Elections

At start of campaign, the last gasp of political parties?

As the nation begins the process of electing a new president, the roles of the Republican and Democratic parties are undergoing fundamental shifts that are threatening their impact on both elections and policy.

Built in the 19th century, grown dominant in the 20th, they are largely out of date in this new age.

They still control the ballot and machinery such as the primaries. But they do not hold the loyalty of the people. The largest party in America now is no party — with the ranks of people calling themselves independents at the highest level in more than 75 years of polling. The parties do not control the message. People learn about politics from social media instead of traditional means such as mailings or campaign rallies. And the parties are no longer the sole banker of politics. Big-money interests now effectively create shadow parties with extensive networks of donors of their own.

The result: People are tuning out and turning away.

In 2012, average voter turnout for statewide primaries for president, governor and U.S. Senate plunged to its lowest level since the modern primary system became popular in 1972.

“No one likes political parties anymore,” said Jan Leighley, who studies voter behavior at American University, where she is a professor of government.

“They no longer have to work through the political process,” added Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

It’s a historic change in voter behavior. The Democratic and Republican parties have dominated American politics since the mid-1850s. They grew and prospered as inclusive coalitions that tolerated diverse views for the sake of winning elections and then consolidating power.

Ironically, changes aimed at bringing even more people into the process in the 1970s, such as more primaries and caucuses, have not only outlived their original intent, but they have wound up allowing unprecedented polarization to strangle party progress. Activists became adept at turning out their own ideological bases, leaving the broad middle on the sidelines.

“Americans’ attachment to the two major political parties in recent years is arguably the weakest Gallup has recorded since the advent of its polls,” Gallup reported in January.

Just 29 percent called themselves Democrats last year, it found, “making it safe to conclude that the current (number) is also the low point in Gallup polling history.” Republican loyalty was only 1 percentage point above its recent low of 25 percent three years ago.

The bloc of independents reached 40 percent in 2011, and it has stayed at or above that level ever since.

The parties’ challenge is clear in states of all sizes. In New Hampshire, site of the first primary election, at least 40 percent register as “undeclared,” meaning they have no formal affiliation with a political party.

In 2014, California had twice as many voters without a party affiliation as it did 20 years earlier. The same year, Florida had 47 percent more independent voters than a decade earlier.

Most indifferent to parties: young Americans. Nearly half the millennials identified as independents in 2014, Pew found, more than the combined total of those willing to be called either Democrats or Republicans.

“I never want to write down that I’m a Republican,” said Rebecca Sorensen, a sophomore at Penn State. She leans Republican but is reluctant to openly identify with the party because she supports abortion rights.

Historically, children adopted their parents’ political views, including identification with the two major parties. Not anymore.

Millennials get information from sources other than from family dinners, neighbors or campaign brochures. If something piques their interest, they turn to Twitter, text messaging, The Skimm and other modern forms of instant communication.

“If I want to know more, I Google it,” said Jayla Akers, a sophomore at Penn State University.

Political parties are seen as too narrowly focused, too interested in keeping incumbents in office.

They gerrymander congressional districts to maximize their chances so that election after election only a handful of House of Representatives races are true contests. Of the House’s 435 seats, 402 incumbents are considered safe bets for re-election this year, said the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

Those safely partisan seats help keep Washington gridlocked — and turn off more Americans.

“Both parties get so concrete in their values they don’t see any other perspective,” said Bill Corbett, studying to be an auto body technician at Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology.

It’s a far cry from freedom from party or faction that the Founding Fathers envisioned.

“This two-party system quashes independent thought and the courage to take a stance on positions and kills the free market of ideas our country was supposed to be founded on,” said Ellen Read, a political activist in New Hampshire.

Parties for generations did welcome differing views and broader membership.

“The Republican Party, both in this state and nationally, is a broad party. There is room in our tent for many views,” Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, said in 1967.

The parties now thrive by firing up the fringes. Republicans once had a strong bloc of abortion rights supporters, for example, but in 1976 the party formally included in its platform support for a constitutional amendment “to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

It’s now unmistakably the anti-abortion party, the comfortable home for conservatives and therefore the party that dominates the South and the Rocky Mountain West. Democrats are the party of the Northeast and the West Coast.

“It was easier 30 years ago to say, ‘I’m an Alabama Democrat or I’m a Massachusetts Republican,”’ said John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center.

Some in the parties do see the growing problem.

The Republican Party’s 2013 self-examination conceded, “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them.” Since then, officials have made intense efforts to bond with younger and minority voters.

Democrats also were critical of their own tactics. A high-level party study last year found that too often, many of its candidates “were not connecting with voters and lacked some fundamental infrastructure and support to convey their message.”

“It’s true that today’s multifaceted political landscape changes the footprint of national parties,” said Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

But she noted that “in the primaries, we set the rules for the nomination and nothing can replace the unique ability of the national parties to effectively organize and mobilize voters,” and their role in the general election is so detailed it “cannot be replicated externally.”

While independents are gaining clout, so are the big-money groups that now operate as virtual political parties.

Take Freedom Partners, an organization sponsored by brothers Charles and David Koch of Wichita, Kan.

Last year, the group committed to spend $889 million on politics and policy in 2015 and 2016.

The total would surpass the $404 million spent by the Republican National Committee and the $319 million spent by the Democratic National Committee in the 2012 campaign, according to opensecrets.org, which monitors political spending.

And that total would rival the $1 billion spent by all three major Democratic Party committees and the $1 billion spent by all three major Republican Party committees.

And the Koch network does more than just spend money. Twice each year it hosts about 400 executives, who pay dues of $100,000 each, for meetings on politics and policies. And its spending goes beyond the planned $250 million to help candidates, to include grants to organizations to help promote small-government policies as well as college scholarships and fellowships.

Other alternatives to the parties also are gearing up.

In that world, everyday voters ask, how can they ever be heard? Not through the Republican or Democrats parties, say increasing numbers of voters.

As Peter White, a cabin manager in Nottingham, New Hampshire, put it, “You feel the two parties both work for Wall Street and don’t care who wins.” 

This version changes the reference to the rise in independents in California to say voters without a party affiliation.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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