Political Parties Chapter Summary

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Chapter 8

Political Parties

Chapter Summary

What is a Political Party?

A political party is a group of political activists who organize to win elections, to operate the government, and to determine public policy. Political parties have five basic functions. These are: (1) recruiting candidates for public office, (2) organizing and running elections, (3) presenting alternative policies, (4) accepting responsibility for operating the government, and (5) acting as the organized opposition to the party in power.

A History of Political Parties in the United States

The evolution of our political party system can be divided into six periods. The first period, from 1789 to 1812, featured the creation of political parties, with the Federalists and Anti-Federalists split over the ratification of the Constitution. After ratification the Federalists continued to advocate for a strong central government and focused on commercial interests including merchants and large planters. Thomas Jefferson led the other party, which came to be known as the Republican Party (scholars tend to refer to it as the Democratic-Republican Party, to distinguish it from the Republican Party that would form at the time of the Civil War). This party represented the interests of farmers and artisans and advocated states’ rights. The second period from 1816 to 1824 was referred to as the era of personal politics, because elections centered on individual candidates rather than parties. It also saw the end of the Federalist Party.
The third period spanned from 1828-1860 and featured the emergence of the Democratic Party, whose standard bearer was Andrew Jackson. This period also saw the creation and ultimately the demise of the Whig Party. Northern Whigs united with antislavery Democrats to form the Republican Party. The fourth period, from 1864 to 1892, featured a clash between the heavily Democratic South and the predominantly Republican North. The period from 1896 to 1928 saw the continued dominance of the Republican Party, although progressivism gained great influence and temporarily divided the Republican Party. The final period is the modern era, dating from 1932 to the present. The New Deal of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt created the basic landscape of politics that we have today. The American voter in the last part of the twentieth century gained an appreciation for divided government, in which one party controls the presidency while another party controls the Congress. As the new century began there was intense competition between the Democratic and Republican Parties. See Figure 8-2 for a look at the 2004 election.

The Two Major U.S. Parties Today

The core of the Democratic Party is minorities, the working class, and various ethnic groups. Democrats generally support government intervention in the economy to help individuals in need. The Republican Party draws its support from college graduates, upper-income families, and professionals or businesspersons. Republicans support the private marketplace and feel that the government should be involved in fewer social programs. In the 2004 presidential election, the Democrats tried to frame the election in terms of the economy and the Republicans on the issue of national security. See Figure 8-3 for a survey on the parties and issues.

The Three Faces of a Party

Each political party consists of three major components. The party-in-the-electorate includes the members of the general public who identify with a political party. The party organization includes the formal structure and leadership of a political party, including election committees, local, state and national executives and paid professional staff. The party-in-government includes all of the elected and appointed government officials who identify with a political party. American political parties have a standard, pyramid-shaped organization. The national party organization consists of the national convention, which selects the national committee and national chairperson to direct the party during the four-year period between the national conventions. See Table 8-1 for a look at the votes of national convention delegates in 2000.
The state party organization consists of a state committee, state chairperson, and a number of local organizations. States parties are important in national politics because of the unit rule, which allots electoral votes in an indivisible bloc except in Maine and Nebraska. The lowest level of party organization, called the grass roots, is composed of county and district party officials, precinct chairpersons, and party workers. The political machine no longer exists because of the decline of patronage. Local political organization can still have a major impact on elections, particularly local elections.

Why Has the Two-Party System Endured?

There are a number of factors that explain why the United States has a two-party system. The development of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists early in our history established the foundation for two parties based on two distinct sets of interests. Political socialization of children to identify with the party of the parent has been an important factor in maintaining the two-party system. Our political culture has been one of consensus and moderation, which discourages radical third parties. The winner-take-all election system, particularly the Electoral College for electing the President, makes it very difficult for third parties to have any electoral success. Finally, most state and federal election laws provide a clear advantage to the two major parties. Third party candidates for President are not eligible for federal matching funds.

The Role of Minor Parties in U.S. Political History

Minor parties have not been able to compete successfully with the two major parties but have played an important role in our political life. Ideological based minor parties, such as the Socialist Party, had some electoral success in the early twentieth century. The most successful minor parties split from the major parties. The Bull Moose Progressive Party in 1912 nominated Theodore Roosevelt for President, which created a three-way race and gave the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. A Democrat splinter party, the American Independent Party, supported George Wallace for President in 1968. Wallace received 46 electoral votes for president, an impressive performance for a third party candidate. See Table 8-2 for the most successful third party campaigns. Other minor parties, including the Greenbacks and Populists, appeared with a focus on specific economic issues and then fairly quickly disappeared. Minor parties have had an impact on American politics by raising important political issues, which are usually taken over by the two major parties. In some cases third party candidates determine the outcome of the presidential election. See Table 8-3 for the policies of third parties. The third party candidate in 1992, H. Ross Perot, probably took votes away from Republican George Bush to give the victory to Democrat Bill Clinton. The third party candidate in 2000, Ralph Nader, probably took votes away from Democrat Al Gore and opened the door for George W. Bush to win.

Mechanisms of Political Change

What does the future hold for the Democrats and Republicans? The Republicans dominated from 1896 to 1932 and the Democrats dominated from 1932 to 1968. A realigning election is one in which one party becomes dominant over the other. Realignment is a much-debated issue, as experts disagree about which elections indicate partisan dominance and whether cycles of realignment can be predicted. Dealignment indicates a movement away from the two major parties. Thirty three percent of voters today classify themselves as Independents. See Figure 8-5.
When the party elects its members to hold government office, there are a number of factors that limit the ability of the party to carry out its programs. The system of checks and balances works to control parties because the voting public seems to prefer a “divided government” with the executive and legislative branches controlled by different parties. This is evident in the increasing trend of ticket splitting. There are swing voters who switch their support from one party to another. Another phenomenon that can alter the political landscape is tipping, in which a growing population group becomes large enough to change the political balance.

Key Terms


divided government

Electoral College

era of personal politics



national committee

national convention


political party


splinter party

swing voters

third party



two-party system

unit rule

party platform

Other Resources

A number of valuable supplements are available to students using the Schmidt, Shelley, and Bardes text. The full list of the supplements is in the preface to this study guide. Ask your instructor how to obtain these resources. One supplement is highlighted here, the INFOTRAC Online Library.


Log on to http://www.infotrac-college.com.

Enter your Pass code.

You can access the article by typing the exact phrase below.

“The Continuing Judicial Assault On Patronage”

The premise of this article is that the Supreme Court of the U.S. has continued the assault on patronage practices in the state of Illinois. Chicago is the first major city under a court-approved monitoring program to ensure the end of political patronage.

Study Questions

  1. Why are the cases against patronage centered in Illinois?

  2. What are some of the problems with trying to eliminate patronage?

Practice Exam

(Answers appear at the end of this chapter.)

Fill-in-the-Blank Supply the missing word(s) or term(s) to complete the sentence.

  1. A ____________ _____________ is a group of individuals who organize to win elections, to operate the government, and to determine public policy.

  2. The first _________ political division in the United States occurred prior to the adoption of the Constitution.

  3. The followers of Andrew Jackson created the _______________ Party in 1828.

  4. The major American political party, which emerged in the late 1850s from the remains of the Whig Party, was the _______________ _____________.

  5. Each layer in the formal structure of a political party is virtually ________________ from the other layers.

  6. The real strength and power of a national party is at the _____________ level.

  7. Most minor parties that have endured have had a strong _________________ foundation.

  8. One of the myths of realigning elections was that they occurred every ________ years.

  9. Dealignment is the ________________ in political party loyalties.

  10. When a group that is growing in population becomes large enough to change election outcomes, it is called _____________.

True/False Circle the appropriate letter to indicate if the statement is true or false.
T F 1. Party-in-the-Electorate is those members of the general public who express a preference for one party over another.

T F 2. American political parties are tightly organized pyramid-shaped organizations with the national chairperson dictating policy to lower levels.

T F 3. The party platform is largely ignored once one of the two major parties captures control of the government.

T F 4. The national chairperson for the two major parties is actually chosen by their respective party’s presidential nominee.

T F 5. The Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) rules for campaign financing place restrictions on minor party candidates.

T F 6. Virtually all levels of government in the United States use the plurality, winner-take-all electoral system.

T F 7. Minor parties have not played an important role in American politics.

T F 8. Beginning in 1860, realigning elections have occurred every 36 years.

T F 9. It appears that the electorate is increasingly voting a straight ticket.

T F 10. The Democratic Party was formed around Abraham Lincoln.

Multiple Choice Circle the correct response.

  1. The main feature differentiating a faction from a political party is that a faction

  1. is composed only of conservatives, while a political party may have both liberals and conservatives.

  2. generally does not have a permanent organized structure.

  3. works best if there are competing factions in opposition to it.

  4. helps to extend democracy to the rank-and-file party member.

  5. has more money available to fund its operations.

  1. Political parties in the United States tend to perform all of the following activities except

  1. recruit candidates for public office.

  2. organize and run elections.

  3. act as the organized opposition to the party in power.

  4. establish a large cadre of highly disciplined dues-paying party members.

  5. present alternative policies to the electorate.

  1. The first two opposing groups in United States politics were the

  1. Democrats and Republicans.

  2. Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

  3. Washingtonians and Jeffersonians.

  4. Independents and Whigs.

  5. Democrats and Monarchists.

  1. The era from 1816 to 1828 when attention was centered on the character of the individual running for office rather than on party identification is referred to as the era of

  1. good feeling.

  2. factional politics.

  3. personal politics.

  4. democratic politics.

  5. free soil politics.

  1. After the end of the Civil War, the ____________ became heavily Democratic, and the __________ became heavily Republican.

  1. North-South

  2. South-North

  3. East-West

  4. West-East

  5. East-South

  1. Since 1968, the modern party system has been

  1. Republican dominated.

  2. Democratic dominated.

  3. complicated by strong third parties.

  4. evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

  5. dealigned with voters choosing Independent candidates.

  1. Since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the core of the Democratic Party has been

  1. middle-class, working Americans.

  2. upper-class liberals.

  3. minorities, the working class and ethnic groups.

  4. middle to upper-class Protestants and Independents.

  5. white evangelical Christians.

  1. The main purpose of the national party conventions every four years is to

  1. nominate the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

  2. write a party platform.

  3. check the credentials of all party activists.

  4. develop a strategy for the upcoming presidential election.

  5. conduct party business.

  1. In terms of party organization, the real strength and power of the Democratic and Republican parties

  1. resides with their members in the U.S. Congress.

  2. is determined by their national committee chairpersons.

  3. resides at the state level of party organization.

  4. is determined by the number of election victories each party has in a given time period.

  5. is determined by the “grassroots.”

  1. The principal organized structure within states for each political party is the

  1. precinct committee.

  2. ward captain.

  3. state central committee.

  4. governor’s council.

  5. elected members of state government.

  1. Rewarding members of a political party with government jobs and/or contracts is known as

  1. bribery.

  2. graft and corruption.

  3. non-competitive bidding.

  4. patronage.

  5. strategic planning.

  1. The most successful minor parties have been those that have

  1. focused on the positive things in life, not the negative.

  2. been formed from the break-up of the Democratic party prior to WWI.

  3. split from major parties.

  4. opposed the existing economic power structure.

  5. spent the most money.

  1. The most important reason for the creation of splinter parties is

  1. ideology.

  2. class politics.

  3. a particular political personality.

  4. the U.S. political culture.

  5. dealignment.

  1. The third party which may possibly have cost Democrat Al Gore the presidency in the 2000 election was the

  1. Green Party.

  2. Reform Party.

  3. Socialist Party

  4. Libertarian Party.

  5. Peoples Party.

  1. Independent voters in the 2000 presidential election, composed _____ percent of the electorate.

  1. 25

  2. 33

  3. 40

  4. 50

  5. 55

  1. Which of the following statements about party identification is true?

  1. In recent years, Democrats have increased, while Republicans and Independents have decreased.

  2. In recent years, Independents have increased, while Democrats and Republicans have decreased.

  3. In recent years, Republicans have increased, while Democrats and Independents have decreased.

  4. In recent years, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have decreased.

  5. In recent years, a majority of people will not give a party identification.

  1. Independent voters in elections are called

  1. independents.

  2. leaners.

  3. swing voters.

  4. tippers.

  5. straight voters.

  1. A change in population in certain areas which alters the political landscape is referred to as

  1. swing voting.

  2. straight-ticket voting.

  3. tipping.

  4. leaning.

  5. dealignment.

  1. Most Americans in the age category 18-29 favor the

  1. Republican Party.

  2. Democratic Party.

  3. Independent label.

  4. formation of a third party.

  5. abolishment of political parties.

  1. Calling the U.S. a two-party system is an oversimplification because

  1. a third party candidate almost won the 2000 presidential election.

  2. the nature and names of the two major parties have changed over time.

  3. ideology is such an important factor in U.S. elections.

  4. third parties receive equal public funding with major parties.

  5. third parties can affect the political process even if they do not win.

Short Essay Questions Briefly address the major concepts raised by the following questions.

  1. Distinguish between a political party and a faction. What are the basic functions of a political party?

  2. Trace the evolution of political party development within the United States.

  3. Identify the formal structure of political party organization in America.

  4. Discuss the reasons for the two-party system in the United States.

Answers to the Practice Exam


1. political party

2. partisan

3. Democratic

4. Republican Party

5. autonomous

6. state

7. ideological

8. 36

9. decline

10. tipping


1. T 3. F 5. T 7. F 9. F

2. F 4. T 6. T 8. F 10. F

Multiple Choice.

1. b 6. d 11. d 16. b

2. d 7. c 12. c 17. c

3. b 8. a 13. c 18. c

4. c 9. c 14. a 19. d

5. b 10. c 15. b 20. e
Short Essay Questions Briefly address the major concepts raised by the following questions.

  1. Distinguish between a political party, and a faction. What are the basic functions of a political party?

  • A political party is a group of political activists who organize to win elections, to operate the government, and to determine public policy.

  • Factions are smaller groups, which may exist within political parties and are trying to obtain certain benefits for themselves.

  • The basic functions of a political party are:

  • Recruiting candidates for public office.

  • Organizing and running elections.

  • Presenting alternative policies to the electorate.

  • Accepting responsibility for operating the government.

  • Acting as the organized opposition to the party in power.

  1. Trace the evolution of political party development within the United States.

  • The formation of political parties in the U.S. went through six basic periods. These are: (1) the creation of parties, (2) the era of personal politics, (3) the period of President Jackson to the Civil War, (4), the post-Civil War period, (5) the progressive period, and (6) the modern period.

  • The first parties were created from 1789 to 1812 around support for ratifying the Constitution, the Federalists or against ratification, the Anti-Federalists.

  • From 1816 to 1828, voters focused on the candidates rather than the parties.

  • From 1828 to 1860, political parties tended to focus on Andrew Jackson, and the Democratic and Whig parties developed.

  • The post-Civil War period of 1864 to 1892 created our current two-party system, as the anti-slavery Republican Party was created.

  • The Progressive era from 1896 to 1928 led to the split in the Republican Party and the election of the Democrats in 1912, which enacting much of the Progressive Party platform.

  • The New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt, which established the current political landscape of the political party system, created the modern period from 1932 to the present.

  • The era of divided government has been from 1968 to the present. The nation is almost evenly divided in politics, with one party winning the Presidency and losing the Congress and vice versa.

  1. Identify the formal structure of political party organization in America.

  • The formal political party organization structure consists of the national level, the state level, and the local level.

  • The national party organization consists of a national convention held every four years. At this convention, the party selects its candidates for president and vice president, writes a party platform, selects a national committee, and selects a national chairperson.

  • The state central committee will carry out the decisions of the state party convention and in some states direct the activities of the state chairperson.

  • The local party organization, called the grass roots, uses county committees and their chairperson to direct and assist the activities of precinct leaders.

  1. Discuss the reasons for the two-party system in the United States.

  • The historical foundations of the two-party system developed around relatively distinct sets of issues.

  • The first of these issues was ratifying the Constitution, which led to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

  • Political socialization in which parents influence the children’s choice of political party continued the two-party system.

  • The winner-take-all election system makes it very difficult for third parties to win elections.

  • State and federal election laws make it difficult for third parties to get on the ballot.

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