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America's two-party system

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The Constitution provided for the president and vice president to be chosen by an electoral college.

The electoral college was a body of electors who met in capitals of their representative states to cast their ballots. Initially, most states had the legislature -- not the voters -- to choose the electors. Each state had one elector for each senator and representative in Congress. Those who chose the electors met in secretive caucuses.

In 1788, George Washington was elected as America's first president. Political ideologies sharpened under his two-term administration, breaking into the federalist faction and the democratic republican faction.

The federalists supported a strong national government, while democratic republicans support a more decentralized government. In the election of 1796, Federalists supported Vice President John Adams to succeed Washington as president. The Democratic Republicans endorsed Thomas Jefferson for president but were undecided on a vice president. In the electoral college, Adams won first place with 71 votes and Jefferson won seond place with 68 votes.

Constitutionally, Adams was thus elected president with Jefferson as his ideological opponent and vice president.

In the election of 1800, both parties caucused in Congress to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates.

This resulted in a true party contest, but the result was that Democratic Republic electors cast their ballots for both persons and a tie between the Democratic Republic's presidential and vice presidential nominees resulted. Constitutionally, the House of Representatives deliberated and decided in favor of the Democratic Republic's original nominee structure.

The Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804 to accommodate political parties.

The twelfth amendment required the electoral college to vote separately for president and vice president, implicitly recognizing that parties would nominate different candidates for the two offices.

Also, states began to drop restrictive voting requirements after 1800. In addition, many states began allowing popular vote rather than state legislature to choose electors.

With the expansion of suffrage, the 1824 election was the first in which voters selected the presidential electors in most states. Still, the role of political parties in seizing the popular vote was not fully mature.

The first mass election was also the first election with a Democrat.

Andrew Jackson led a faction of the Democratic Republican party that represented the common people in the expanding South and West. These people proudly called themselves Democrats, and in 1828 Jackson marked the beginning of the Democratic Party by running as a Democrat. This was also the first mass election in United States history, with the number of voters tripling to 1.1 million from only 370,000 in 1824.

As the electorate continued to expand, parties began campaigning for votes cast by hundreds of thousands of citizens.

This resulted in the national convention, gatherings where delegates from state parties across the nation chose candidates for president and vice president and adopted a statement of policies title the party platform. Although first used by the minor Anti-Masonic Party, the national convention idea was adopted in 1832 by the Democrats and newly formed National Republicans. However, National Republicans were not today's Republicans due to their Federalist belief in a centralized national government.

Various anti-slavery groups coalesced in the early 1850's, eventually birthing the Republican Party in 1854.

In 1860, Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate. However, Democrats were divided over slavery and split into the northern Democrats Party and the southern group Southern Democrats. This was a critical election because it was marked by a sharp change in existing patterns of party loyalty among groups of voters.

This change in voting patterns -- known as electoral realignment -- persists through several subsequent elections as well. Northern states mainly voted Republican, while Southern states mainly voted Democratic. Also, this critical election established the two-party system consisting of Democrats and Republicans.

For forty years -- from 1880 to 1920 -- not a single Republican presidential candidate won a single of the eleven former Confederate states.

However, this gradually shifted until the electoral realignment of 1968's turbulent election. Republican Richard Nixon won five of the states of the old Confederacy, while Democrat Hubert Humphrey won only one. In addition, the only two Democratic wins since 1968 -- Clinton and Carter -- have both been southerners.