Political Parties and Elections

Ideologies behind US political parties and an overview of processes behind elections

Major US Political Parties: Ideologies

The two major political parties in the United States are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and represent, broadly speaking, the ideological left and right wing of American politics respectively.

The Democratic Party generally advocates for a larger government role in promoting social welfare programs, education, healthcare, and environmental protection. They support policies that protect civil liberties, and are generally more supportive of progressive taxation and income redistribution to address inequality. The party also tends to take a more internationalist approach to foreign policy, supporting multilateralism, and diplomacy.


The Republican Party is known for advocating for limited government intervention in individual affairs, a free-market economy, and a strong national defense. They support lower taxes, deregulation, and a smaller government to promote individual and economic freedom.

Republicans generally have a more conservative stance on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun rights. They also tend to take a more unilateralist approach to foreign policy, emphasizing American exceptionalism and military strength.

Third Parties and Independent Candidates

Third parties and independent candidates have long been a part of American politics, though they rarely win elections. The most successful third party in recent history was the centrist Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot in 1995. It ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility and government reform, but ultimately failed to gain enough support.


In addition to established third parties there are also many independent candidates running for office each election cycle. Though lacking the broad support and financial backing of major party nominees, they can still be influential if their message resonates with voters.

For example, Senator Bernie Sanders has served as an independent congressman for over three decades. His 2016 campaign for President gained traction among young people due to his progressive policies such as free college tuition and universal healthcare coverage.


Challenges for Independent Candidates

It can be challenging for independent candidates to succeed in American politics due to several factors, including the structure of the electoral system and the dominance of the two major parties.

One significant obstacle for independent candidates is the “first-past-the-post” electoral system—a winner-takes-all outcome in which the candidate or party with the most votes is elected, and candidates who do not receive a majority of the votes in a district or constituency may not be represented at all.

Furthermore, the two major parties have a stranglehold on American politics, with their extensive fundraising and campaign networks, as well as their institutional advantages in the government. This dominance can make it hard for independent candidates to get their message out and gain the necessary support to win an election.

Another challenge for independent candidates is getting their voices heard in media coverage, which tends to focus on the “battle” between the two major parties.

Selecting Presidential Candidates

To select their respective presidential candidates, The Democrats and Republicans both hold primaries and caucuses in each state. A primary is a statewide election in which voters cast their ballots for their preferred candidate, the winner receiving the majority of the state’s delegates to the party’s national convention.


A caucus, on the other hand, is a meeting of party members in a particular precinct or district where they discuss and debate the candidates before multiple rounds of voting in a public forum.

This process also allows the party to gauge which candidates are popular in which regions of the country and to ensure that the eventual nominee has broad support from party members.

The mainstream media provides nationwide coverage of the debates and primary and caucus results, and conducts polls that measure public support, which can have a significant influence over the way in which voters view each candidate.

General Election and Voting Process

The general election, which includes the presidential election, is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and is carried out through a combination of in-person and absentee voting.

All U.S. Citizens over 18 are eligible to vote in elections, and must be registered to vote in the state where they reside.

Voters cast their ballots to elect the President and Vice President, who run together on a joint ticket, as well as members of Congress and other elected officials. The newly elected President is then inaugurated on January 20th of the following year – a formal ceremony in which the President takes the oath of office and delivers an inaugural address.

Electoral College: State-Based Voting System

The President is elected through a system known as the Electoral College. Under this system, voters in each state go to the polls on Election Day to cast their votes for President. However, rather than tallying up the popular vote across the country, each state is awarded a certain number of electoral votes based on its population.

The candidate who wins the majority of those votes in each state will receive all of that state’s electoral college votes, even if they only won by a narrow margin.

This means that even if one candidate receives more popular votes nationwide, they may not win the election if their opponent has won enough states with large numbers of electoral college votes. There are a total of 538 electoral votes, so a candidate needs to win at least 270 electoral votes in order to become President.

This occurred in 2016. Though Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, he still won the election due to his victories in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.


Campaigning Strategies and Swing States

In addition to this unique voting system, presidential elections also involve extensive campaigning from both major party candidates and any third-party or independent contenders.

Candidates typically use television ads, debates, rallies and social media platforms to reach potential voters directly. For example, during his 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump used Twitter extensively to communicate his message directly to supporters, with less reliance than usual on traditional news outlets or political advisors.

Presidential candidates often focus their attention on so-called “swing states”, where both parties have similar levels of support among voters.
This is especially crucial in swing states that have a high number of electoral college votes. (Consider that Florida has 29 electoral college votes, and Nevada only 6).

In 2020 Joe Biden won the competitive state of Pennsylvania by over 80 thousand votes – enough for him to secure 20 additional electoral college votes that ultimately helped him win the election overall.

Campaign Finance Laws and Influence

Money plays an important role in US politics, and campaign finance laws are designed to ensure that candidates have access to the resources they need while preventing corruption.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 established limits on how much money individuals and organizations can contribute to political campaigns. This was further strengthened in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

Despite this, wealthy donors still wield considerable influence over elections; according to a 2018 report by OpenSecrets.org, just 0.051% of Americans accounted for nearly 68% of all donations made during the 2016 presidential race.

In recent years there has been increased efforts to pass legislation requiring greater transparency on so-called “dark money” – contributions made through non-profit organizations which do not have to disclose their donors or spending activities – with some estimates suggesting that up to $1 billion was spent this way in 2020 alone.

Influencing Policy: The NRA's Lobbying Tactics

Lobbying is a legal practice in the United States where individuals, organizations, and interest groups attempt to influence lawmakers and government officials to support their particular policies and positions.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one example of a powerful interest group in the US, who, through a combination of campaign contributions, direct lobbying, and grassroots organizing, the NRA has been able to exert significant influence over gun rights and firearms regulation at the local, state, and national levels.

The NRA has spent $2,630,000 in 2022 alone in political campaigns, advertisements, and lobbying efforts aimed at supporting political candidates who are supportive of their positions on gun ownership and opposing those who are not.

Many see the NRA as representing the flaws inherent in American lobbying laws, which enables those with deep pockets and long standing connections significant power within the political establishment.

Decentralized Election Administration

The administration of elections in the United States is largely decentralized, with each state responsible for setting its own rules and regulations. This has led to a patchwork system where voting procedures can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another.

For example, some states allow early voting while others do not; some require photo identification while others do not; and some use paper ballots while others rely on electronic voting machines. Despite these differences, all states must adhere to certain federal standards such as providing language assistance for non-English speakers or allowing military personnel stationed overseas to vote by mail.


Voter fraud is an ongoing topic in US politics, with President Trump citing widespread fraud in vote-by-mail states as a contributing factor to his 2020 loss. Research, however, suggests that it occurs very rarely. According to data analyzed by the Washington Post, in 2016 and 2018, only 0.0025% of votes cast in three mail-vote states were found to be fraudulent.

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