Parties & Elections at Hampden-Sydney College



Parties & Elections at Hampden-Sydney College


PontusoDr. James Pontuso

Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs



Hampden-Sydney men have accurately predicted the last six presidential elections. It has been a group effort of the Parties & Elections classes taught at the College every other fall - during election years. We divide up the states among students who then look at past election data, fund-raising efforts, current polls, and commentary from pundits to predict which candidate will win the electoral votes in their assigned states. We also predict Senate and House races. Since 1988 we have correctly picked the winner of the presidential contest, although sometimes our forecast on the final Electoral College tally has been off. We have been pretty close predicting the party make-up of the Senate and not bad in the case of the House, although getting an accurate count for 435 elections is always tricky. 

Forecasting elections has more to it than guesswork. First, it is necessary to know what pre-election polls mean. We study how polls are taken, how they work, how accurate they are, and their strengths and weaknesses. 

Of course, elections are about more than who wins. In many ways elections are the most dangerous time for democratic governments. Political and cultural differences are brought to light, passions run high, and the most ambitious people in the country vie for predominance. Keeping political discourse within civil bounds is a difficult task. And, that is not the worst of it. The losers have to accept the results of the election and submit to being governed by leaders who they opposed. The U.S has been so successful at mitigating political conflict that it is easy for us to forget that elections have caused democracies to fail in many countries and that our Civil War broke out as the result of an election.

We study how our political system allows the public's voice to be heard while at the same time inhibiting conflict and redirecting personal ambition toward the public good. In order to understand how the system of selecting our leaders works we have to investigate how it has changed over time. As George Washington's Farewell Address makes clear, the founding generation distrusted and opposed political parties as a vehicle for expressing public opinion. Parties arose nonetheless.

A strange thing happened. By 1824 the Founders got their wish and political parties all but died out. Instead of decreasing political conflict, however, the demise of parties intensified confrontation, sectionalism, factionalism, and personal ambition. It was at this time that the "father" of our two-party system, Martin Van Buren, stepped in to save the day. He thought parties were wonderful organizations because they forced people to work together for a common goal: winning elections. Winning elections requires that diverse groups of people come together, moderate their views, and form a governing coalition. More importantly, parties must deliver on their campaign promises or they will be out of power following the next election. Although parties may have a narrow political agenda in election years, they are forced to broaden their perspective and take responsibility for the long-term good of the country once they govern.

 Van Buren's reforms reveal that without a two-party system a nation  as big and diverse as America might splinter first into regional parties and then into ideological or interest-based parties. Absent a two-party system, the country could break down to its constituent interest groups. There might be a women's party, an environmental party, a business party, a men's party, a Southern party, and on and on. A multi-party United States would likely become ungovernable. The American political landscape would begin to resemble Italy's where there have been more than 50 governments - or executives - since World War II. 

People often grumble that America's two parties are too much alike. But the public also complains that politicians are unwilling to compromise and act for the good of the country. Examining the history of parties makes students imagine how much bickering would take place if America had forty parties instead of two.

            Parties have, of course, changed since Van Buren's day. Indeed, they have changed frequently. Unlike other institutions of government - President, Congress, or courts - they are not mentioned and, therefore, are not protected by the Constitution. The class analyzes the various reforms that have been undertaken to make parties more democratic and responsive.  We even take a stab at wondering how our current party system can best be organized to serve the good of the nation.

            Finally, we engage in a historical survey of the principles of parties. What did they stand for? How did they engage the public? Which party set the agenda for the nation? How have these ideas and policies influenced the political landscape today?

            So, like much of Hampden-Sydney's old fashioned liberal arts curriculum, the Parties & Election course begins with a simple question: Who is going to win? But it ends up exploring some of the most essential issues of our political and social life.  

In 2010, while teaching in Iraq, Dr. Pontuso had the opportunity to observe the Iraqi elections. His commentary on those events can be found at the Wilson Center sites below: