Two-Party System

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TWO-PARTY SYSTEM. Although there have been minor political parties, or third parties, throughout most of American history, two major, competitive parties have dominated the American party system. Beginning with the Federalists and the Antifederalists in the 1790s, only two political parties usually have had any substantial chance of victory in national elections. Indeed, since the Civil War, the same two parties, the Democratic and Republican, have constituted the American two-party system.

Because of the two-party system, all American presidents and almost all members of Congress elected since the Civil War have been either Democrats or Republicans. Furthermore, the competition of the two parties has been consistently close. From 1860 through 2000, only four presidents won more than 60 percent of the total popular vote: Warren G. Harding in 1920; Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936; Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964; and Richard M. Nixon in 1972.

While the two-party system has long characterized national politics, it has not invariably marked the politics of the states. In some measure, the national two-party system of the late nineteenth century was an aggregate of one-party states. The incidence of that statewide one partyism declined in the twentieth century, but the Democrats maintained a one-party supremacy in the states of the Deep South from the Reconstruction period into the 1960s and in some cases into the 1970s (the Republicans dominated the South from the late 1980s into the early twenty-first century). Occasionally, too, states have had three-party systems for short periods of time. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota all included a party from the Progressive movement in their party systems in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a number of third-party presidential candidates, including Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, both of the Reform Party, and Ralph Nader, of the Green Party, challenged Democratic and Republican candidates but with little success.

The American two-party system results in part from the relative absence of irreconcilable differences within the American electorate about basic social, economic, and political institutions and in part from the absence of electoral rewards for minor parties. The traditions of plurality elections from single-member constituencies and of a single elected executive give few chances of victory or reward to parties that cannot muster the plurality.


Jelen, Ted G., ed. Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Lowi, Theodore J., and Joseph Romance. A Republic of Parties? Debating the Two-Party System. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Rosenstone, Steven J., Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Sifry, Micah L. Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Frank J.Sorauf/a. e.

See alsoAntifederalists ; Democratic Party ; Elections, Presidential ; Federalist Party ; Political Parties ; Republican Party ; Republicans, Jeffersonian ; Third Parties ; Whig Party .