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By John F. Bibby

When the founders of the American republic wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they did not envision a role for political parties in the governmental order. Indeed, they sought through various constitutional arrangements such as separation of powers, checks and balances, and indirect election of the president by an electoral college to insulate the new republic from political parties and factions. In spite of the founders’ intentions, the United States was the first nation to develop parties organized on a national basis and to transfer executive power from one faction to another via an election in 1800.


The development of political parties was closely linked to the extension of the suffrage as qualifications requiring property ownership to vote were lifted during the early 1800s. With a vastly expanded electorate, a means was required to mobilize masses of voters. Political parties became institutionalized to accomplish this essential task. Thus parties in America emerged as a part of this democratic revolution, and by the 1830s were a firmly established part of the political firmament.

Today, the Republican and Democratic parties totally pervade the political process. Approximately two-thirds of Americans consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats, and even those who say that they are independents normally have partisan leanings and exhibit high levels of partisan loyalty. For example, on average 75 percent of independents who “leaned” either toward the Republicans or the Democrats voted for their preferred party’s presidential candidate in the five presidential elections held between 1980 and 1996

. The pervasiveness of partisan influences also extends to the party in government. The two major parties dominate the presidency, Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. Every president since 1856 has been either a Republican or a Democrat, and in the post-World War II era the major parties’ share of the popular vote for president has averaged 95 percent.

After the 1998 elections, there was one lone representative in Congress who was elected as an independent, while only 20 (.003 percent) of the more than 7,300 state legislators elected were neither Republicans nor Democrats. It is the two major parties that organize the government at both the national and state levels.

Although American parties tend to be less ideologically cohesive and programmatic than parties in many democracies, they do play a major role in shaping public policy. Indeed, since the 1994 elections, both congressional Republicans and Democrats have demonstrated sharp policy differences and an unusually high level of intraparty unity. This has created a super-heated atmosphere of partisan conflict, especially in the House of Representatives. In an era of divided party control of the government, partisan conflict has been unremitting between Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Partisan divisiveness was especially intense during the congressional impeachment proceedings against President Clinton during 1998 and 1999. The intensified partisanship within the Congress and between the legislative and executive branches reflects the extent to which the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have become more ideologically unified and distinct from each other in their policy orientations during the 1990s.


Two-party electoral competition stands out as one of the American political system’s most salient and enduring features. Since the 1860s, the Republicans and Democrats have dominated electoral politics. This unrivaled record of the same two parties continuously monopolizing a nation’s electoral politics reflects structural aspects of the political system as well as special features of American parties.

The standard arrangement for electing national and state legislators in the United States is the “single-member” district system — what this means is that whoever receives a plurality of the vote is elected. Unlike proportional systems, the single-member district arrangement permits only one party to win in any given district. The single-member system thus creates incentives to form two broadly based parties capable of winning legislative district pluralities, while condemning minor and third parties to almost perpetual defeat — not a prescription for longevity unless they can combine forces with a major party.

A further institutional nudge toward two-partyism is provided by the electoral college system for choosing presidents. Election as president requires an absolute majority of the 50 states’ 538 total electoral votes. This requirement makes it extremely difficult for a third party to achieve the presidency without combining with a major party. In addition, the individual states’ electoral votes are allocated under a winner-take-all arrangement. All that is required to capture a state’s electoral votes is a plurality of the popular vote within the state. Like the single-member district system, the electoral college works to the disadvantage of third parties, which have little chance of winning any state’s electoral votes, let alone carrying enough states to elect a president.

With the Republicans and Democrats in control of the governmental machinery, it is not surprising that they have created other electoral rules that work to the advantage of the major parties. Just getting a new party’s name on the ballot within the states can be an arduous and expensive undertaking. For example, ballot-access laws in Pennsylvania require a new party to obtain 99,000 registrants in order to have its candidates’ names on the ballot. In addition, the Federal Election Campaign Act bestows special benefits on the major parties, including public funding of presidential campaigns (over $60 million in 2000), public financing of national conventions, and matching funds to candidates for presidential nominations.

America’s distinctive nominating process is an additional structural barrier to third parties. Among the world’s democracies, the United States is unique in its reliance upon primary elections to nominate partisan candidates for state and congressional offices and its use of state-level presidential primaries in the selection of presidential nominees. In most nations, partisan nominations are controlled by the party organizations. But in the United States, it is the voters who make the ultimate determination of who the Republican and Democratic nominees will be. This system, of course, contributes to the fact that the United States has weaker formal party organizations than most other democracies.

This participatory nominating process has also contributed to the Republican-Democratic domination of electoral politics for over 140 years. By winning party nominations through primary elections, insurgents can gain access to the general election ballot and thereby enhance their chances of election victories without having to organize third parties. Thus, the primary-nomination process tends to channel dissent into the two major parties and makes it unnecessary for dissidents to engage in the difficult business of forming a third party.


American parties are multiclass and broad based in their electoral support. With the exception of African-American voters — who are approximately 90 percent Democratic — both the Republican and Democratic parties draw significant levels of support from virtually every major socioeconomic group in society. Although members of labor union households, for example, are commonly thought to be Democrats, the Republicans can expect in most elections to receive at least one-third of the labor union vote, and in some years it has reached as high as 46 percent (1984). Similarly, while support for the Democrats normally declines as income levels go up, Democratic presidential candidates can usually expect substantial support from upper-middle-class voters. In 1996, for example, Bill Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, had approximately equal shares of voters with annual incomes between $50,000 and $75,000. Political parties in the United States also exhibit relatively low levels of internal unity and lack strict adherence to an ideology or set of policy goals. Rather, they have traditionally been concerned first and foremost with winning elections and controlling the personnel of government. Given their broad socioeconomic bases of electoral support and the need to operate within a society that is largely middle-of-the-road ideologically, American parties have adopted essentially centrist policy positions. They have also demonstrated a high level of policy flexibility. This nondoctrinaire approach enables the Republicans and Democrats to tolerate great diversity within their ranks; it has contributed to their ability to absorb third parties and protest movements when they have occurred.


It is hard to overstate the extent to which American parties are characterized by decentralized power structures. Within the party in government, presidents cannot assume that their party’s members of Congress will be loyal supporters of presidential programs; nor can party leaders in Congress expect straight party-line voting from members of their party. Within the party organization, the Republican and Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees (composed of incumbent legislators) operate autonomously from the presidentially oriented national party committees. Except for a narrow range of authority over procedures for selecting national convention delegates, national party organizations rarely meddle in state party affairs. This level of organizational fragmentation reflects in part the consequences of a constitutional separation-of-powers system that creates only limited incentives for party unity among legislators with their party’s chief executive. The constitutional principle of federalism further decentralizes the parties by creating thousands of separate constituencies — at the federal, state, and local levels — each with its own officeholders. As previously noted, the use of primary elections to nominate candidates also weakens the party organizations by denying them the ability to control the selection of nominees. Individual candidates are encouraged to build their own personal campaign organizations and electoral followings, first to win the primaries and then the general elections. Even campaign fund-raising is largely the personal responsibility of the individual candidates, since the party organizations often are severely restricted by law in terms of how much they can contribute, especially to federal election campaigns.


In spite of the impressive evidence of partisanship within the American political system, an ingrained component of the civic culture is a distrust of parties. The adoption of the direct primary to nominate congressional and state candidates earlier in this century and the more recent proliferation of presidential primaries, which have become the determining factor in presidential nominations, are testimony to antiparty sentiment within the public. Americans are uncomfortable with party organization leaders’ exercising great power over their government. Public-opinion polls reveal that large proportions of the electorate believe that parties do more to confuse the issues than clarify them — and that it would be better if there were no party labels on the ballot.

Not only do American parties operate in a generally inhospitable cultural climate; they are faced with the problem of increasing numbers of voters attaching diminished importance to their personal party identification. One indicator of this weakened sense of partisan attachment on the part of voters is the high incidence of “ticket-splitting” — voting for candidates of different parties in the same election. In 1996, 24 percent of voters split ballots by voting for different parties’ candidates for president and the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a consequence of the weakened influence of partisanship upon voters’ election day choices and the tendency of many to engage in split-ticket voting, American politics is “candidate-centered” rather than “party-centered.” This has meant that divided party control of the executive and legislative branches of government has become a commonplace feature of both the national government and the 50 states. In fact, in all but two years since 1980, the presidency and at least one chamber of Congress have been controlled by different parties, and 24 states had divided party control after the 1998 elections.


As this table indicates, third parties and independent candidates have been a periodic feature of American politics. Often they have brought societal problems that the major parties were failing to confront to the forefront of public discourse — and onto the governmental agenda. But most third parties have tended to flourish for a single election and then die, fade, or be absorbed into one of the major parties. Since the 1850s, only one new party, the Republicans, has emerged to achieve major party status. In that instance, there was a compelling moral issue, slavery, dividing the nation that provided a basis for candidate recruitment and voter mobilization.

Although the table does not provide much support for the long-term viability of third parties, there is evidence that these parties can have a major impact on election outcomes. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy in 1912 split the normal Republican vote and enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected with less than a majority of the popular vote.

In 1992, H. Ross Perot’s candidacy attracted voters who in the main had been voting Republican in the 1980s and thereby contributed to the defeat of the incumbent Republican president, George Bush. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties have been extremely concerned about the impact of potential third-party or independent candidates.

Public-opinion surveys during the run-up to the 1996 elections consistently showed a high level of support for a third party. A 1995 Gallup poll showed 62 percent of the public favoring the formation of a third party. It was sentiments such as these plus lavish campaign spending that enabled Texas billionaire Perot to gain 19 percent of the popular vote for president in 1992, the highest percentage for a non-major-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party) won 27 percent in 1912.

In spite of demonstrations of potential support for a third party, imposing barriers exist to a third party’s winning the presidency or even electing a substantial number of senators or representatives. Among the most significant is the fear among voters that if they vote for a third-party candidate they will be in effect “wasting” their votes. Voters have been shown to engage in “strategic” voting by casting ballots for their second choice when they sense that a third-party candidate has no chance of winning. For example, in 1980 the centrist independent candidate, John B. Anderson, received votes of only 57 percent of the voters who ranked him highest; and in 1992 among voters ranking Perot highest, 79 percent voted for him but 21 percent defected.

There is also the phenomenon of “protest” voting for third-party candidates. Gallup polls revealed that in 1992, 5 percent of Perot’s voters said they would not vote for him if they thought he could win.

Third parties and independent candidates also face a potentially daunting postelection problem in the event they are successful in winning the presidency. This, of course, is the problem of governing — staffing an administration and then working with a Congress dominated by Republicans and Democrats who would have only limited incentives to cooperate with a non-major-party president.

John F. Bibby is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and is the former chairman of the American Political Science Association’s political parties subfield. An authority on U.S. politics and government, Bibby has authored Politics, Parties, and Elections in America.

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Updated: August 2002