Why the U.S. has always been a two party system

The winner take all system shuts out third parties.

Why is it so hard for Democrats to win a majority in the House of IMG_0539Representatives, but easier to win the presidency or the Senate?

Why has the United States always been a two party nation?

The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer. House races are not statewide, so a candidate from northern California needs to worry rural voters but not San Francisco’s left wing.

The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer.

Senators face a statewide election, however. That’s why all California senators are Democrats while 14 of 53 House seats go to California Republicans. And the House is 435 of 535 members of Congress. This gives California Republicans some power.

While the same could theoretically be true for Democrats in Texas, the more consistently conservative makeup of Texas is a bigger obstacle for Democrats in that state. This gives Republicans an advantage in the House of Representatives. 

It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.

But the presidency is a stranger case. It’s winner take all like the Senate, but with a caveat that even most Americans can’t explain. It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.

When you vote for the president you’re actually voting for the electors from that state who represent the candidate. The number of electors is the number of senators (always two) plus representatives for that state – 535 total, just like Congress. Alaska has three electors while California has fifty-five.

It’s a given that the Democratic presidential candidate will win all 55 of California’s electoral votes. The Republican candidate will carry all of Texas’s 38 electoral votes.

My home state of Maine, however, can split the electoral votes that correspond to House seats, creating a possible 3 and 1 combination (2 and 2 isn’t possible). Nebraska also allows this. But no election has produced such a result.

A candidate needs 270 out of 535 electoral votes to win the presidency. But there are three issues with this. One is that a candidate could lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote – and the presidency. George W. Bush did it in 2000.

The second is how important Ohio is. I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s flat, and there are a lot of corn fields. At any rate, Ohio has 18 electoral votes. But unlike Texas or California, Ohio voters are more evenly split between liberals and conservatives. Those 18 electoral votes are up for grabs. Florida’s 29 electoral votes present a similar situation. What American can forget the “hanging chads” from the 2000 election? 

Two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes. Three candidates? Uh-oh.

But the most important point is that two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes.

Three candidates? Uh-oh.

The founding fathers were not morons. They thought of this possibility. But they didn’t want to get too crazy with the whole democracy thing, which is why they contrived the Electoral College in the first place. The fail safe is that a deadlock in the Electoral College throws the vote to the House of Representatives.

Then it really gets heated. Americans have tried it, and weren’t so happy with the results. In 1824 there was a complex race between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay (remember him?), some guy named Bill Crawford (who?), and John C. Calhoun (who is best remembered for encouraging the Civil War).

Long story short, it was a cluster. Adams promised Clay a job as Secretary of State if he dropped out, and the House elected Adams as president.

Andrew Jackson was mad. He went on to defeat Adams in 1828, and Americans decided not to repeat the debacle (though we’ve forgotten why we always scoff at third party wannabees).

Change is a slogan and we really don’t want it.

Americans keep the Electoral College because change is a slogan and we really don’t want it, amending the constitution is hard, low population states would have less power with a popular vote, and even after the mess in 2000 most American still have no clue anyway.

Parliamentary systems, on the other hand, allow for coalitions. This incentivizes multiple parties – and with it, cooperation and less extremism. The United States isn’t a parliamentary system, but we don’t have to amend the constitution to encourage third parties.

The simplest solution is for all states to split their electoral votes.

The simplest solution to two party dominance is for all states to split their electoral votes. And adding ranked choice voting to the mix might keep the House of Representatives out of it.


Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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