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Built in the 19th century, grown dominant in the 20th, they are largely out of date in this new age.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