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Activists and Partisan Realignment in the United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 August 2003

Professor, Department of Political Science, Washington University, Campus Box 1063, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 (
William Taussig Professor of Political Economy, Department of Economics, Washington University, Campus Box 1208, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 (


In this paper, we contend that party realignments occur due to the interaction of candidates and activists. We examine independent party candidates who are motivated primarily to win elections but who use activist contributions to increase vote shares. In a two-dimensional policy space, such candidates will on occasion engage in “flanking” moves so as to enlist coalitions of disaffected voters, at the risk of alienating some of their traditional activist supporters. We argue that a result of such “flanking” moves, in the early part of the century, has been a shift in emphasis from an underlying social dimension to the economic dimension. In recent decades, electoral salience has shifted back to the social dimension. The net result is that the party cleavage line is much as it was a century ago—but the parties have switched sides.

© 2003 by the American Political Science Association

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This paper is based on research supported by NSF Grants SBR 98 18582 and SES 02 41732. The authors would also like to thank James Adams and members of the Washington University Department of Political Science for their suggestions and encouragement, especially Randy Calvert, John Carey, Andrew Martin, Scott McClurg, Jeff Smith, and Steve Smith. Larry Handlin and Alexandra Shankster helped with data analysis and technical support.


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