Last time I wrote about countries with single or multiple political parties. The American political system, however, is geared toward two major political parties.

George Washington decried political parties, but even before he left office, two parties had formed. To the right, I have outlined how the two major parties have shifted over the years. The first two to form were the Democrat-Republicans, centered around Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalists, centered around John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Other than the election of John Adams after Washington, the Federalists failed to elect another president from their party. By the 1820s the Federalists had atrophied and disappeared. In fact, all four candidates for president in 1824 were Democrat-Republicans. The Democrat-Republican name was awkward and often shortened to either Democrat or Republican. At the time, the name Democrat brought to mind the mob rule of revolutionary France; it was sometimes used by the Federalists in a derogatory manner. Since the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, this term was a neutral and vague title, and was generally preferred for use by the party. However, after his election in 1824, Andrew Jackson officially shortened the name of the party to Democrat. At this time, the remaining Federalists and the Democrats who opposed Andrew Jackson banded together to form the Whig party. The Whigs were strongest from 1824 to 1856, and they succeeded in electing four presidents during that time: William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore.

The modern Republican party was formed in 1856 with a strong anti-slavery plank, and John Frémont, the first Republican candidate for president, ran on the platform of “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont.” This party incorporated many former Whigs, and as the Republican party ascended, the Whig party ceased to exist. With the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to be elected president. Since this time, the American presidency has passed between the Democrat and Republican parties. There have been numerous third-party candidates, mostly formed around a specific person (the “Bull Moose” party around Theodore Roosevelt, the Reform party around Ross Perot) or an idea or philosophy (Anti-Masonic, Free Soil, Greenback, Socialist), but none of these parties has succeeded in electing a candidate to the presidency or generating long-term support.

The American system works best with two large political parties. This is caused by ballot laws that promote the major parties, but also by the “winner-take-all” method of votes. Basically, winner-take-all means that in an election for a position like mayor, the candidate with the most votes will “take all” — being elected to the mayorship, while the rest get to make concession speeches. This is known as “Single-Member District Plurality” in political science, but other than poli-sci majors and Jeopardy contestants, who really cares? OK, I like Jeopardy, so here’s a great Final Jeopardy answer: “This principle asserts that a winner-take-all election system naturally leads to a two-party system.” If you said, “What is Duverger’s Law?”, you should look at competing against current Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.

People have made a big deal over Vice President Al Gore getting more votes than President George W. Bush in the 2000 election, but Americans do not elect their president based on the popular vote. The Founding Fathers of the United States were hesitant to create a true democracy, where the majority vote wins, since they knew that system is inherently unstable. Once a democracy learns it can vote itself goodies from the public coffers, the people quickly vote themselves into bankruptcy. It is also susceptible to the tyranny of the majority, where the rights of the few are trampled by the mob.

Rather than the popular vote, the president is chosen by the Electoral College. The individuals in a state are not really voting for a president; they are voting for an Elector who will then vote for the candidate. Each state has the same number of Electors as it has people in Congress. So Wyoming has three Electors for its one Representative and two Senators, while California has 55 for its 53 Representatives and two Senators. In our “winner-take-all” system, the political party whose candidate gathers the most votes gets to select all the Electors for that state, except in Maine and Nebraska where the winner gets two votes (for the Senators) and the rest of the votes are distributed according to the winner of each congressional district. Confused? You can read all the trivia and history about this that your poor eyes can stand at the Electoral College’s website.

With the closely-contested election of 2000, and in pretty much every election cycle, people have discussed getting rid of the Electoral College and shifting to a nationwide election for president based on the majority of votes. While we now have the technology to do this, I believe it isn’t a good idea. First, it would require changing the Constitution, an act not easily achieved. Second, it would negatively affect states with smaller populations. Let’s pick on Wyoming with its sparse population to illustrate this. In our current system, Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes out of 538 is more than three times the percentage of Wyoming’s population divided by America’s population. In an election determined by popular vote, the candidates would only need to campaign in the most populous states and kiss off the smaller ones. But since the president represents all Americans, it’s a good idea to all states from populous California down to meager Wyoming.

Since 270 electoral votes or more are necessary to elect a president, it is critical that a presidential hopeful have the greatest number of votes in each state. In our two-party system, the voters may chose to elect either a Democrat or a Republican for president. A commonly seen corollary of Duverger’s law (and you thought I wouldn’t bring it up again) is the spoiler effect of a third-party candidate, effectively siphoning votes away from one of the two leading candidates. You could make the argument that Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run pulled enough votes away from George Bush to push Bill Clinton into the lead. This was definitely the case in the 1912 election. Theodore Roosevelt pulled enough Republican voters away to his “Bull Moose” party (officially called the Progressive party) that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected. You can spend some time (as I did) at Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections site and look at elections such as 1884, 1888, and 1892 when third-party candidates had more votes than the difference between the first two candidates. Had these third-party candidates not run, the numbers had pulled could have thrown the election either way.

My wife asked if there had ever been a third party that managed to get a president elected. In a word, no, and for a tautologous reason: once a third party succeeds in placing one of its candidates in the presidency, it has become a majority party. This last happened 144 years ago when the then four-year-old Republican party succeeded in putting Abraham Lincoln into the White House.