1. Discuss political parties and factions. Be able to differentiate between parties and interest groups. What did the Founding Fathers think about political parties? What does the Constitution say?
Another critical linkage institution in our American political arena is political parties. Political parties have one primary goal and that is to win elections. By winning elections political parties and their voters get to act upon their wishes because they now run the government. The more successful political parties are the more likely it is for their issues to become public policy. Despite not being mentioned in the U.S. Constitution and feared by the likes of George Washington and James Madison, American democracy is unthinkable without political parties.
In addition to winning elections and staffing the government political parties hope to educate the public. Political parties try to raise money to support candidates. They nominate candidates. In this way political parties play an important function as a filter in our electoral process. By nominating candidates political party prestige provides an important stamp of credibility. Political parties also provide a simple label for a broad based coalition of voters. For this reason we have in America a two-party system.
There are two major political parties in the United States – Democrats and Republicans. Both are broad based coalitions with the expressed purpose of attracting enough voters to win elections. Partisan identification is the number one determining factor of a person’s vote. Partisan ID, however, is not as strong as it once was. More and more Americans, now close to 40%, see themselves as independent voters. This is clear when looking at the rise of split ticket voting. Many Americans on any single ballot will vote for candidates from both parties.
Political parties play an important function in our democracy even though our Founders were afraid of their baneful effects. Political parties link the people to government. Political parties educate us and most importantly they help choose our candidates. Political scientists, however, tell us that political parties have grown weaker as mass media has given greater power to personal followings.
When one political party holds the presidency and a majority of Congress we call that unified government. When they are split, for instance a Republican president and a Democratic majority in Congress, we call that divided government. The political party that holds the White House is said to be the party in power. Political science is mixed on the advantages and disadvantages of divided government. With unified government blame can be clearly attributed. Some suggest that more actually gets done in divided governments. Political parties do more then win elections they collectively staff and run our government.
Our two major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, serve as potent labels for our rich political discourse.
Each unit of study is broken down into ten (10) essential objectives. Each objective requires a context of understanding. You will find that context here. Read carefully. Each word matters. In the end we hope that by distilling the content of American government and politics to its bare essentials a larger number then before can count themselves as educated citizens. Without such a citizenry our hope for a bright future is in peril.
2. Discuss the two-party system. What factors dissuade third parties from influencing American politics? Explain how the American party system is characterized by decentralization.
We continue to have only two major parties for a couple of important reasons. The rules governing our elections reinforce our two-party system. Elections outcomes here are usually determined by a plurality. This means the most votes win. You do not need a majority to win in most elections, just more votes then your opponent. With two parties, however, winners in plurality elections are guaranteed a mathematical majority. This is also reflected in the Electoral College’s winner-take-all rule. More pragmatically, we have a two-party system because our political parties do not hold on to rigid platforms. Favored issues and positions on public policy shift over time. The parties want to attract voters. Holding on to dogmatic positions does not do this. Most issues in America have a binary characteristic; they are either/or and yes/no positions. American government is represented by a two-party system.
There are still minor parties who attempt to attract voters. Third parties are certainly allowed but they usually are not effective. Plurality elections make it almost impossible for third party candidates to win. Minor parties can play important roles. They often champion new issues. If these new issues resonate with voters they generally do not propel a minor party but rather induce one of the two major parties to take it on as their own. For example, when a minor party in the 1990s championed fiscal responsibility, an issue that gained wide support, the Republican Party saw an opportunity and began to herald it in order to win elections more broadly. In this way third parties are often compared to bees. Once they sting they die. So it is with minor parties. Once a minor party gets noticed one of the two major parties begins to herald its cause making the third party’s existence mute.
It should be noted, however, that despite our seemingly limited two-party system there are great differences within the Democrat Party and within the Republican Party especially across regions. This is due to the decentralization of their charters. Democrats in California, for instance, often sound different then Democrats in Alabama. Though both of these Democrats are found on the same side of the political spectrum the differences within political parties make for a sport deserving of our attention.
3. Explain characteristics of Democrats. Explain characteristics of Republicans. Discuss differences between base party members and their rank and file.
Remember Democrats represent liberals on the left side of the political spectrum. Democrats, although malleable, traditionally advocate for progressive social policies. This requires bigger government. Although government should serve as the referee in regulating economic policy Democrats believe social issues should be left up to private choices. For these reasons base Democrats tend to be more secular and younger. The rank and file of the Democratic Party approve of higher taxes on the rich, agree with a women’s right to choose an abortion and see government as an important agent in assuring equality for all. Immigrant groups, African Americans, young people and the working class clearly favor the Democratic Party.
Remember Republicans represent conservatives on the right side of the political spectrum. Republicans, although malleable, traditionally advocate for stricter regulation when it comes to social policies. Republicans believe in traditional moral values. Nevertheless they advocate for smaller government. Government should practice a laissez-faire economic policy. For these reasons base Republicans tend to be more religious and older. The rank and file of the Republican Party desire lower taxes for all, push for a right to life policy and see government as an important agent upholding conservative values such as a traditional view of marriage. Older Americans, rural Americans and white middle class professionals clearly favor the Republican Party.
Within each political party one can find many different kinds of support. The most loyal and active members of a political party are referred to as “the base.” Base members can be counted on to vote in each election. Far more in number are “the rank and file.” The rank and file consider themselves members but cannot be counted on to consistently vote. Energizing the base and motivating the rank and file is a constant concern for the leadership in any political party.
4. Discuss the origin and function of party conventions. What is a super delegate?
Despite an apparent “anti-partisan realignment” modern democracy still holds on to its republican ideals. This means that political parties are still responsible for the selection of our candidates. The process for doing so looks remarkably old fashioned.
Desired candidates vie for a political parties’ endorsement. Though American voters have a greater role to play in this process the proverbial “smoke filled room” is still around, albeit a little bit bigger then what was once true.
For instance, the major political parties hold quadrennial national conventions to crown their presidential candidates. Though the primary elections make the conventions somewhat moot the parties continue to put on these political pageants. Free media coverage often provides an expected bounce to each respective candidate. The conventions also allow for the major candidates to showcase their message, announce their Vice Presidential choice and begin branding their image.
These party conventions were originally held to expand the in put of the common man’s voice. So it still is today. However, certain party rules have been implemented to assuage the fickle nature of public opinion. Both parties have what is called “Super Delegates.” These Super Delegates, made up of party leaders and elected officials, cast votes at the conventions. These Super Delegates can correct fatal mistakes that perhaps were made by primary voters. They are around to insulate from the possibility of radical candidates, unable to win in a general election, from being chosen by the party rank and file.
Due to falling TV ratings, the lack of any newsworthy events and the staged nature of modern party conventions many see these quadrennial cattleshows coming to an end.
5. Summarize the differences between presidential and congressional campaigns and elections. Assess the difference between normal and nationalized elections.
Political parties are not the only linkage institution. There are other linkage institutions that are important as well. Another important linkage institution is political campaigns and elections.
The sine quo non of any democracy are free and fair publicly held elections. In our democracy national elections are held every two years. Every four years we hold a presidential election. In presidential election years there are also Congressional elections. Midterm elections are held two years into a president’s term. These elections are reserved primarily for Congressional offices. State and local elections are held even more frequently. Before elections are held there are political campaigns. Campaigns serve the purpose of introducing candidates to the voters. They tend to be long, require large amounts of campaign finance and often are characterized by nasty and negative television ads. Without campaigns, however, we would not be able to accurately judge the character of our candidates.
Money cannot get you elected. There are a number of critical elements to running a successful political campaign. First you need to get mentioned. There has to be an acknowledgement by certain elites or a collective mass of people that you are both qualified and desirable as a candidate. Image and likeability have a lot to do with this and plays an important role in any successful campaign.
Once mentioned, you will need to create a formidable campaign organization. This starts with a handler. Handlers are the brains behind any campaign. With a staff of media and marketing experts handlers attempt to brand candidates like you would a product in the grocery store. This involves finding the right slogans and messages. Critical to any candidate and campaign are running successful TV ads. Barnstorming across the country involves a ground game. When running for president, an advance staff with resources must be in place in all fifty states. Thousands of volunteers are needed to make calls, knock on doors, create posters and even write speeches and press releases.
The modern campaign has also seen the necessity to debate your opponent. These debates usually are less about what is said and more about how it is said. Journalists lob gotcha questions hoping for candidates to slip up or make verbal mistakes. We watch for bloopers. Nevertheless these debates play an important role in introducing candidates to a wider national audience.
National campaigns often look for what is called an October surprise. Despite all of the planning and scripted activity some outside news event or unexpected crisis changes the dynamic of most campaigns. For President Bush these surprises usually involved terrorist attacks and for candidate Obama the financial meltdown made it more difficult for McCain to challenge. Lest we forget, in the end we the people vote. It is our vote that legitimizes campaign activity. Slick ads and fancy images do not assure victory. In the end, the most votes is the only way to win an election. This is easier said then done.
What conclusions can we make about the modern political campaign? They are much longer. They are far more expensive. As noticed, they are much more democratic. Campaign professionals and consultants have taken on a much more important role. The media covers campaigns more like a horse race. Emphasis is given to who is in the lead according to the latest polling data. In depth coverage on the issues is unlikely. Political parties have grown less important in the process. Regional blocs are more and more important. Republicans count on the solid South for support while Democrats rely on coastal regions. And finally because turnout in the primaries is characterized by base voters, a much smaller number, candidates tend to be far more ideological then the average voter in the general election. Ironically, this means that our political process is far more welcoming to more radical candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. It is for this reason that our politics in Washington appears to be more polarized then what is actually believed in the heartland.
Voter turnout in elections remains low. In presidential years one hopes to exceed 50% of eligible voters in the general election. Turnout in the primaries is much lower. Voter turnout in midterm elections rarely exceeds 40%. Today’s elections have too many under votes and over votes. Under votes are those who choose not to vote. Over votes are those who have spoiled their ballots by improperly marking them.
When congressional elections are nationalized, meaning focused attention on a major issue, turnout tends to be higher. So too is the rate of incumbent defeat. More often elections are localized focusing on local issues. When this is so incumbent rates are quite high. Incumbency is the likelihood of winning reelection. Incumbency rates in the House of Representatives often reach 90% though a little lower in the Senate. We may hold our Congress in disregard but most tend to be reelected anyway. More then anything else this is due to turnout in the primaries. Remember most of us stay home for this phase. The party base dominates primary election turnout.
6. Explain the primary and caucus process, as well as the shift from party control over candidates to voter control.
The modern campaign has two important stages.
The first stage of any campaign is winning your political party’s nomination. Party candidates used to be selected by the party bosses in small caucuses. Benefits were doled out by and for party loyalists. This was called a spoils system. Everyday citizens were left out of the process. It did not take long for this to change. As suffrage rights expanded voters demanded more and more power in voicing their candidate preferences. This first manifested itself in political party conventions. These conventions were held so that many more citizens could participate in the nominating process. In time, these conventions grew inadequate. Today the modern nominating process is characterized by primary elections. A primary election is like any other election. Primary ballots, however, do not choose winners but candidates. Primary elections invite all eligible voters to participate in helping political parties choose their candidates. Most states hold closed primaries. Closed primaries stipulate that only registered party members can participate. In open primaries any registered voter can participate. Because most states hold closed primaries, and more and more Americans see themselves as independent, turnout tends to be quite low [as low as 25% in many states]. Nevertheless this first stage in any campaign is of utmost importance. In the first stage political parties nominate their candidates.
Primary election campaigns tend to be frontloaded. This means that the earliest primaries often carry the most significance. The first primary has traditionally been held in New Hampshire. Because it is the first primary it often establishes important momentum. Iowa, however, can still claim an important role. Iowa is one of the few states that still hold a nominating caucus. Usually held just prior to the New Hampshire primary, the Iowa caucus often can boast that it catapulted the frontrunner.
The second stage of any campaign is winning the general election. General election campaigns begin immediately following a political parties national convention. Primary and caucus elections ultimately choose delegates to a party’s national conventions. It is those delegates who cast the final tally that makes the nomination official. Though primary election results make the national convention anti-climatic, these assemblies provide an important showcase to both the party platform and its prized candidate. Slick images and choreographed speeches at the national convention kick-off the general election campaign. In the end the general election determines who will fill the government office at stake.
Winning primary and general elections require more than just candidates. The modern campaign today involves an army of paid and volunteer staff. Presidential candidates rent office space in all fifty states. But most importantly use all forms of media to run ads. Consequently, the modern campaign requires vast sums of money.
7. Discuss the different ways that presidential and congressional campaigns are funded.
The mother’s milk of politics is money. Democracy is not cheap. With escalating campaign costs the role of money in politics has increasingly grown muddled at best. Traditionally politics has been perceived of as a haven for fat cats. The perception that graft and corruption reign has always been close to the surface. The fear of a plutocracy, a government by the rich, has prompted our Congress more recently to pass campaign finance laws. These campaign finance laws were intended to assure a level playing field for all. They also emphasize the importance of transparency. Full and complete disclosure allows media watchdogs to police the relationship between our politicians and the moneyed class. These laws have been met by skepticism and suspicion.
The Federal Election Campaign Act [FECA] of 1971 was the first major piece of legislation that addressed money in politics. In addition to creating the Federal Elections Commission [FEC] that regulates campaign money this law put in place strict limits on both hard money and soft money. Hard money is money given directly to a candidate’s campaign. This law limited that amount to $1,000. No single person could give more than $1,000 to a candidate’s campaign. Soft money is money directed to the national political party. Though unlimited, the party could only use soft money for issue advocacy and get out the vote efforts.
This opening salvo to campaign finance limits was challenged in the court case Buckley v. Valeo (1976). The Supreme Court seemed to find valid arguments on both sides. The Court recognized that campaign money was protected under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Yet recognized the need for limits so as to assuage the perception that money unfairly benefitted a few in our political process. Not too surprising this law did not reduce money in the process nor did it reduce the perception of money’s corrupting influence.
The formation of political action committees (PACs) quickly became a loophole to circumvent these new apparent limits. New money began to pore into thousands of PACs. These new PACs gave their newly raised money to the candidates. In the end money had not been limited at all. It had only been redirected.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act [BCRA] of 2002 was intended to address the apparent loopholes that provided for big money influence. Hard money limits were actually increased to $2,000 and indexed to inflation rates. Unlimited soft money was banned entirely. Often called by its nickname, McCain-Feingold hoped to improve upon the intentions of the previous legislation. The Court upheld these new provisions in the case McConnell v. FEC (2003). But again the result was the same. An unintended consequence was that political parties grew weaker. It also spurred the growth of outside independent expenditures.
Outside independent expenditures took on the form of 527 groups. These independent groups cannot work directly with the candidates nor can they funnel money to their respective campaigns. They can, however, collect unlimited amounts of money and use it to run ads that promote political candidates and their positions. Today these 527 groups have grown more and more significant to the political process. The Court in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) has essentially endorsed these independent super PACs. Money, and we are talking about a lot of money, continues to flow into our political system. In our recent presidential campaign over $1 billion dollars was spent. Though some might say compared to our $6 billion spent annually on potato chips, electing a president is worth it.
Other campaign finance reforms have been suggested. The most frequently mentioned reform is replacing the current system of private money with publicly financed campaigns. This means that candidates would no longer need to solicit money. The federal government would underwrite the expenses of all national campaigns. A variation of this reform involves the federal government matching privately raised money. If a candidate chooses to accept federal money for their campaign they also agree to abide by stricter limitations on how and when that money is spent. Because most candidates can now raise more money then the federal government provides, they often choose not to accept the federal matching funds.
Money has always been the mother’s milk of politics. For the foreseeable future, it still is.
8. Discuss critical realignments and explain why they have occurred [also known as critical elections]. Explain the difference between realignments and de-alignments.
Throughout history political scientists have noted a phenomenon called realignment. Realignments occur when a sizable identifiable groups switch their party affiliation. Usually realignments occur because of a critical issue. The last realignment occurred in 1932. The economic hardships associated with the Great Depression spurred African Americans to switch from the Party of Lincoln to the Democrats. Today, because of weakening loyalties, realignments are unlikely to come about. Political scientists see greater probability for de-alignments. Rather then switching from one party to another it is far more likely for voters to hold no single loyalty to one party over another. If and when realignments do occur, political scientists call these critical elections.
9. Explain the difference between a majority and a plurality? Apply these concepts to U.S. elections. Explain how plurality elections and the winner-take-all system influence our two party system? What is a popular vote?
Certain institutional rules safeguard our elections from the tyranny of the majority. Elections in America are typically decided by pluralities. This simply means winners are determined by the most votes. No majorities are needed. We also have what is called single-member districts in the House of Representatives. This means that whoever wins the most votes represents that district. Winner-takes-all. There is no benefit to finishing second. The best example of these winner-take-all rules is the Electoral College.
The Electoral College ultimately determines presidential elections. The people indirectly elect our president. To win in the Electoral College a candidate must win a majority of the 538 electors. 270 electoral votes mean you will be the next president. Electoral votes are allocated state by state. Most states have winner take all rules. When a candidate receives the most votes in a state they then will receive all of that state’s electoral votes. The number of electoral votes per state is the sum of their representation in Congress. If Illinois has 18 members in the U.S. House and 2 members in the U.S. Senate then Illinois receives 20 electoral votes. Though one might imagine that the race is for the big states, holding regional blocs together like the solid South for Republicans is a formidable hurdle for Democrats to overcome. Invariably most states are fairly predictable. Presidential campaigns in the general election tend to focus on just a handful of bellwether states. Large amounts of campaign resources are spent in ten or fewer states. This means that millions of Americans feel somewhat left out of general election politics.
Reformers suggest that the way to cure the ills of democracy is to provide for more democracy. Popular elections are on the rise. More and more direct democracy is at hand. As a sign that our elections are growing more and more democratic, one should note the increasing number of referendums. A referendum puts a public policy idea directly on the ballot. Essentially, a referendum makes the voter a member of a large legislative branch. When voting on referendums voters get to directly decide a legislative question. Referendums move us closer and closer to a direct democracy, something the founding fathers were afraid of.
Democracy is a verb, indeed.
10. Explain incumbency. Discuss incumbency rates for the President, House and the Senate.
Political legitimacy in our political process relies on free and fair elections. Certain institutions help to link the people to this process. These important linkage institutions are political parties, campaigns and elections. G.K. Chesterton was right, “Democracy is like blowing your nose – you may not do it very well, but you ought to do it yourself.”
Yet there is a pink elephant in the room on most election days. It is the most important word associated with our electoral politics. That word is incumbency. An incumbent is the current office holder running for reelection. Incumbency is when the current office holder wins at a disproportionate rate. In other words, incumbency means once you win the likelihood is you get to stay in power for as long as you want.
Incumbency rates tend to increase as number of constituents decreases. Incumbency rates in the House of Representatives are higher then the Senate and much higher then when seeking reelection as president.
Incumbents have a number of advantages. They are: name recognition, ease of raising money, ability to campaign on a record of service, protection through favorably drawn district lines and relatively low turnout rates.
Some would say incumbency threatens the legitimacy of American democracy. Others say it merely reflects the kind of stability American voters desire. Like our constitution, incumbency would appear to reflect that American citizens find dramatic change worrisome.
Nevertheless, we continue to rely on political parties, campaigns and elections to safeguard our democratic political process. In the end you the voter bring legitimacy to American democracy.