Challenges to the American Two-Party System: Evidence from the 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996 Presidential Elections

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Recent successes by independent presidential candidates raise questions about the stability of the American two-party system. Students of electoral behavior point to party decline, whereas analysts of party organization see growth and transformation. Analyses of the 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996 National Election Study surveys are used to determine whether support for Wallace, Anderson, and Perot resulted from dissatisfaction with the current two-party system. We find that there has been little erosion of support for the major political parties between 1968 and 1996. Americans with low levels of support for the major political parties were more likely to support Wallace in 1968 and Perot in 1992 and 1996. But to a large extent, support for Wallace, Anderson, and Perot resulted from dissatisfaction with the major-party candidates. Support for the major parties themselves has not eroded enough to provide a systemic opportunity for an independent candidate or for a new political party to end the Republican and Democratic duopoly

Are American political parties growing weaker, or are they being revitalized? Students of electoral behavior see decline (Dalton and Wattenberg 1993; Ladd 1993; Wattenberg 1991, 1998),` but analysts of party organization see growth and transformation (Aldrich 1995; Rohde 1991; Schlesinger 1991). There is also some evidence of a slight resurgence of the party-in-the-electorate in the last two election surveys (see Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde 1999; Aldrich 1999; Bartels 2000; and below). These differing views of the political world are fueled by dramatic changes in American electoral politics. H. Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy was the most successful challenge to major-party dominance since Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party campaign in 1912. Perot initially resisted transforming his organization, United We Stand America, into a political party. Then, in September 1995, he reversed his position and announced that he would form a new political party, because, he argued, more than three out of five Americans wanted one. This new party, Perot predicted, would be "the largest party in the country" and would displace either the Democratic or Republican Party.2

The two major parties have grown weaker among the electorate. In the twenty-six presidential elections between 1864, when Abraham Lincoln was reelected, and 1964, the year of Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide election, only four minor-party candidates (and no independent candidate) won more than 5 percent of the vote. In the eight presidential elections between 1968 and 1996, George C. Wallace, John B. Anderson, and H. Ross Perot (twice) each exceeded this level.' Moreover, as Ceaser and Busch (1997) point out, the 1992 and 1996 elections were the first presidential contests since the Civil War in which the two major parties failed to win 90 percent or more of the vote in two consecutive presidential elections. In addition to this behavioral change, party loyalties among the American electorate have been eroded, a decline that began between 1964 and 1965 (Converse 1976), and which continued through 1978. Since 1980 there has been a rebound in party loyalties, but party loyalties are substantially weaker than they were during the years between 1952 and 1964 (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde 1999).4

Despite these changes, the major political parties continue to dominate American elections. Since the Republican Party first fielded a presidential candidate in 1856, either a Republican or a Democrat has been elected President. The two major parties dominate congressional elections, and partisanship became increasingly important within Congress after the 1970s (Rohde 1991), especially after the 1994 midterm elections (Aldrich and Rohde 1997-98). The plurality-vote win system used in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada facilitates two-party dominance (Duverger 1963, 1986; Riker 1982; but also see Cox 1997), but even in these democracies major parties have been displaced. …