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Reading 7: Voter Participation and Electoral Competition Thomas E. Patterson

Reading 7: Voter Participation and Electoral Competition Thomas E. Patterson

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Chapter 7: Political Participation and Voting

A trio of developments explains this

one-sidedness. Four decades ago, Congress

decided to increase its staffing in order to

better evaluate information coming from

the executive branch. Congressional staffs

doubled in the 1960s, and then doubled

again in the 1970s. By 1980, each House

member had a staff of roughly 20 people,

far more than were needed for legislative

purposes because the staffs of committees,

where most of the legislative work is done,

had also quadrupled. What House members

had actually secured for themselves were

personal staffs large enough to run perpetual

election campaigns, paid for at taxpayer

expense. Combined with free travel, media,

mailing, and other perks, House members’

staffs gave them a large advantage over

election challengers.

House members received another boost

when campaign finance reform legislation

was enacted in 1974. Although the law

closed some loopholes and strengthened

disclosure requirements, it relaxed the rules

for political action committees (PACs).

Within a decade, the number of PACs had

increased from 600 to 4,000. PACs discovered that it was risky to bet against House

incumbents, as they were already in

positions of power and likely to stay there.

By the 1990s, PACs were giving House

incumbents eight dollars for every dollar

they gave to their challengers.

The third and final piece in America’s

incumbent-protection game fell fully into

place after the 2000 census. Traditionally,

congressional redistricting after each census

has been guided by partisanship. Majorities

in state legislatures shape House districts in

ways designed to help their party’s candidates. State legislatures still act in this way,

but they have also increasingly bowed to

the reality that incumbents are tough to

dislodge. After the 2000 census, state legislatures reconfigured congressional districts

to protect incumbents generally, not just

those of a particular party. It was not a

completely new approach but the scale was

unprecedented, as was the precision with

which the boundaries were drawn, thanks

to the calculating power of advanced

computers. According to the Cook Political

Report, the redistricting that took place

after the 2000 census created only half as

many competitive districts as had been

created after the 1990 census.

This situation did not prevent the

Democrats from taking control of the

House in 2006. Virtually no Democratic

incumbent was defeated and Democratic

candidates in other districts fared well

enough to reverse the total number of

Democrats and Republicans in the House,

enabling their party to capture the chamber.

However, only fifty or so of the 435

House districts were the site of hotly contested campaigns. Voters in the 300-plus

other districts were treated to one-sided

contests. In several dozen of these districts,

the incumbent ran unopposed. In others, the

challenger had so little money that the

campaign was barely visible. Even the news

media stayed on the sidelines in these

districts. Press coverage of congressional

elections has been declining anyway, and a

one-sided race provides local newspapers

and television stations with an excuse to cut

the coverage to almost nothing, which they


Uncompetitive races diminish the

power of the vote. It has been said of

incumbent-protection gerrymandering that

it enables “candidates to pick the voters” as

opposed to allowing the voters to choose

the candidates. Incumbents are handed

districts that contain so many voters of their

party that they could not possibly lose,

unless they do something so illegal or

scandalous that even their own party’s

voters find them repugnant—as was the

case in 2006 with a couple of incumbents,

including Florida’s Mark Foley who was

caught sending sexually suggestive e-mails

to teenage congressional pages.

Uncompetitive races also reduce the

incentive to vote. For one thing, there is no

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Chapter 7: Political Participation and Voting

closely contested campaign to generate

voter interest in the race. Although many

voters cast a ballot anyway, the outcome is

a foregone conclusion—there is no suspense

about which candidate will win and no particular reason for citizens to think that their

vote and the vote of others like them could

possibly swing the election. Studies indicate

that uncompetitive races have a turnout rate

that is roughly 5 percent lower than that of

competitive races.

Unlike some barriers to voting, incumbentcentered redistricting could easily be fixed.

The state of Iowa has taken such a step.

Although the Iowa legislature has the final

say, it chooses among three plans put forth

by a non-partisan legislative agency, which

divides the state into congressional districts

using four criteria: that districts be as nearly


equal in population as possible, that the

districts be contiguous as to area, that

districts include whole counties and cities,

and that districts be compact. Partisanship is

not a criterion. As a result, of Iowa’s five

congressional districts, four are competitive

between the parties, a number that exceeds

the number of competitive districts in

California, which has fifty-three districts,

and in New York, which has twenty-nine


Nevertheless, like other steps that could

be taken to shift power to the voters and

thereby increase the incentive to vote,

political elites are not rushing to embrace

the Iowa model. They gained power

through the current system and evince little

interest in changes that would reduce their

chances of holding onto it.

What’s Your Opinion?

Are there other ways to make congressional elections more competitive?

For example, do you favor public funding of campaigns as a way to provide challengers the money they need to run a strong campaign against an


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Political Parties, Candidates,

and Campaigns: Defining

the Voter’s Choice

Political parties created democracy and . . . modern democracy is unthinkable

save in terms of the parties.


Toe-to-toe, they slugged it out in states and districts across the breadth

of America, each side saying that it had the answer to America’s problems. One side claimed that the fighting in Iraq was a key link in the war

on terrorism—that America would be safe only if it took the fight to the

enemy. The other side portrayed the Iraq invasion as an ill-conceived venture that had increased the terrorist threat while taking a deep toll on

America’s soldiers. And Iraq was but one of the issues separating the two

sides: among the others were jobs, taxes, education, immigration, health,

abortion, budget deficits, and the environment.

The scene of this showdown was the 2006 midterm election. The two

sides were the Republican party and the Democratic party, each with a

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns

slate of House and Senate candidates that carried its message into cities

and towns across America.

A political party is an ongoing coalition of interests joined together

in an effort to get its candidates for public office elected under a common label.2 By offering a choice between policies and leaders, parties

give voters a chance to influence the direction of government. “It is

the competition of [parties] that provides the people with an opportunity to make a choice,” political scientist E. E. Schattschneider

wrote. “Without this opportunity popular sovereignty amounts to


This chapter examines political parties and the candidates who run

under their banners. U.S. campaigns are party-centered politics in the

sense that the Republican and Democratic parties compete across the

country election after election. Yet campaigns are also candidatecentered politics in the sense that individual candidates devise their own

strategies, choose their own issues, and form their own campaign organizations. The following points are emphasized in this chapter:

★ Political competition in the United States has centered on two parties, a

pattern that is explained by the nature of America’s electoral system, political institutions, and political culture. Minor parties exist in the United

States but have been unable to compete successfully for governing


★ To win an electoral majority, candidates of the two major parties must

appeal to a diverse set of interests; this necessity normally leads them to

advocate moderate and somewhat overlapping policies. Only during periods of stress are America’s parties likely to present the electorate

with starkly different choices.

★ U.S. party organizations are decentralized and fragmented. The national

organization is a loose collection of state organizations, which in

turn are loose associations of autonomous local organizations. This

feature of U.S. parties can be traced to federalism and the nation’s

diversity, which have made it difficult for the parties to act as instruments of national power.

★ The ability of America’s party organizations to control nominations and

election to office is weak, which in turn enhances the candidates’ role.

★ Candidate-centered campaigns are based on the media and utilize the

skills of professional consultants. Money, strategy, and televised

advertising are key components of today’s presidential and

congressional campaigns.

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns


Party Competition and Majority Rule:

The History of U.S. Parties

Through their numbers, citizens have the potential for great influence,

but that potential cannot be realized unless citizens have the capacity to

act together. Parties give them that capacity. When Americans go to the

polls, they have a choice between the Republican and Democratic parties.

This party competition narrows their options to two and in the process

enables people with different backgrounds and opinions to unite behind

a single alternative. In casting a majority of its votes for one party, the

electorate chooses that party’s candidates, philosophy, and policies over

those of the opposing party.

The history of democratic government is synonymous with the history

of parties. When the countries of Eastern Europe gained their freedom

more than a decade ago, one of their first steps toward democracy was

the legalization of parties. When the United States was founded over two

centuries ago, the formation of parties was also a first step toward the

building of its democracy. The reason is simple: it is the competition

among parties that gives popular majorities a chance to influence how

they will be governed.4 Stated differently, political parties are the instrument that allows the principle of self-government to be realized in practice. If there were no mechanism like the political party to enable citizens

to make their voices heard collectively, they would be powerless—each

citizen unable to be heard loud enough to get the government’s attention.

The First Parties

America’s early leaders mistrusted parties. George Washington in his

farewell address warned the nation of the “baneful effects” of parties, and

James Madison likened parties to special interests. However, Madison’s misgivings about parties gradually gave way to a grudging admiration; he recognized that they enabled like-minded people to exercise collective power.

America’s parties originated in the rivalry within George Washington’s

administration between Thomas Jefferson, a supporter of states’ rights

and small landholders, and Alexander Hamilton, a promoter of strong

national government and commercial interests (see Figure 8–1). When

Hamilton’s ideas prevailed in Congress, Jefferson and his followers

formed a political party, the Republicans. By adopting this label, which

was associated with popular government, the Jeffersonians sought to portray themselves as the rightful heirs to the American Revolution’s legacy

of self-government and political equality.

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns


Republicans Democrats


Federalists schism

Civil War




States’ Wallace

rights schism




Bull Moose


1790 1800 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 1900 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 2000 10




A Graphic History of America’s Major Parties

The U.S. party system has been remarkable for its continuity. Competition between

two major parties has been a persistent feature of the system.

Hamilton then organized his supporters into a formal party—the

Federalists—and in the process created America’s first competitive party

system. The Federalists took their name from the faction that had supported

ratification of the Constitution, thereby implying that they represented

America’s governing tradition. However, the Federalists’ preoccupation

with commercial and wealthy interests fueled Jefferson’s claim that the

Federalists were bent on establishing a government of the rich and wellborn. After Jefferson in the election of 1800 defeated John Adams, who

had succeeded Washington as president, the Federalists never again controlled the presidency or Congress.

During the so-called Era of Good Feeling, when James Monroe ran

unopposed in 1820 for a second presidential term, it appeared as if the political system might operate without parties. Yet by the end of

Monroe’s second term, policy differences had split the Republicans. The dominant faction, led by Andrew Jackson, retained


Jefferson’s commitment to the interests of ordinary people. This


faction called itself Democratic Republicans, later shortened to

Democrats. Thus, the Republican party of Jefferson is the forerunner of

today’s Democratic party rather than of today’s Republican party.

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns


Andrew Jackson and Grassroots Parties

For all its shortcomings, competition between parties is the only system

that can regularly mobilize collective influence on behalf of the many who

are individually powerless against those few who have extraordinary

wealth and status.

This realization led Jackson during the 1820s to develop a grassroots

party. Whereas Jefferson’s party had been well organized only at the leadership level, Jackson sought a party that was built from the bottom up.

Jackson’s Democratic party consisted of organizations at the local, state,

and national levels, with membership open to all eligible voters. These

organizations, along with more liberal suffrage laws, contributed to a

nearly fourfold rise in voter turnout during the 1830s.5 At the peak of

Jacksonian democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The People reign in

the American political world as the Deity does in the universe.”6 Although

Tocqueville exaggerated the people’s true power, he caught the spirit of

popular government that was behind the development of grassroots parties under Andrew Jackson.

In this period, a new opposition party, the Whigs, emerged to challenge the Democrats. The Whigs were a catchall party. Its followers

were united not by a coherent philosophy of their own but by their

opposition for one reason or another to the policies of the Jacksonian


Competition between the Whigs and the Democrats was relatively

short-lived. During the 1850s the slavery issue began to tear both parties apart. The Whig party withered, and a northern-based new party,

calling itself Republican, arose as the main challenger to the Democrats.

In the 1860 presidential election, the Democratic party’s northern

faction nominated Stephen A. Douglas, who held that the question of

whether a new territory would permit slavery was for its voters to

decide, while the southern faction nominated John C. Breckinridge, who

called for legalized slavery in all territories. The Democratic vote split

sharply along regional lines between these two candidates—with the

result that the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, who had called

for the gradual elimination of slavery, was able to win the presidency

with only 40 percent of the popular vote. Lincoln’s election prompted

the southern states to secede from the Union, which led to the Civil

War. For the first and only time in the nation’s history, the party system had failed to peaceably resolve Americans’ conflicting goals.7 The

issue of slavery proved too explosive to be settled through electoral


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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns

Republicans Versus Democrats: Realignments

and the Enduring Party System

After the Civil War, the nation settled into the pattern of competition

between the Republican and Democratic parties that has lasted through

today. The durability of these two parties is due not to their ideological

consistency but to their remarkable ability to adapt during periods of crisis.

By abandoning at these crucial times their old ways of doing things, the

Republican and Democratic parties have repeatedly remade themselves—

with new bases of support, new policies, and new public philosophies.

These periods of great political change are known as realignments. A

party realignment involves four basic elements:

1. The disruption of the existing political order because of the

emergence of one or more unusually powerful and divisive issues

2. An election contest in which the voters shift their support strongly

in favor of one party

3. A major change in policy brought about through the action of the

stronger party

4. An enduring change in the party coalitions, which works to the

lasting advantage of the dominant party

Realignments are rare. They do not occur simply because one party wrests

control of government from the other. They involve deep and lasting

changes in the party system that affect not just the most recent election

but later ones as well. By this standard, there have been three clear-cut

realignments since the 1850s.

The first of these, the Civil War realignment, brought about a thorough

change in the party system. The Republicans replaced the Democrats as

the nation’s majority party. The Republicans dominated the larger and more

populous North, while the Democratic party was left with a stronghold in

what became known as “the Solid South.” During the next three decades,

the Republicans held the presidency except for Grover Cleveland’s two

terms of office and had a majority in Congress for all but four years.

The 1896 election resulted in a second realignment of the RepublicanDemocratic party system. Three years earlier, an economic panic following

a bank collapse had resulted in a severe depression. The Democrat Cleveland was president when the crash happened, and people blamed him and

his party. In the aftermath, the Republicans made additional gains in the

Northeast and Midwest, solidifying their position as the nation’s dominant

party. During the four decades between the 1890s realignment and the next

one in the 1930s, the Republicans held the presidency except for Woodrow

Wilson’s two terms and had a majority in Congress for all but six years.

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns


★ Leaders

Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln had been a member of

Congress from Illinois before his election to

the presidency in 1860. Homely and gangly,

Lincoln is regarded by many as America’s

greatest president for his principled leadership

during the Civil War. Lincoln’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable in that,

unlike earlier presidents, he came from a

humble background. His father was a frontiersman, his mother died

when he was ten, and he was largely self-schooled. His greatest

legacy is the preservation of the American Union. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address are two of his other

legacies. He was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital

shortly after the start of his second term as president. Lincoln was

the first Republican elected to the presidency, and his successful

pursuit of victory in the Civil War led to a party realignment that

solidified the GOP’s status as the nation’s majority party.

The Great Depression of the 1930s triggered yet another realignment

of the American party system. The Republican Herbert Hoover was president during the stock market crash of 1929, and many Americans blamed

Hoover, his party, and its business allies for the economic catastrophe that

followed. The Democrats became the country’s majority party. Their political and policy agenda called for an expanded role for the national government. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was characterized by

unprecedented policy initiatives in the areas of business regulation and

social welfare (see Chapter 3). His election in 1932 began a thirty-six-year

period of Democratic presidencies that was interrupted only by Dwight D.

Eisenhower’s two terms in the 1950s. In this period the Democrats also

dominated Congress, losing control only in 1947–48 and 1953–54.

The reason realignments have such a substantial effect on future elections is that they affect voters’ party identification (see Chapter 6). Young

voters in particular tend to identify with the newly ascendant party, and

they retain that identity, giving the party a solid base of support for years

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Chapter 8: Political Parties, Candidates, and Campaigns

to come. First-time voters in the 1930s came to identify with the Democratic party by a two-to-one margin, establishing it as the nation’s

majority party and enabling it to dominate national politics for the next

three decades.8

Today’s Party Alignment and Its Origins

A party realignment inevitably loses strength over time as the issues that

gave rise to it decline in importance. By the late 1960s, with the Democratic party divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights, it was apparent that the era of New Deal politics was ending.9

The change was most dramatic in the South. The region had been

solidly Democratic at all levels since the Civil War, but the Democratic

party’s leadership on civil rights angered white conservatives.10 In the

1964 presidential election, five southern states voted Republican, and the

South is now a Republican bastion in presidential politics. The Republican party also made gains, though more gradually, in elections for other

offices. Today most top officials in the southern states are Republicans.

More slowly and less completely, the northeastern states have become

more Democratic. The shift is partly attributable to the growing size of

minority populations in the Northeast. But it is also due to the declining

influence of the Republican party’s moderate wing, which was concentrated in these states. As southern conservatives became Republican in

ever larger numbers, the party’s stands on social issues such as abortion

The new order begins. Franklin D. Roosevelt rides to his inauguration with outgoing president Herbert Hoover after the realigning election of 1932.

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