Is It Party Time?

November 30, 2004
Aldrich: "Now you can actually tell Republican candidates from Democratic candidates"

 Aldrich: "Now you can actually tell Republican candidates from Democratic candidates". Photo: Les Todd


As the presidential campaign season comes to a close, John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of political science and the co-author of a series of books examining every presidential and midterm election since 1980, comments on party participation in the polarized 2000s.

What is the current role of political parties and how does that contrast with previous decades?

In the 1990s, the parties became increasingly nationalized in their collection of money and in their ability to fund campaigns. We can finally say that, in the 1990s, for the first time, we had really national parties rather than a whole lot of state and local parties who came together every three or four years. And this is due to the increasing role of the national committees--the national congressional and senatorial campaign committees and so forth--in not just raising their own money but in orchestrating so-called soft money.

This decade, particularly with the coming of McCain-Feingold's law [which bans "soft money" campaign contributions to the national parties and raises the limit on "hard money" contributions from individuals] and its upholding by the Supreme Court, has raised serious questions about exactly what's going to happen with that. This campaign is the first one being fully conducted under those provisions. So the 2000s, in terms of the role of the national parties and campaign finance, is going to be a decade of experiments.

Not only are the parties experimenting, but so is the Federal Election Commission as to what it's going to allow and not allow. When the last campaign finance laws were passed, between 1972 and 1976, it took the FEC ten years to figure out the best responses to it. The original laws were Watergate-inspired. Financing became part of the controversy. There was a woman who actually ended up going public with her complaints about the Nixon administration--that she gave a million dollars and all she got was this crummy embassy on some Caribbean island and not in Europe. (Hey, sounds good to me.)

In any event, in 1974, the big campaign-finance laws were passed, which provided for federal funding of primary-season campaigns. The candidates have outgrown this now, but for a long time it was important. It also created the soft-money loopholes for party-building purposes. And it really worked; it built the parties. The idea was that the candidates were too unimportant and the parties were too important, and they were trying to strike a new balance.

So now political parties have become much more important than they used to be, in part because this need for funding has helped to increase the polarization of members of Congress. Now you can actually tell Republican candidates from Democratic candidates. The party label has become much more meaningful. And so, in the electorate, people respond to it, and they tend to vote along party lines much more frequently than, say, thirty years ago.

What happened in the mid-Nineties that made for a more polarized electorate?

One of the big structural changes was the nature of the South, which was a conservative part of the Democratic coalition because there was no Republican Party in the South. And the development of the Republican Party in the South hit a full articulation in 1996. They were able to get the last part of the conservative Democrats to principally become Republicans. This was true with the electorate as well as at the national level. And so that was a large part of the polarization of the electorate--this consistency of separation between the two parties at the elite candidate office. But part of it, too, is that the media reinforced that. Talk radio and television news, relatively new phenomena at the time, begin to fan the fire.

Do the parties perpetuate this polarization?

Well, somewhat--but it's really individual candidates and their constituents. For example, in 1998, with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, it seemed that the Republicans were, on net, harming themselves by forcing the issue in the House and making it go to the Senate, because they were doomed to fail. So many of the House Republicans who were strongly in favor of going after Clinton weren't doing so for personal reasons but because their constituencies had been packed with conservative Republicans who demanded [it]. Had they not done so, they would have been vulnerable to challenge in the primaries in 2000.

Is a presidential candidate's message dictated by the electorate or by internal party forces?

In many respects, it's not very different, because it's the message that candidates gravitate to by nature of having to appeal to the electorate and then to one another to form majorities in Congress. The process differs in detail from party-machine days to now, but it's essentially, What do you need to win majorities in the electorate and in Congress? That's the real driving force here.

As the public becomes more polarized, has its trust in government increased or declined?

It certainly hasn't perked up. It may have leveled off. But there's a larger social phenomenon of withdrawal from national institutions generally--news media, the church, the military, all kinds of things--and that's true both in the United States and in Europe. And the government is part of it. It may be that the government is the leading edge in many places, including the U.S. Declining trust in the government happened early in the U.S. and, every once in a while, there's a little bit of an upturn. There was in the first years of the Reagan administration. But then it slumps back. It can't go too much lower, though, because you can't go below zero.

What is the significance of this election in shaping the next political decade?

The key, it seems to me, is whether the Republicans can establish a large enough majority where you can safely declare it a "Republican era." And if that's the case, then the judiciary--and particularly the Supreme Court--won't be far behind. So, as long as it stays close to the edge of a very small majority for the Republicans, then a whole society is sort of willing to rally around it. But if it becomes like the New Deal, an established solid working majority, then it's going to have consequences that are going to last for decades. You know, some time the Supreme Court justices are going to have to start retiring. Or they'll be retired by the grace of God. So, the day is coming. And if there's a solid Republican majority, they'll be able to get their kinds of justices in.