However, class-based differences in party identification remained prominent and actually grew stronger in the 1970s and 1980s, with upper-class and middle-class individuals identifying more strongly with the Republican Party" (309). Likewise, Pomerantz (1999) notes that, "While people change their party identity only rarely, the significance of that affiliation waxes and wanes over time" (37). Citing the research conducted by Wattenberg based on data collected in the National Election Studies (NES), which were initiated in 1952 and have been conducted in every subsequent presidential campaign since that time. To determine voter affiliation with a given political party, Wattenberg developed a gauge to determine the degree of indifference or neutrality regarding American political parties. The respondents to the NES are queried, among other things, concerning what aspects they like and dislike about each political party. According to Pomerantz, "Some people have nothing to say, good or ill, about either party" (37). In reality, it is not all that surprising that some voters in America have little or nothing to say about the Democratic or Republican parties because they may not know what these parties stand on issues that are relevant to them. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that many average American voters would have problems defining a "Republican" or a "Democrat." The percentage of those with little or nothing to say about either political party, though, has changed significantly in the last half century, but more American voters appear to have learned more about what the various political parties stand for and which agendas their candidates will likely pursue. For instance, Pomerantz reports that, "In 1952, only 10% were in that group, and most of them were apolitical -- they knew little about the candidates and very few voted. In the 1980s, about 33% of the respondents had nothing to say about the parties, even though this group identified differences between them, had likes and dislikes about the candidates, and voted about as frequently as other respondents" (37). This is an interesting finding since it suggests that the media is playing an increasingly important role in communicating what political parties are doing and where they stand on various issues.
While the media is clearly playing an increasingly important role in the American political system, there are other forces at work that are reshaping American political parties in ways that directly affect their traditional roles. For instance, Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer (2008) emphasize that, "In the wake of political and legal changes to elections in the last half of the twentieth century, many of the services traditionally provided to by political parties were co-opted by the more amorphous concept of the election campaign" (348). These authors suggest that this co-opting of the traditional services provided by American political parties has served to diminish their influence; for example, they add that, "It has been argued, for example, that political parties declined in their importance to American elections, replaced by candidate-centered elections that are perceived as being dominated by an even more amorphous group: political consultants" (Panagopoulos and Wielhouwer 2008:348). This point is also made by Wattenberg (2004) who emphasizes, "The post-1980 era of American politics thus appears to be a more advanced stage of candidate-centered politics. Presidential candidates have now become such dominant figures on the political scene that the political party is seen by the public in the framework of the leader" (143). Here again, the media has been responsible for some of these changes in the role played by political parties in the United States. In this regard, following the 1988 presidential election, Senator Bob Graham observed that, "The United States is going through the process of the McDonaldization of American politics. People are increasingly forming their partisan identifications by what they see on television. What they see on television is a national party dominated by its presidential candidates or that individual fortunate enough to be elected president" (quoted in Wattenberg 2004 at 143). From this perspective, American political parties have become little more than ". . . fast food franchises, in which it is the presidential candidate who flips the burgers and decides how to garnish them. A somewhat different garnishing by a new candidate will change the party's image, such as when George W. Bush offered 'compassionate conservatism' in an attempt to soften the public's view of the Republican Party (Wattenberg 144).
The shift towards candidate-centered politics in U.S. presidential elections has not taken place overnight, but has rather evolved over the past several decades in two specific stages, with the first involving situations wherein political leaders formulated an identity that was intended to be distinct from their party with the outcome being increasing dissension within the party concerning its role and direction. For example, Wattenberg (2004) observes that, "In the early years of American candidate-centered politics, leaders such as Goldwater, McGovern, and Carter carved out such niches for themselves" (144). Today, though, Wattenberg suggests that an increasing number of American voters are looking to the candidate to determine where the political party stands on various issues. Accoriding to Wattenberg, "More recently, American candidate-centered politics has moved into a second stage in which nominees have become such dominant figures on the political scene that the political party is often seen by the public through the prism of its leader. These leaders have attained this position not by the strength of their personalities, but rather through their dominance of the issue agenda" (144). Assuming this assertion is accurate -- and the Obama presidential campaign suggests that it is to some degree -- this does not mean that the political parties are down for the count, but are rather being forced to reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant and viable in the 21st century. In fact, some of the arguments in support of the "political parties in decline" perspective simply ignore constitutional reality in favor of rhetoric that contributes to the perception of the untimely demise of the American political party. For example, according to Ashbee (2004), "The weakness of the American political parties has added to the obstacles that reformers face, even when they have the backing of public opinion. Although there were significant shifts during the 1990s, the parties can only play a limited role in coordinating the work of Congress and easing the tension between Congress and the White House" (47). Given that political parties have no constitutional role, the fact that American political parties are able to play even a "limited role" in the American political process is proof positive that they remain an influential force that must be reckoned with by policymakers at all levels. In this regard, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) suggest that typical American voters possess certain beliefs, values, and ideas about some aspects of public affairs that are highly influenced by political parties, but are not as neatly packaged along party lines as some would believe. These authors emphasize the "the importance of political parties and other reference groups as central elements around which many average citizens organize a consistent set of political attitudes" (Oskamp and Schultz 2004:158).
While some authorities suggest that the Republican and Democratic parties continue to field presidential candidates that are merely "two heads of the same dragon," some political scientists suggest that American political parties have become increasingly distinct and differentiated from each other, particularly during the past 2 decades or so. For instance, Oskamp and Schultz (2004) report that, "Authors have challenged the thesis that the emergence of a large group of independent voters has made American politics less partisan. In rebuttal, they have pointed to a steady increase in partisan polarization of political views among the American electorate, starting in the 1980s, and a parallel increase in voters' ideological (liberal-conservative) orientation and voting" (341). There are some regional differences involved in how these trends have played out in recent years as well in terms of their effect on political party differentiation. For instance, Oskamp and Schultz add that, "A major result, especially as Southern voters moved more to the Republican Party, has been that the two parties have become more ideological and more dissimilar in their congressional legislative programs. This is especially true of the Republican Party, which has become more homogeneously conservative in its policies and candidates" (341). The net result of this differentiation has been to highlight the respective platforms offered by each political party in ways that can help American voters discern the choices available to them. According to Pomerantz, "The public has no difficulty finding differences between the parties; paradoxically, the trend here moves opposite the trend toward neutrality. What has changed is the perception that one party will do better than the other at handling what people see as the most significant problems of the day" (37). Clearly, one of the most significant problems of the day is…