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How and why political parties change and adapt: lesson overview

A high-level overview of how political parties adapt their strategies to changes in voter ideology and behavior, as well as changing campaign finance regulations, in order to win elections.
Political parties have changed their strategies as candidates have become more central to elections.

Key terms

campaign financeFunds raised to promote candidates, political parties, or policy initiatives. There are complex laws regulating who can contribute to campaigns and how much they can contribute.
candidate-centered campaignsPolitical campaigns that focus on the candidates for office—their personalities and issues—rather than the parties they represent. Since the 1930s, candidate-centered campaigns have predominated in American politics.
critical electionAn election that leads to a major party realignment. After a critical election, a number of key supporters of one party (for example, southern white voters) switch to the other party.
dealignmentThe process by which an individual loses his or her loyalty to a political party without developing loyalty to another party.
direct primaryThe current process by which voters choose their party’s candidate for national office. Direct primaries have replaced party-controlled mechanisms for choosing candidates.
micro-targetingThe growing practice of using computer models to identify voters who might support a candidate. Campaigns pay firms to mine consumer data, census records, and voting behavior in order to supply them with names of potential voters.
political machineA party organization with the goal of enriching party leaders, party workers, and citizen supporters through government contracts and jobs.
political action committee (PAC)An organization, usually representing an interest group or corporation, that raises money with the goal of supporting or defeating candidates, parties, or legislation. There are limits to the amount of money a PAC can donate to a candidate or party in each election.
realignmentA major change in the composition of party coalitions, often brought on by a new or pressing issue (often economic trouble or war). For example, the Great Depression led many African Americans to leave the Republican Party and join the Democratic Party in the 1932 election, permanently changing each party’s base of supporters.
super PACAlso called an "independent expenditure-only committee," a super PAC may raise unlimited funds in support of a candidate or party as long as they do not coordinate in any way with the candidate or party.

Key takeaways

Competing policymaking interests: Since the emergence of candidate-centered campaigns in the 1930s, the power of party “bosses” and political machines to decide candidates for state and national office has declined.
Direct primaries make the process of choosing candidates more democratic, but it has also placed the burden of running for office on candidates themselves. In response, candidates must develop sophisticated and expensive campaigns for office, which has increased the importance of fundraising and voter targeting.

Review questions

How have candidate-centered campaigns changed the election process in the United States?
What strategies do candidates employ in order to win elections?

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