Why don't American voters vote for independent candidates?

When the founders of the American Republic drafted the United States Constitution in 1787, they created a state in which parties were not a factor. Through various constitutional provisions - such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism and the indirect election of the president by an electoral college - they even tried to keep the political parties and groups out of the new state.

Despite these founders' intentions, in 1800 the United States became the first country to develop nationally organized parties and to transfer governance from one political grouping to another through elections.

The emergence and supremacy of political parties

The emergence of political parties was closely linked to the expansion of the right to vote when, at the beginning of the 19th century, voting rights were no longer tied to property. In view of the now rapidly growing electorate, a means was needed to mobilize the electorate. In order to achieve this essential goal, parties were established as political institutions. The American parties came into being in the wake of this democratic revolution, and they were already an integral part of the political landscape by the 1830s.

Politics today is completely dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties. Nearly 60 percent of Americans consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats, and even the independents or non-party affiliates usually tend to be party to one of the parties and show high levels of party loyalty. For example, in the five presidential elections between 1980 and 1996, 75 percent of Republican or Democratic Independents voted for the presidential candidate nominated by their favored party. In 2000, 79 percent of Republican-leaning Independents voted for Republican George W. Bush, while 72 percent of Democratic-leaning Independents voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore.

The ubiquitous influence of the parties also includes the ruling party. The two major parties dominate the presidential office, Congress, governorships, and state parliaments. All presidents since 1852 have been either Republicans or Democrats, and in the years after World War II, the major parties averaged 94.8 percent of the presidential election.

Following the 2002 congressional and local elections, there was only one independent senator among the 100 members of the US Senate, and only 2 of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives were independent. At the state level, all 50 governors were either Republicans or Democrats, and only 21 (0.003 percent) of the 7,300-plus MPs in state parliaments were neither Republicans nor Democrats. The two-party system determines government at both the federal and state levels.

Although the American parties are ideologically less self-contained and less programmatic than the parties in many other democracies, they still have a decisive influence on political events. Since the 1994 elections, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have shown clear political differences compared to the historical norm and an unusually high degree of intra-party unity. The party-political disputes between the two parties are carried out in the context of the biennial congressional and senate elections, which hold the real potential for a partisan change of power in the House of Representatives and Senate. The combination of political division and intense competition for control of the Chamber has led to an extremely heated atmosphere of party-political conflicts in the Senate and the House of Representatives in recent years. And in the run-up to the 2004 election, both party Congressmen and Democrats nominees, as well as the Bush administration, are making a series of moves to gain an advantage in the elections.

Why a two-party system?

One of the most prominent and enduring features of the political system is the rivalry between the two major parties. Republicans and Democrats have dominated election campaigns and politics since the 1860s. This unrivaled record of the monopoly of election campaign policy by the same two parties is an expression of certain structural peculiarities of the political system as well as special features of the American parties.

In the United States of America, elections to the legislative bodies of the federal government and the individual states are subject to the single-member district system - that is, whoever has the majority of votes (i.e. the largest number of votes in the respective constituency) is elected. united on itself. In contrast to proportional representation, with majority voting, only one party can win in each constituency. This system is therefore an incentive to form two parties with a broad base, which are then attractive enough for the elector to achieve majorities in the constituencies, whereby smaller parties or a third party are practically constantly doomed to failure? so not a recipe for longevity unless they join one of the big parties. However, joining one of the large parties is not an option for most smaller parties because all but a handful of states prohibit so-called mergers in which the applicant is running for more than one party.

Another institutional push towards a two-party system comes from the electoral college system for the presidential election. Under the electoral college system, Americans do not technically elect candidates for the presidential campaign directly. Instead, they vote in each state for a candidate list of "electors" who have signed up to one or the other presidential candidate. To be elected president, you need an absolute majority of the votes of the total of 538 electors from the 50 states. This condition makes it extremely difficult for a third party to win the presidency, because the electoral votes of the individual states are awarded according to a system that awards the winner-take-all. That is, the candidate who gets the majority of the votes in a state? even if it's only a slim majority? receives all electoral votes for a state. Just like majority voting, the electoral college also puts third parties at a disadvantage because they have little chance of getting a state's electoral vote, much less of getting enough states behind them to elect the president.

Since the Republicans and Democrats control the state apparatus, it is not surprising that they have created other electoral regulations that favor the big parties. Just putting the name of a new party in a state on the ballot can be a tedious and costly endeavor. For example, North Carolina state electoral regulations require a petition with 58,842 signatures for a new party to put the names of its presidential candidates on the ballot for the 2004 election in the first place. In addition, the Federal Election Campaign Act grants the large parties special benefits, including a lot more public money to finance the presidential election campaign than is made available to smaller parties? even those who passed the 5 percent threshold in the last election.

The distinctive American nomination process is another structural obstacle for third parties. Of all the democracies in the world, the United States is the only country that holds primaries to nominate party candidates for state office in the states and in Congress, and that holds state primaries for the presidential elections to nominate the respective presidential candidates. In this type of nomination system, the bulk of a party's supporters in a primary select the candidate nominated by their party's general election. In most countries, the candidates are nominated by the party organizations and their chairmen. But in the United States, whoever is nominated by the Republicans and Democrats rests ultimately with the electorate.

Of course, this system also contributes to the fact that the internal party organizations in the United States are less developed than in most other democratic states. This voter-based nomination process has also helped Republicans and Democrats dominate election politics for 150 years. If a party nominates them in the primaries, party rebels can also put their names on the general election ballot without the need to form a third party, improving their chances of winning the election. As a result, divergent opinions are also represented in both major parties through the pre-election and nomination process, and dissidents do not face the difficult task of founding a third party. Of course, the system of primary elections for nominee nominations also makes the two major parties extremely permeable, and occasionally they are permeated by some social "fringes" and "outsider candidates".

Broad base in the electorate and politically in the middle

The American parties enjoy widespread support from all walks of life. With the exception of African-American voters - 90 percent of whom voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2000 elections - both the Republican and Democratic Parties recruit substantial segments of their supporters from virtually every major socio-economic group in society. For example, while union members can generally be expected to vote for Democrats, Republicans can expect to get at least a third of the union’s vote in most elections, and in 1984 the party received 46 percent of that vote. In 2000, 37 percent of union members voted for the Republican Party. Although support for Democrats tends to decline as incomes go up, Democratic presidential candidates can usually also count on substantial support from upper-middle-class voters. For example, in 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore received 43 percent of the vote from voters with an annual income of over $ 100,000.

Political parties in the United States have a relatively low degree of internal unity and are not strictly adherents of any particular ideology or political orientation. Rather, their primary concern has always been to win elections and control leadership positions in the state. Since they recruit their constituents from all socio-economic strata and have to move within a society that is essentially ideologically located in the middle, the American parties predominantly represent a middle position. They also show a high degree of political flexibility. This non-doctrinal approach allows Republicans and Democrats alike to tolerate very different opinions among their party members and has helped them absorb third parties and protest movements whenever they emerged.

Decentralized parties

One has to emphasize again and again how much the American parties are characterized by strongly decentralized power structures. Historically, the president of the ruling party cannot assume that his party's MPs in Congress will loyally support his program; Neither can the party leaders in Congress expect their party's members to strictly follow the party line when voting. Within the party organization, for both the Republicans and the Democrats, the election campaign committees for the congressional and Senate elections (which consist of the elected members) operate completely autonomously from the national party leadership, which is oriented towards the presidency? the Republican and Democratic national committees. Aside from having limited influence over the procedures for electing delegates to the federal convention, national party organizations rarely interfere in state party affairs.

This organizational fragmentation is partly the result of the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government, each of which is elected using a different procedure, has different terms of office and all are independent of one another. This system of separation of powers offers MPs little incentive to stand united behind their party leaders. This is general, whether we are talking about the congressmen and a president from their own party, or similar relationships between a state MP and a governor.

The constitutional principle of federal state-building, which has created a tiered system of government at the federal, state and local levels, leads to a further decentralization of the parties by creating thousands of separate constituencies? also at the federal, state and local levels - creates, each with their own officials. As already mentioned, holding primary elections to nominate candidates also weakens the party organizations because they have no way of controlling the selection of candidates. Individual candidates are therefore encouraged to build their own campaign organization and electoral support in order to win first the primaries and then the general election. Even the raising of donations for the election campaign is essentially left to the individual candidate, as the party organizations usually have only limited funds available and often have to comply with very strict legal requirements with regard to the amount of money they receive, especially for election campaigns at the federal level can spend.

Americans' reservations about political parties

Although there is impressive evidence that the party system does play a role in the American political system, the distrust of parties is deeply rooted in civic culture. The introduction of the pre-election system for nominations for congressional candidates and candidates in the states at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the recent surge in the number of presidential primaries, which have become the determining factor in the nomination of presidential candidates, are evidence of the anti-party mood within the public. Americans do not like the fact that the leaders of their party organizations exert a great deal of influence over their government. Opinion polls show that large parts of the electorate believe parties are more likely to create confusion than clarify issues? and that it would be better if no parties were listed on the ballot.

Not only do American parties operate in a cultural climate that is not exactly receptive to them, they also face the problem that a significant number of voters attach less and less importance to personal identification with a particular party. The ticket? Splitting, which means that you cast your vote for candidates from different parties in the same election, is characteristic of this low level of party affiliation among voters. In 2000, 20 percent of the electorate voted for candidates from various parties in the presidential and House elections. As a result, 40 of the districts that George W. Bush won in the presidential election were simultaneously won by Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives.
As a result of Americans' relatively weak party affiliation, a significant number of voters who consider themselves to be independent, and the tendency of many voters to vote for different candidates, American politics is more candidate-focused than political. That is, party control of the executive and legislative branches has become commonplace in both the federal government and the 50 states. Indeed, in only four years since 1980, the presidency and at least one chamber of Congress have not been controlled by separate parties. After the 2000 elections, 29 states (58 percent) were controlled by different parties.

Third parties and independent candidates

As can be seen from the table below, in spite of the obstacles already mentioned, third parties and independent candidates have appeared from time to time in American politics. Often they took on social issues that were not taken up by the big parties, did they bring them into the public debate? and on the government agenda. But most third parties only stuck to one election and then disappeared, became insignificant, or merged into one of the major parties. Since the mid-19th century, only one new party has managed to become a big party, namely the Republicans. At that time, the overriding moral issue of slavery divided the nation, providing an opportunity to recruit candidates and mobilize voters.

While the table below does not provide evidence of the long-term viability of third parties, it does allow us to conclude that these parties can have a major impact on the outcome of the election. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's candidacy for a third party resulted in a split in the votes of traditional Republican voters, and as a result, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected with less than a majority of the direct votes cast.

In 1992, Ross Perot's candidacy attracted voters who had mostly voted Republicans in the 1980s, contributing to the defeat of incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush at. In the very close election in 2000 between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, Gore might have won the Florida State electoral vote, and thus the majority of the electoral votes required to win the presidential election, had the candidate come from the Green Party, Ralph Nader, wasn't on the Florida ballot papers.

Opinion polls since the 1990s have consistently shown high levels of voter support for a third party. A Gallup poll in the run-up to the 2000 election found that 67 percent of Americans were in favor of a strong third party to run against the Republican and Democratic nominees for the presidential, congressional, and state office. This attitude, as well as the enormous sums he invested in the election campaign, enabled Texas billionaire Ross Perot to win 19 percent of the direct vote in the 1992 presidential election - the highest percentage that any candidate could get that none of the big ones Belonged to parties since Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party) won 27 percent in 1912.

Despite indications of potential third party support, there are considerable barriers preventing a third party from winning the presidential election or from having a larger number of senators or MPs in the House of Representatives. In addition to those already mentioned, one of the main obstacles is voters' fear that their vote will be virtually "lost" if they give it to a third party candidate. It has been shown that voters vote strategically and cast their second choice when they feel that a third party candidate has no chance of victory. For example, in 2000, 15 percent of voters rated Ralph Nader better than George W. Bush or Al Gore in a pre-election poll, but Nader received just 2.7 percent of the direct votes. Similarly, in 1992, 21 percent of those who named Ross Perot first voted for other candidates when they actually voted.

There is also the phenomenon of giving your vote to a third party candidate out of "protest". In a 1992 Gallup poll, five percent of Perot voters said they would not have voted for him if they thought he could have won.

Should third parties or independent candidates win the presidency, they would face a potentially frightening problem after the election, namely the problem of governance - that is, filling government offices and working with a Republican and Democratic congress who would only have a limited willingness to work with a president who does not belong to any of the major parties.

Original text: Political Parties in the United States, John F. Bibby