Party switching in the United States

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In the United States politics, party switching is any change in party affiliation of a partisan public figure, usually one who is currently holding elected office. Use of the term "party switch" can also connote a transfer of held power in an elected governmental body from one party to another.


There are a number of reasons that an elected official, or someone seeking office, might choose to switch parties. One reason is ethical obligation when the person has views that are no longer aligned with those of the current party.

A second reason is to gain power and influence. The incumbent may be a member of the minority party in a legislature and would like to gain the advantages of being in the majority party, such as the potential to chair a committee. A disaffected incumbent who might not hold a leadership position or feels ignored or mistreated by the majority party might join the minority party with the expectation of holding a leadership position in the minority party and if currently elected, having the complete support of the minority party for re-election, who would certainly want to have more elected officials in their ranks.

Another reason is simply to get elected. This may be the primary reason when the opposing party's base in a constituency is reaching a size that threatens the safe reelection of the incumbent, or when the elected official is growing sufficiently close to the opposing party's ideology for a credible intra-party/primary challenge to emerge.


The 19th century[edit]

The first two major parties in the United States were the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. The Federalists experienced success in the 1790s but lost power in the 1800 elections and collapsed after the War of 1812. Many former Federalists, including John Quincy Adams, became members of the Democratic-Republican Party. After the 1824 presidential election, the Democratic-Republicans fractured between supporters of Adams and supporters of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's followers formed the Democratic Party, while those who supported Adams formed the National Republican Party. Two short-lived but significant third parties, the Anti-Masonic Party and the Nullifier Party, also arose during this period. In the 1830s, opponents of Jackson coalesced into the Whig Party.

The United States experienced another period of political realignment in the 1850s. The Whigs collapsed as a national party due to sectional tensions regarding slavery. The Republican Party and the American Party both sought to succeed the Whigs as the main opposition to the Democratic Party, and the Republicans eventually became the most popular party in the Northern United States. The Republicans absorbed many Northern Whigs, as well as some anti-slavery Democrats and much of the Free Soil Party. Notable Whigs who joined the Republican Party include Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, while notable Democrats who joined the Republican Party include Hannibal Hamlin and Galusha A. Grow. Many Southern Whigs became Democrats, though some formed the Constitutional Union Party to contest the 1860 presidential election. After the American Civil War, the Republican Party generally dominated the North while the Democratic Party dominated the South. Republicans dissatisfied with President Ulysses S. Grant formed the Liberal Republican Party for the 1872 presidential election, and many of these Liberal Republicans later joined the Democratic Party.

By the late 19th century, as the Democratic and Republican parties became more established, party switching became less frequent. Nonetheless, a major conflict in the Republican Party occurred in 1890s, largely over the issue of monetary policy. Republican supporters of free silver formed the Silver Republican Party, and many, including Henry M. Teller and Fred Dubois, later joined the Democratic Party.

The 20th century[edit]

Two progressive Republicans, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert M. La Follette Sr., launched strong third party presidential candidacies in the early 20th century, but neither founded a durable political party. A period of realignment commenced following the onset of the Great Depression, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt constructed the successful New Deal coalition. Over the ensuing decades, Roosevelt's Democrats embraced several tenets of modern American liberalism, while the Republican Party tended to favor conservatism.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Democrats lost their dominant position in the South, as prominent Democrats such as Strom Thurmond joined the Republican Party. In the ensuing decades, additional Southern Democratic Congressmen such as Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby would switch to the Republican Party. During the same period, Northern Republicans such as John Lindsay and Arlen Specter joined the Democratic Party.

Notable party switchers[edit]

Former U.S. Representative Jim Leach, a Republican, speaks during the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

There have been several instances of politicians continuing to be a member of a political party while running other campaigns as an independent. The most prominent examples include southern Democratic segregationists Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968, who remained in the Democratic Party for statewide campaigns but mounted national presidential campaigns as independents. Wallace later ran in the 1972 Democratic primaries. Earlier, liberal Republican Robert La Follette, Sr. ran for president as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1924, while still remaining a Republican in the Senate. Another example is Senator Joseph Lieberman, who in 2006 ran for Senate in Connecticut under the party Connecticut for Lieberman, although still identifying as a Democrat.

Other political figures, such as Ed Koch, Jim Leach, Zell Miller, Colin Powell, did not formally leave their parties, but supported a candidate from another party. Miller and Koch, though Democrats, supported Republican George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, while Powell and Leach supported Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. This received much media attention in 2004, when Democrats for Bush and Republicans for Kerry groups were formed. In New Hampshire, former Republican Governor Walter Peterson has expressly supported Democrat John Lynch in his bids for governor. In Virginia, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Linwood Holton, has since 2001 frequently supported Democrats in statewide races – his son-in-law, Tim Kaine, has been elected to the governorship and the U.S. Senate in that time, and served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party's nominee for Vice President in the 2016 election – and endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Similarly, in 1860, former Democratic President Martin Van Buren ended up supporting Abraham Lincoln due to Van Buren's disagreements with Democratic policies on secession. Other examples include former Republican Senator from Minnesota David Durenberger supporting John Kerry in 2004 and former Democratic Attorney General Griffin Bell supporting George W. Bush in 2004. Moreover, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Democrat Mike Espy endorsed incumbent Republican Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour for reelection in 2007.[1] On August 3, 2017, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced that he had rejoined the Republican Party after having been elected as a Democrat less than a year prior. He made the announcement at a Donald Trump rally in Huntington and also confirmed his support for the sitting President. Justice claimed that he was returning to the GOP because he could not help Trump as a Democrat. The announcement came as a surprise to his own staff.[2] This also made Justice the first Republican governor of West Virginia since Cecil Underwood in 2001. Conversely, Republican congressman Justin Amash of Michigan left the GOP to become an independent on July 4, 2019, due to his opposition to Trump.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
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  3. ^ Zraick, Karen (July 4, 2019). "Justin Amash, a Trump Critic on the Right, Leaves the G.O.P." New York Times. Retrieved July 5, 2019.

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