Study Guide

Political Parties - FAQ

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What do political parties do?

Political parties serve at least four essential functions. They select candidates, inform and mobilize voters, help organize the legislative process, and serve as watchdogs on the party in power.

Have we always had them?

Almost. The framers of the Constitution believed that parties were a divisive force in politics and therefore warned against their formation. But within just a few years of the ratification of the Constitution, two political parties had formed: the Federalists of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams and the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Do other countries have political parties?

All authentic democratic countries have political parties. But unlike the United States, many of these countries have several competitive parties rather than just two; that is, they have multi-party systems rather than two-party systems.

What exactly is a "two-party system?"

In a two-party system, only two political parties dominate American politics. While other parties exist, candidates from these minor parties are rarely elected to office.

Have the same two political parties always dominated our two-party system?

No. In fact, historians generally identify three eras in American political party history. The first era, from 1796 to about 1816, was dominated by the Federalists of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams and the Democratic Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. During the second era, the major parties were the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren and the Whig Party of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams. The third era began in the 1850 with the formation of the Republican Party that elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Jackson's Democratic Party persisted in this era, but it split over the issue of slavery during the 1850s and persisted only as a Southern party into the 1870s.

Does that mean that the Republican and Democratic Parties of the twenty-first century are the same as the Republicans and Democrats of the 1850s?

Yes and no. As political organizations, there has been continuity between the nineteenth and twenty-first century parties. But in terms of political philosophy, policy priorities, and membership, both parties have evolved considerably. For example, by 1900 the Republican Party had moved from its earlier agrarian emphases toward a support of the industrial and commercial interests of the Northeast. Similarly, by 1900, the Democratic Party was no longer an exclusively Southern party. And in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt developed a set of policies and attracted a combination of voters (labeled the New Deal Coalition) that gave the Democratic Party much of its contemporary character.

What sorts of voters were in the New Deal Coalition?

Union members, immigrants, minority and low-income voters, non-Protestants, Southerners, urbanites, and intellectuals.

Have minor or third parties had any impact on American politics?

Absolutely. While their candidates rarely win election to major offices, these parties have influenced the platforms and the methods of the major parties. For example, in 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party became the first party to select its presidential nominee at a national convention. During the 1890s, the Populist Party proposed some of the economic reforms and regulatory measures subsequently adopted and turned into law by the major parties in the following decades. And Ross Perot's innovative use of the media during his independent campaign for the presidency in 1992 has been imitated by the major parties.

Do the major parties operate any differently than they did 200 years ago?

Yes. Perhaps the most dramatic differences lie in the ways that parties select candidates. In the early nineteenth century, party nominees were selected in congressional caucuses; the congressmen of each party would choose their party's nominees. In the 1830s, the parties began to hold national conventions, attended by delegates from the states, for the purpose of nominating their candidates. In the twentieth century, the parties began to hold primaries in which party members in the individual states cast ballots to determine which candidate their state delegates to the national nominating convention would support.

What is the difference between an open, closed, and blanket primary?

Primaries are the state elections that determine how the state's delegations to Republican and Democratic national conventions will vote. In some states, the delegation is bound by the results of the primary; in others, the primary results serve only as a statement of preference to the state delegations. Primaries are held in the late winter/early spring preceding the November general elections.

In a closed primary, only registered party members are allowed to vote in party's primary.

In an open primary, voters need not be a registered party member to vote in a party's primary. They decide on Election Day in which primary to participate.

In blanket primaries, voters are not restricted to participating in only one party's primary. All ballots list candidates from all of the parties and voters may vote for individuals from different parties. For example, a voter may vote for a Republican to represent the Republican Party in the race for the United States Senate while voting for a Democrat to represent the Democratic Party in Governor's race.

In 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled that blanket primaries undermined the integrity of the parties' nominating processes and violated their Constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.

Do all states hold primaries?

No. Some states hold caucuses throughout the stateā€”a series of meetings in which local party members debate and then vote on which candidate their delegates to the national nominating convention will support.

Does the government regulate the political parties in any way?

Yes. The federal and state governments impose a range of regulations governing the election process such as ballot registration requirements. Perhaps most importantly, in 1974, the federal government passed the Federal Election Campaign Act regulating campaign finance.

What does the Federal Election Campaign Act do?

Passed in 1971 and amended in 1974, this law placed limits on campaign spending, established elaborate reporting requirements for campaign donations, and created the Federal Election Commission to monitor these requirements. Under this law, presidential candidates may receive federal funding if they demonstrate a broad base of public support. For the 2008 presidential election, they could meet this requirement by raising $5000 in each of 20 states through contributions under $250. If a candidate accepts public money, he or she is required to limit all spending to an amount set by the federal government. In 2008, that limit was $84.1 million. For 2008, the law also set a $2300 limit on all individual contributions to candidates and a $28,500 limit on contributions to national parties. The act also set fundraising and spending requirements for Political Action Committees.

What is a Political Action Committee (PAC)?

PACs are private organizations formed to raise and spend money on behalf of political causes. Business and professional associations, union members, and interest groups such as gun owners and environmental activists are among those who have formed PACs. The Federal Election Commission sets limits on the amount an individual may contribute to a PAC (currently $5000 annually) and the amount a PAC may contribute to a candidate (currently $5000 annually) or a political party (currently $15,000 annually). However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that PACs may spend unlimited amounts indirectly on a campaign; that is, on promotional efforts that are not orchestrated by the candidates' campaign committees.

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