Government » American Political Parties » The Shape of Modern Political Parties

Summary and Main Ideas


Political parties exist primarily as a means to help candidates get elected. The United States thus has a relatively loose system of party identification and a bottom-up approach to party organization structure built around elections. Lower levels, such as the precinct or county, take on the primary responsibility for voter registration and mobilization, whereas the higher state and national levels are responsible for electing major candidates and shaping party ideology. The party in government is responsible for implementing the policies on which its candidates run, but elected officials also worry about winning reelection.

Practice Questions

  1. How do members of the party organization differ from party identifiers? What role does each play in the party as a whole?
  2. Why is winning votes so important to political parties? How does the need to win elections affect party structures?

Sample Answer:

2. Parties can’t influence and enact policy without winning. They must organize at each level at which elections take place in order to contest elections and develop candidates.


majority party: the legislative party with over half the seats in a legislative body, and thus significant power to control the agenda

minority party: the legislative party with less than half the seats in a legislative body

party identifiers: individuals who represent themselves in public as being part of a party

party-in-government: party identifiers who have been elected to office and are responsible for fulfilling the party’s promises

party-in-the-electorate: members of the voting public who consider themselves part of a political party or who consistently prefer the candidates of one party over the other

party organization: the formal structure of the political party and the active members responsible for coordinating party behavior and supporting party candidates

precinct: the lowest level of party organization, usually organized around neighborhoods

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