By the mid-1970′s a number of major trends affecting American political parties could be discerned. Party procedures were more frequently being regulated by law, making party affairs less a private matter conducted by a few people and more a public process open to many people. The advent of the direct primary as a means of nominating party candidates in the early 20th century was a major earlier step in this direction. In later years, steps were taken to open the national convention delegate-selection process to greater numbers of voters.
Another trend reflects what is virtually a revolution in the kinds of campaign techniques political candidates and political parties use in seeking to win public office. In some areas party organizations, through door-to-door canvassing and other campaign activities, still may serve as an important conduit of political information between party candidates and potential voters for the party. But increasingly, extensive and expensive media campaigns (particularly on television) are the main technique that major candidates use to reach the voters. Here, as in several other areas, there has been an erosion of the Earties’ traditional function in American political fe.
Two other important tendencies are an increase in the role of issues in motivating American voters, and the greater role of ideology in American political behavior. Instead of relying on party loyalty, substantial numbers of voters seem to vote on the issues. Relatively fewer party workers seem to be motivated by an interest in tangible rewards, such as government patronage jobs; and relatively more party workers are motivated to political action by ideological concerns and issues. These trends may make it more difficult for parties to play their traditional role of broker among competing interests, thus facilitating accommodation and compromise, in the American political system.
Large interest groups now perform many functions that parties once performed in election campaigns. In 1968, for example, organized labor registered nearly 5 million voters, recruited almost 100,000 election-day workers, and distributed 115 million pamphlets and leaflets. Most of this activity was on behalf of Democratic candidates.
The strength of the voters’ adherence to the two major parties appears to be weakening. Between 1940 and 1974 the percentage of the electorate who called themselves independents rose from 20% to 33%. And in actual voting, widespread ticket splitting and crossing of party lines by many voters further reflects the independent spirit of the electorate. This weakening of the stabilizing effect of party identification could make American politics more fluid and unpredictable- making possible wide swings from one party to the other in future presidential elections.
These trends should not be construed as signaling the end of American parties. Political parties continue to exist and have considerable vitality in some parts of the country. Most candidates who seek public office would rather run as the nominees of a major party than as independents seeking office on their own. Nevertheless, these trends do mean that the parties increasingly have had to share some of their traditional functions with other politically oriented groups, and it will probably be more difficult for the parties to play the brokerage role they traditionally have tried to assume in American political hierarchy.