It is not uncommon to assume that the present political party structure in the United States is fixed and immutable, consisting largely of only the Republican and Democratic parties. However, the history of political parties in the United States has shown that these institutions are anything but stable. Rather, parties have split, changed ideology, or simply ceased to exist. The purpose of this paper is to understand the forces behind political party change, and the reason that the modern political party era is so stable. For the purposes of this paper, the concept of “political party change” will reflect the formation of a new political party, a split of one political party into multiple parties, the end of a political party, or a major change in the prominence of a political party. Furthermore, while considerable research has been performed on the topic of party change on a global level (Pennings, 1998), this paper will focus solely on party change in American politics. Also, the central concern here is how parties function in their role in the government, and less concern will be given to how individuals in the electorate identify with their respective party.

Literature Review

One of the earliest mentions of parties in the American political landscape came in the Federalist Papers, where James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warned about the dangers of “domestic factions” (Madison, 1787; Hamilton, 1787). In their eyes, domestic factions such as political parties posed a real threat to the new republic, and should be guarded against. This perspective is likely to have shaped the writing of the Constitution, which makes no mention of political parties whatsoever. The non-partisan approach to government reigned during George Washington’s eight years in office as the nation’s first president; however, during this time, a divide began to appear in Washington’s own administration. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, would go on to found the Federalist Party, while Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of the State, would found the Democratic-Republican Party (Hofstadter, 1970). The former party met its end in 1816, and the latter split into the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats (Banner J. M., 1970). The Whig party ultimately fell apart around 1850 (Holt M. F., 1999), and a few years later the void was filled by the Republicans (Etcheson, 2006) at about the same time that the Democrats dropped the surname of one of their founders from their title. Overlooking the tumultuous party politics during the Civil War itself, these two parties have maintained their influence for nearly 150 years (NY Times, 1865). Historians largely break these stages into the First through Fifth Party Systems (Aldrich, 1999), with the latter being our current party system.

There exists much discussion as to what constitutes a significant political change, what forces underlie this change, and how one can identify the political climate at a given time. In his book America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History, Keller (2007) argues that we have seen only three major political “regimes” in America, periods in time with a significant consistency of system of government. In addition to identifying these political regimes, Keller attempts to determine whether we are seeing the end of the current regime. The first regime Keller identifies runs from the colonial period to the 1820s, ending only with the collapse of the Federalist Party. Keller titles this period the “Deferential-Republican Regime” and characterizes it with an uncertainty about many political and legal issues, and an independence from political parties until the need for them became too great. The next regime, the “Party-Democratic Regime”, begins with the onset of the Civil War, and extends until the 1930s, a period of over 100 years. Keller identifies this period as one of remarkable party and government consistency, with a focus on democracy. The beginning of the 20th century sees the beginning of the “Populist-Bureaucratic Regime”. This period is a significant change in that government becomes much less a top-down affair; a variety of institutions, from the media to the courts, espouse an attempt to represent “the people” or their social interests. Ultimately, Keller finds that the current difficulties experienced by this regime are matched by the successes, such as the vast expansion of civil rights. Furthermore, he argues that the tensions that we now experience are “as old as the Republic”. Therefore, he believes that the current regime is unlikely to change anytime soon.

What could then be said of the regime in which we find ourselves? Pildes argued that “Persons, History, and Institutions” (2011) could be said to define the current political climate. In this sense, “Persons” are those individuals with significant influence over their political party, “History” is the sweeping change that occurs over time, and “Institutions” are systems such as the Electoral College or parties themselves that define how power is allocated. According to Pildes, the current political system is largely defined by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This is a position that has been backed by Frymer (2011), although Frymer calls into question some of Pildes’ assertions. For example, Pildes’ conclusion is based largely on the power and impact of such institutional elements as closed primaries and the process of gerrymandering; Frymer counters that the winner-take-all system cannot be meaningfully impacted by small changes in outcomes through changes in these institutional systems. Nonetheless, Frymer acknowledges that enabling African-Americans to vote, and that group’s Democratic leanings (along with a major shift to the Republican Party among southern whites at the same time as the Voting Rights Act went into effect) had a significant impact on electoral outcomes, and thus party power. However, this might be an oversimplification. It is unlikely that any single piece of legislation can explain our entire political landscape. Nonetheless, some scholars have argued that social issues such as civil rights effectively set the stage for the election of Barack Obama (Alex-Assensoh, 2008), which in itself may have had fallout effects on political parties such as the formation of the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. While this division of American political history could be seen as an implicit assertion of realigning elections, I do not mean or intend to argue for this theory, but rather agree with Mayhew’s (2000) argument against “electoral realignments”. While some elections do indicate a significant change in the electorate or in the significance of certain political parties, this paper assumes these elections to indicate changes already occurred, rather than cause change themselves.

The causes of the current political party environment notwithstanding, it is important to understand the nature of previous attempts to measure, describe, and model party change. Harmel and Janda (1994) eschew the previous focus on changes to the entire party system for a focus on changes in parties themselves. They identify and model leadership change, change in dominant faction within the party, and external stimulus (commonly referred to as the random impact of Nature) as elements leading to party change. This second element, the shift of faction power within the party, is especially interesting. While I hope not to expand beyond the scope of this paper too far, one study by Budge, Robertson, and Hearl (1987) looked at the documents of a wide number of political parties from a number of countries. A thorough study of these documents showed what one might not expect; that within parties, there exists a struggle for control that is obvious even at the level of party platforms. Therefore, parties may not be the homogeneous entities commonly assumed, but rather an amalgam of the individuals within, with each individual trying to wield their own resources in such a way that they can maximize the degree to which the party aligns with their own views and desires.

One other way to measure the change in parties is from the perspective of their favor with constituents as a whole. Manza and Brooks (1999) did just that, looking at political party preference through a variety of “slices” of society. For one, the authors showed that class-based political alignments did not change in the way that many had expected; they show that class differences spread rather than narrowed in the period from 1950 to 1992, and that the perspective of professionals leaned more Democratic for social reasons not due to class issues. Also, the authors showed that religious groups underwent less change in this period than is often assumed, with only liberal Protestants showing a major shift in any direction, specifically away from the Republican Party; meanwhile, Catholics experienced little change as a group. Furthermore, the authors show that the “gender gap” and “race gap” have expanded as thought, but the theory that the latter has narrowed other social cleavages is not supported. In total, the authors find three significant trends: the decline in the numbers of liberal Protestants and the rise of managers in the Republican Party, and the decline in the numbers of unskilled workers and the rise of professionals in the Democratic Party. Through this lens, it is not difficult to imagine another way that political parties might gain or lose prominence. By adopting principles that appeal to a certain group, political parties can gain their votes, thus increasing their likelihood of re-election to some degree. However, this can come with unintended consequences, and the votes from other groups lost can outweigh the votes gained.

It is important to note the impact of electoral rules on parties in the political system. Longitudinal studies of the electoral rules in many political systems (Beck, Clarke, Groff, Keefer, & Walsh, 2001) have been used to show the impact of electoral rules on governance and parties. Nishikawa (2012) showed that party stability is initially benefitted by a first-past-the-post system, although this benefit reverses over time, and that two-party systems provide inherent stability that is expected to also reverse. Hyde & Marinov (2012) argue that a minimum of systematic fairness is needed in order for the ruling party to have even a shred of potential for accountability. Hicken & Stoll (2011) proved that presidential elections affect the incentives for those in legislative elections to coordinate and organize under a unified party banner. Despite these many factors and their impact on elections, Lijphart (1995) showed that electoral rules are largely consistent across a wide variety of democracies, meaning that we may expect to see much of the same outcome in a variety of political systems. Nonetheless, legislative elections in some nations have very different rules than in the United States, creating a situation where legislators have a limited chance of long congressional careers, and party bosses exert considerable power (Jones, Saiegh, Spiller, & Tommasi, 2002). Furthermore, the way that governments assign veto power can create deadlock, especially when there are divided preferences (Cox & McCubbins, 2001). In the case of parties and electoral rules in relation to congressional offices in the United States, the literature suggests that two-party stability will decline over time (although this has not been observed), with strong party unity during presidential elections and rules that support long careers and a fair amount of accountability.

A final, critical element of the literature to date deals with third parties. The book Third Parties in America (Rosenstone, Behr, & Lazarus, 1996) represents perhaps the strongest description of how the two major parties have maintained their power. The authors argue that while third parties have not made major inroads to Congress or won the presidential seat, they have influenced the discussion in other ways. Third parties successfully brought issues such as abolishing slavery, women’s suffrage, and an end to child labor to the forefront, despite the fact that the major parties had been ignoring them. By gaining some modicum of political power, these minor parties force the other parties to adopt their platforms, or risk losing votes that could cost them elections. Three’s a Crowd (Rapoport & Stone, 2007) described this influence in even greater detail, using the case of Ross Perot’s unsuccessful presidential bids. The authors of this book make the case that the major parties have repeatedly failed to address emerging concerns. Third parties have frequently been able to successfully define these new issues and constituencies in the wake of these failures, capturing a notable share of the vote. However, the history of third party failures in subsequent elections shows that the major parties have maintained their position by adopting the issues of these minor parties.

What then does the future hold for political parties? In a simple sense, there is not expected to be a major shift due to population effects such as immigration or birth rates (Kaufmann, Goujon, & Skirbekk, 2012) and so political party change must come from some other source, if there is to be any at all. Looking then at the literature, we can see some of the ways that parties may change over time. For one, the tumultuous period of party change in the first hundred years of this nation can be said with some certainty to be over; therefore, we should expect that the current two-party state will continue into the foreseeable future. According to Keller’s views on political parties, major shifts in the party system are the result of significant events that change the public’s perspective of how government functions, such as wars and major economic crises. Pildes and Frymer indicate that legislation has the most profound impact on political parties, as it can impact voter turnout and thus, the outcome of elections. Furthermore, research into the mechanisms within political parties indicates that their cumulative strength and focus is the result of battles within the party itself, and changes the view of parties from that of homogeneous entities to diverse groups of individuals. Also, the power of parties does not lie strictly with the relative proportion of certain classes of society, as the political leanings of these classes can change. Electoral rules impact political parties, but the stability afforded by rules in the U.S. may be countered by the long-term instability of a two-party system. Finally, the two major parties have clearly been able to maintain their position by absorbing the constituencies of third parties. Therefore, we should expect party change to be the result of exogenous and endogenous party forces, resulting in change within the parties, rather than the formation of completely new parties.


Based on the literature available on the subject, we can deduce several testable hypotheses. To begin, I assume that the system by which political parties have changed to date can best be thought of as a form of evolution. While I’d like to minimize the comparison to natural systems, I believe that the current political parties have each reached something similar to what is called an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). An ESS is simply an extension of the traditional Nash equilibrium (Nash, 1951), in that an ESS will continue to prevail in a system against competing strategies that would begin as rare (Smith & Price, 1973). In politics, these rare strategies are those that might be introduced by a third party. The theory of the ESS states that these attempted strategies are doomed to failure. I propose that the failure of a third party to successfully enter the U.S. political system and pose a threat to the dominance of the two primary political parties currently in existence is evidence that those parties have attained something similar to an ESS. The basic system in which parties exist has not changed, but rather they have changed to arrive at a near-optimal strategy for survival in this system.

Following from this, we may find ourselves with several questions. What has driven this evolution? What evidence is there of party evolution? What, if anything, could upset the current political party system? In this paper, I attempt to first provide some evidence that this evolution exists and that it is measurable. Then I will attempt to show some of the ways in which the parties have changed, and how this has led to their continued dominance in the current political party environment, often called the Fifth Party System (Aldrich, 1999) as opposed to the First through Fourth Party Systems, which were often characterized by political parties ending or splitting into multiple parties. Ultimately, the testable hypotheses proposed herein form a starting point from which it could be determined if political parties have, in fact, changed to acquire self-sustaining strategies.


There may be one or more of several reasons for the evolution of parties. One reason may be the ideological makeup of elected representatives of each party. To conceptualize this, I will be looking at the DW-NOMINATE scores for members of Congress from 1789 to 2010 (Carroll, et al., 2011). An analysis of this type will yield much useful information. First of all, the current predominant parties, Democrats and Republicans, have existed since 1854, meaning that there is over 150 years of data on the current system. Years preceding 1854 will contain data on Whigs and Federalists, which could provide relevant information on the ideological perspective of these failed political parties over time. In any case, I expect to see a significant change in ideological perspective over time, especially in the current political system. Essentially, I expect that the two successful parties – Democrats and Republicans – have become more similar to each other to appeal to more voters, but have become less similar internally as they accept a more diverse group of individuals to maintain their power.

A brief discussion should be afforded to DW-NOMINATE scores and their use in this research. These scores have been exhaustively compiled, starting with the work of Poole and Rosenthal, to describe the position of legislators on a largely one-dimensional issue space . This issue space can be interpreted to represent the range of positions from extremely liberal to extremely conservative (Everson, Valelly, & Wiseman, 2006). Scores in this issue space are assigned to individuals based on voting records. In this research, DW-NOMINATE scores are analyzed in several ways. For example, to determine if the elected legislators from a political party have become more moderate, one needs simply look at the average score of that party’s legislators over a given period of time. If the average has moved towards zero, then that party’s legislators have become more moderate. I should also note that presidential data will not be used for this analysis, and instead I will focus on Congressional DW-NOMINATE scores. Further analysis of the data is described in the following section, as it related to the hypothesis under discussion.

Research Design

Downs (1957) argued that in a two-party system, political parties have considerable incentive to change their platforms to resemble one another; in so doing, they capture a larger share of the vote by moving closer to the position of the median voter. These ideological shifts, I believe, will be as present in the elected members of the party as they will in the party platform itself. Therefore, over time, if the political parties are approaching a stable strategy where each is closely aligned to the perspective of the median voter, we would expect to see that the ideological composition of each party, as measured by their DW-NOMINATE scores, will get closer to the center, as opposed to further. In other words, the median DW-NOMINATE score for each party will move closer to a moderate position. While an increased level of polarization has been noted in the literature (Green, Smidt, Guth, & Kellstedt, 2005), I believe that this polarization relates more to rhetoric than actual political ideology, and as such, I maintain that ideologies should become more moderate over time.

Hypothesis 1: During the period of the current political parties’ dominance, DW-NOMINATE scores for elected members of those parties will become more moderate.

However, I do not want to limit my analysis strictly to the current political environment. I believe that there is as much to be learned by the failures of earlier political parties as there is by the success of the current political parties. To that end, I intend to use the DW-NOMINATE scores to analyze the ideological makeup of earlier failed political parties, namely the Federalists and the Whigs. Furthermore, third parties that have attempted to win the national presidential election could provide useful information, especially with regard to their ideological perspective. A number of parties have made inroads to the nation’s highest office, with no luck. Examples include the Anti-Masonic Party, Socialist Party, and most notably in recent history the Reform Party, who in 1992 managed to capture 18.9% of the vote (Mott) and later successfully bid for the office of Governor of Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society, 2012). Given my first hypothesis, it would stand to reason that unsuccessful parties would fail to move toward the moderate position, becoming more partisan in their stance, and thus failing to gain a substantial share of the vote. Note that this analysis will be limited to those political parties who have had members in Congress .

Hypothesis 2: Parties who have failed to either persist or win the presidential election have done so because their members have failed to move ideologically to a more moderate position.

Given these hypotheses, and assuming that successful parties do, in fact, become more moderate over time, we may wish to understand this relationship between party and member ideology in greater detail. Note that in this analysis, it is assumed that the median party member is becoming more moderate over time due to generational replacement; while children of party members may adopt their parent’s political leanings (Lyons, 2005), other factors can result in children that are more moderate than their parents (Fraley, Griffin, Belsky, & Roisman, 2012; Yasin, Satta, Fani, & Afzal, 2010). Essentially, parties could become more moderate because of the ideology of their elected members, or elected members could become more moderate to align with the position of the party. I propose the latter, that the members of a political party who have either held or go on to hold elected office, as in the case of a successful election bid for a non-incumbent, become more moderate in an attempt to align themselves with their party’s position. First and foremost this is because political parties are not as simple as is commonly believed by the public or, oftentimes, the scientists that study them. As explained by Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller (2008), American political parties are significantly, if not almost entirely, controlled by party insiders and state party leaders. Despite the attempts at party reform in the 1970s, those with the means and the desire to do so have continued to influence the outcome of presidential elections through the primary process. By determining who is nominated by the party, a small number of people essentially control the election decision that will face voters.

On a much smaller level, those who desire seats in Congress must convince their party that they are loyal to the party and that they support the same positions as the party as a whole. One easy way to do so is to align themselves to the planks of the party platform. Thus, we can say that party ideologies influence elected member ideologies, and not the other way around. There is some empirical evidence that this is the case, as Morton (1993) showed that candidates will align themselves with voter preferences despite their own ideological leanings. Therefore, I assume that party members could likewise align themselves with party platforms, again neglecting to some degree their own ideology. The directionality of this relationship can be tested using a simple one-tailed analysis of a linear regression, with a time-lagged variable for party ideology, which will show whether pre-existing (at time t-1) party ideology influences present (at time t) candidate ideology.

Hypothesis 3: Party ideological positions – as identified in the party platform – influence the ideological positions of the party’s elected members.

Knowing that party members seeking election or re-election to Congress are ideologically influenced by their parties and not the other way around begs the question: from whence comes the party’s ideological position? The ideological makeup of a party’s platform, I argue, stems largely from the perspective of the party’s perceived median voter. Note that this is different from the true median voter; in a world with perfect information, it would be possible for each party to know the exact ideology of the median voter. If this were the case, each election would be a dead heat (assuming the Downsian framework is accurate), and each party’s position would be identical. Instead, information costs introduce some asymmetry, as will be discussed later. In any case, parties are required to use their resources to determine the perspective of the median voter and align themselves closely to that perspective, within limits that will also be discussed later. To determine the position of the actual median voter, I will use data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) for all years where it was available. As a result, this relationship will not be able to be tested further back than the 1960s.

Hypothesis 4: A party’s ideological positions are determined by the perceived ideological position of the median voter.

Their ability to perceive the median voter’s position may in fact be somewhat obscured by outside forces, such as the cost to perform a poll or analyze the results of the poll. It is not shocking to suggest that information costs have decreased over time; therefore, I propose that parties have been able to more successfully align themselves with the position of the true median voter over time as information costs have decreased. This may follow logically, but two examples may clarify my reasoning here. Imagine the scenario faced by a political party in the mid-to-late 19th century who, we may assume, knows that they must appeal to the “common man” as much as possible to win the popular vote. To arrive at a defensible consensus on the position of the common man, they must send their staff to a variety of locations across the nation to talk with voters, with perhaps the fastest available option being a train. This information must be collected and analyzed by the central office, using highly intuitive and qualitative methods.

Today, a political party could work with any number of public opinion research companies who can cheaply poll individuals and use highly rigorous methods to arrive at a fairly accurate representation of the median voter. Furthermore, these companies are in direct competition with each other in an increasingly connected economy, and as such must offer their services at as low a cost as possible to attract customers. What’s more, the cost of computing power is at an all-time low, enabling these companies to perform complex analysis in little time. In short, information costs have a real and measurable effect on the ideology of political parties. It is believed that information costs over time can be determined by available literature on the topic. I expect to see a strong correlation between the trend in decreasing information costs and the difference between the party ideology and the median voter’s ideology.

Hypothesis 5: The ideological positions of political parties have gotten closer to the position of the true median voter over time due to decreasing information costs.

Earlier I mentioned that there were limits to the degree to which parties may be aligned to their perceived median voter. Here we come to the issue of differentiation, in two regards. First and foremost, there exist within each party a number of committed and ideologically polarized activists who yield considerable influence over the party (Bawn, et al., 2012). While the earlier hypotheses may indicate that individual members have little power, these activists are best understood as individuals with high levels of resources (Brady, Verba, & Schlozman, 1995) who are able to influence their party. Parties are then best understood as an interaction between the various interest groups, activists, and generally less committed members within each party, rather than as a homogeneous mass of like-minded individuals. These activists would be happier with a much more polarized political party in a multiple-party system, but in a system where two political parties control every presidential election, they rationally choose to exert influence on the party closest to their ideological preference. Also, if the party were to somehow move significantly away from the position of its activists, it could lose their support (in terms of time, money, or civic skills) and suffer losses in the election. Second, each party has incentives to identify itself as distinct from its competitor. In terms of economics, differentiation allows organizations to capture a greater market share (Ferrell & Hartline, 2011). However, unlike a traditional competitive market, political parties only gain success if they capture the majority of the “market” for votes. Furthermore, strategies that apply only to a niche of the vote market will be unsuccessful, as they will yield a minority of the votes. Therefore, the only differentiation strategy that will be successful is one that both distinguishes the party from its competitor and appeals to the majority of voters. Examples of these strategies include the vague but positive taglines associated with presidential campaigns, such as “Change We Can Believe In” and “It’s Morning Again in America” (CB Presidential Research Services, 2012).

Lacking a metric comparable to DW-NOMINATE for party activists, I propose that the degree of activist influence can best be measured by the degree to which a small number of individuals make up the majority of a party’s donation receipts. Furthermore, I propose that the increasing homogeneity of the political parties over time, stemming from their attempts to reach the position of the true median voter, will lead to an increased need for between-party differentiation, and as such we should see parties reach an ideological composition which is sufficiently far from the median position as to provide the necessary differentiation. As moving further toward the center would reduce differentiation, this is a steady-state condition. I acknowledge that in some cases the legitimacy of campaign donation records can be an issue, and moving forward this will be a consideration during the period of data analysis.

Hypothesis 6: The ideological position of political parties will become more partisan as activists yield greater influence, and more partisan as they near the position of the opposing party.

Thus far the discussion has focused largely on the between-party difference. However, the measurement of DW-NOMINATE scores also provides the opportunity to observe the change in the spread of ideology within each party. I expect that within each party, the distribution of ideological perspectives has been increasing over time, leading to a situation in which each party appeals to a broader range of ideologies than it once did. One reason for this is the influence of the aforementioned activists within the party; their influence will enable them to ensure that more extreme positions are represented in the makeup of the party’s elected officials. Furthermore, politically active citizens are more polarized, and are more likely to participate in primaries (Layman, Carsey, Green, Herrera, & Cooperman, 2009). Therefore, candidates seeking election or re-election to office will need to appeal to those highly polarized primary voters by either acting or speaking in a manner that is more likely to appeal to them. The parties will still consist of a variety of individuals from all walks of life, so the net effect will be a larger spread of political ideology within each party.

Hypothesis 7: Within each party, the ideological spread has increased over time due to the impact of forces within the party.

The first political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, were established over a disagreement on the role of elites in government and the national bank (Banner J. M., 1970). The subsequent split of the latter party can largely be attributed to difference in opinion on the relative power of the executive and legislative branches (Holt M. F., 1999). Anecdotally, we can then say that parties have traditionally been impacted by differences in opinion. Following from that, if we presume the above hypothesis to be true, then would we not see an increase in the number of political party splits, given that each party is composed of less alike individuals? This is not the case, and I argue that the reason for this is that rather than allow party splits, parties have adopted the strategy of increased changes to the party itself, rather than risking a party split that could lead to its demise. An example of these changes is the changes made to the Democratic Party’s platform during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which include for the first time issues such as marriage equality (Cooper, 2012). I believe that this change is only one example of the kinds of changes we would expect to see, and I believe that a systematic contextual analysis of the party platform documents from 1860 to today would show an increased rate of changes in each subsequent platform document when compared to the previous year’s platform.

Hypothesis 8: The rate of change of each party’s platform has been increasing over time, and reflects the attempt by each party to appeal to changes within the party to avoid a party split.

Assuming that each party is evolving over time, in accordance with earlier hypotheses, we may wish to know what forces are driving this change specifically. As I have argued, each party is attempting to appeal to an elusive true median voter in order to capture more of the vote. In addition, forces both within and outside the party are moving the party further towards their ideological extreme. It would be useful to know in what manner these forces, if present, are manifesting themselves. To this end, using election results data from the period from 1860 to today, I will compare election outcomes to DW-NOMINATE scores for members of Congress. I propose that members of Congress who fail to sufficiently align themselves to the perspective of their party will fail to win the election. That is, a large spread between their DW-NOMINATE score and the party’s ideological perspective will by highly correlated with election losses.

Hypothesis 9: When a Congressman fails to sufficiently align themselves to their party’s platform, they will be much more likely to lose their election or re-election.

In short, these hypotheses paint a picture of a world where the political parties are influenced in many ways to both gain votes and appease their activist members. Testing these hypotheses will provide a manner in which to determine the strength and cumulative effect of each of these forces.


I have argued that the current political party system, dominated as it is by the Republicans and the Democrats, represents a steady-state condition brought about by each party’s selection of a strategy which is stable in a two-party environment. In order to maintain their power, they have had to become quite moderate, and I believe this will be represented by the DW-NOMINATE scores of each party’s elected officials. Conversely, failed parties will exhibit the opposite trend, with their party becoming less moderate over time. The party members seeking election are responding to their party’s platform, which is in turn a response to the party’s perceived median voter. As information costs have decreased, the difference between each party’s perceived median voter and the true median voter has decreased, leading each party to become even more moderate. However, the influence of activists within the party and the need for differentiation from the party’s competitor will result in a counterbalancing force that makes each party more ideologically extreme. Within each party, the members represent a greater difference in perspective, as activists stay in the party rather than leave to form their own party. To encourage party loyalty, party platforms have become more malleable, and should a Congressman fail to adopt a similar party position, they will be unlikely to win re-election.

The arguments outlined above are unique in that they build upon work to recognize the influence of activists within parties, while building a new framework for understanding the forces countering their work within parties. Furthermore, understanding political parties in a two-party system as seeking a stable strategy helps to explain the failure of a third party to successfully enter the American political system. However, precious little data is available to support many of these claims. It may be that DW-NOMINATE scores, upon which this research heavily depends, captures little of the effects this study seeks to measure. Furthermore, operationalizing activist power as a function of campaign financing does not truly capture the myriad ways in which an activist can influence her party. However, testing the aforementioned hypotheses in the described ways will provide a starting point for a discussion of parties competing for votes in a system where they are battling not only one another, but forces within the party that have their own interests in mind.

Future research can build upon the research done here by developing a concrete model of exogenous and endogenous party factors, and measuring the relative impact of each of those forces. Also, the limited scope of this research excludes state and local offices; by analyzing these elected officials, a larger data set could be constructed to further enhance the findings of this paper. The nature of the relationship between candidate and party ideology is also deserving of more investigation, as there is the possibility that candidates influence their party in the same way that the party influences them, creating a feedback loop. Furthermore, long-term surveys of political party members such as activists, primary voters, and delegates may shed light on the forces working within each party. While this paper can help to explain the evolution of parties over time, it should be seen as a beginning of a new dimension of research rather than the end of a vital discussion on the role of parties in democracy.


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