadership control over member activity

Source of patronage

1870s: 1 out of every 8 voters in NYC had a government job

Immigrants received support from party organizations in exchange for the vote.

Slowly was curtailed

Hatch Act in 1939 made it a crime for federal civil service employees to take active part in political organizations

Above all, the machine was recognition of the frank fact that politics requires organization.

Ideological Parties

Opposite of machine: values principle above all else (As opposed to winning above all else)

Most firm ideological parties: Socialist, Libertarian, Right-to-life (third parties)

Since major parties must accommodate some of these ideological tendencies, there is more internal party division.

Solidary Groups

People who participate in politics because they find it enjoyable.

Solidary incentives

Neither corrupt or inflexible

Downside: these groups don’t work very hard.

Sponsored Parties

These parties occur when another organization exists in the community that can create, or at least sponsor, a local party structure

I.e. democratic party around Detroit, which is mostly under the control of the UAW

Personal Following

Created to get help; often with an ideological group

Often candidate needs an appealing personality, a lot of friends, or a big bank account

I.e. kennedy family


The Two-party system

Only had by 1/15 nations

Fairly even winnings; thus balanced

Yet not balanced at the state and local levels.

First Explanation: Winner-take-all

Plurality system: those with the most votes win. Other systems that end up having runoffs encourage many parties to form, hoping to get into a runoff election. With plurality, a narrow minor party has no hope of winning

Only one member of congress is elected from each district

Electoral college: most popular candidate wins all of a state’s electoral votes

In order to win major offices, you need broad support. End result: there is a party supporting who is in power, and a party opposing those who are in power.

Second explanation: People naturally fall into two groups

Most times citizens have agreed enough to permit them to come together into two broad coalitions.

There have not been : people against economic system, people for monarchy, people for a church, .

For a long time, state laws made it tough for a third-party to get on the ballot.


Minor Parties

Minor parties that have endured have been ideological ones

Only real minor parties to have a chance are ones of economic protest.

It is actually odd that we have not had more third parties – perhaps main reason is that primaries et. Al. Allow these minor parties to voice their opinion in the major parties.

Conventional wisdom: minor parties develop ideas that the major parties later come to adopt.

Factional parties have greatest influence on public policy because they make the major parties more sensitive to their particular issue.

Types of Minor Parties:

Ideological: parties professing a comprehensive view of American society and government that is radically different from that of the establishment

One-issue parties: Parties seeking a single policy, usually revealed by their names, and avoiding other issues

Economic-protest parties: parties usually involving farmers that protest against depressed economic conditions

Factional parties: parties that are created by a split in a major party.

Add a fourth one – money – perhaps a big reason the democrats aren’t eager to criticize the president?

Two parties are favored by

Winner takes all

Laws favor two-party election


Eric Jonas's 1998-1999 AP American Government Notes
This material copyright Eric Jonas, 1999.
These notes have been taken from American Government, 7th edition, by Wilson and DiIulio, and from in-class lecture by Mr. Greg Sandmeyer at Timberline High School.


e-mail web@ericjonas.com