The families of the 2012 presidential candidates attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tampa, Florida, respectively.(Credit right: modified by "PBS NewsHour"/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

It was relatively straightforward in the early days of the republic when parties tended to consist of like-minded, elite politicians.However, improvements in strategy and changes in the electorate forced the parties to evolve into far more complicated organizations that operate on various levels in the American political system.As defined by political scientist V. O. Key, political parties are composed of three elements: the party in the electorate (the voters); the party organization (which serves as a coordinating tool between all the party's campaign activities); and the party in office (the office holders).To understand how these elements interact, let's focus on the first step toward influencing policy in any democracy: winning elections.

U.S. political parties are all about votes, which is a critical fact.When voters fail to cast their ballot on Election Day, the party has no chance of winning office or being able to implement its preferred policies.Most of the two major parties in the U.S. have been adapting to changes in the size, composition, and preferences of the electorate for much of their histories.Therefore, it makes sense that political parties would want to establish a permanent and stable presence among voters.An effective party can protect itself from changes in the system by cultivating loyalty, improving its chances at winning elections.Party-in-election voters are those who consider themselves to be a part of a political party and/or consistently support the candidates of one party over another.

Voters define a party according to the area they live in and how much they participate in politics.Members of a party-in-the-electorate are generally more likely to voice their support for that party.Since they often identify themselves in public as members of a party and may attend party events, these voters are often called party identifiers.Additionally, party supporters are more likely to contribute financially to their party's candidates during campaign season.It does not imply that self-identified Democrats will support all Democratic Party positions or candidates, but that they would feel their needs and wants were more likely to be met if the Democratic Party were successful.

The voting public consists primarily of party identifiers.Over many decades, Gallup has gathered data on voter preferences.Researchers found that historically, over half of American adults have called themselves "Republican" or "Democrat" when asked how they identify themselves politically.Based on a survey conducted by Gallup from July 5-9 2017, 28% of Americans identified as Democrats, 25% as Republicans, and 45% as independents.

.A poll conducted from August 5 to August 9, 2015, found that about 88 percent of respondents associated with or, if they were independent, lean toward one of the major parties.In 2016, 89% of respondents said they were party leaners or affiliated with a party.Non-election years, this number declines.

In only a few exceptions since 1992, the Democratic Party has been the most prevalent party identifier.Because neither party has a majority, even when independents who lean one way or another are taken into consideration, both parties must compete for the votes of "true independents," which are less than 12% of the electorate.Based on The Gallup Organization's poll, http://www.gallup.com/poll/201638/independent-political-lowest-six-years.aspx?g_source=position6&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles.)

Having party affiliation is not quite the same as belonging to a party. .In many states, voters must declare their party affiliations before voting in primaries, but primary participation is irregular and infrequent, and one can change his or her identity before changing party registration.Party identification is at best informal among most voters.Nevertheless, the identity of the party a voter belongs to guides their vote, as they may know little about a particular issue or candidate.If, for example, a person defines himself or herself as a Republican and always votes Republican, he or she will not be confused when faced with an unfamiliar candidate in a local or county election.Typically, voters will vote for a Republican candidate.

Another way party ties can manifest themselves is through the media.By registering to vote and selecting a party, one reinforces party loyalty.Even though pundits and scholars are often dismissive of those who "blindly" vote their party, choosing a party can often be influenced by issue positions and ideology.That's why voting for your party isn't blind, it's a shortcut based on issue positions.

The Party Organization: Formal Structure of Party Activists

Many American voters see their party identification as something much more than just a shortcut to voting.Those individuals have chosen to become more active in political parties in order to feel more energized by the political process.Those individuals are affiliated with party organizations.A political party's organizational structure is formal, and its active members are responsible for coordinating party activities and supporting party candidates.Any successful party relies heavily on it because it is concerned with building and maintaining the party's "brand." It also contributes to the selection of, and election of, candidates for public office.


It is common for political parties to have bottom-up structures, with lower levels often selecting delegates to higher-level offices or conventions.Therefore, even the county party can be viewed as being directed from smaller units—down to the precinct level.The county chairs in some states, such as Texas, are chosen by the precinct chairs, who are themselves elected through primaries.

Local Organizations

The top goal of a political party is winning elections, which is why the formal party structure mirrors the U.S. political system's local-state-federal structure.Technically, the lowest level of party organization is the precinct, but the operation of local elections is generally handled by the county-level organization.The local organization is in many ways the lifeblood of party politics, especially during election seasons.As part of this level of organization, organizations often handle many of the most basic functions of a democratic system, including identifying and mobilizing potential donors and voters, training potential candidates for public office, and recruiting new members.Additionally, county organizations are often responsible for getting rank-and-file members to serve as volunteers on Election Day, either as poll workers or as monitors responsible for verifying the legitimacy of an election.Often, they hold regular meetings to enable members to meet potential candidates and coordinate strategy.All of this is voluntary, and runs on the willingness of dedicated party members.

State Organizations

Many of the county organizations' formal activities are geared toward supporting candidates running for county and city offices.Some statewide offices, as well as state legislative and judicial bodies, are regarded as powerful.Despite the participation of county offices in these local competitions, it will be the state-level organizations who will handle the majority of the coordination.State-level organizations, like their more local counterparts, are responsible for key party functions such as statewide recruitment and campaigning.Their primary goals are to elect high-ranking officials such as governors and occupants of other statewide positions (e.g., the state's treasurer or attorney general), as well as representatives to the U.S.Capitol and in the.House.State- and national-level offices have greater value, and so state organizations must take on key responsibilities within the party.

As a general rule, state-based organizations are more likely to accept fundraising responsibilities than those at the local level.Across the nation, statewide elections and national elections have become increasingly expensive.*2>While individual candidates are responsible for funding and running their own campaigns, it is the state-level organizations that coordinate giving across multiple races and build the staffing expertise candidates will rely on during election time.

Organizations of the state party are also responsible for creating a sense of unity among its members.Unity can be extremely important for a party as it transitions from sometimes-contentious nomination battles to the all-important general election.In order to work on a common goal, the state organization utilizes several key tools.This first serves to prepare the party's candidates for state primaries or caucuses, which allow voters to elect a nominee to run for elected office on a state or federal level.

A second responsibility of the organization is developing a state platform, which serves as a policy guide for politicians who are eventually elected.Usually, these platforms are the result of a negotiation between the various coalitions of the party aimed at ensuring that all their members gain some benefit if their candidates win.The state organizations also hold a statewide convention to discuss the needs of the various county organizations.The state conventions also select delegates to the national convention.

A state organization's political platform may differ not only by party, but also according to its political culture.In the 1960s, Daniel Elazar studied interviews, voting data, newspapers, and politicians' speeches.He argued that state governments instil different attitudes and beliefs in their citizens, resulting in the development of political cultures.

Residents of or those moving to a state's political culture may have different opinions and ideologies than those in other states.Take gun rights, for instance, as an example.More gun control is needed in California, according to 61 percent of all Californians regardless of political party.

State political organizations will differ in strength and effectiveness within parties, based not only on the level of party identification in each state but also on the number of office holders from that state.

For their part, Democrats assessing their party's performance at the state level post-2016 can see considerable weakness.According to Reid Epstein and Janet Hook, Democrats hold majorities in just 31 of the 99 legislative chambers across the country. Since former President Obama took office, Democrats have lost 958 seats.There are only 43% Democrats elected to state legislatures.They hold less than a majority of state governorships.Thus, it is not surprising that Democratic state parties are trying to become stronger.In particular, populist Sanders supporters have been pushing to take control of the party from the bottom up.Sanders supporters seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and have won positions in every state party.

National Party Organization

Political action relies heavily on the local and state-level party organizations.In addition to taking up most of the responsibility for party activities, they play a crucial role in organizing parties and organizing elections.The majority of voters don't know much about them either.An average citizen usually knows little or nothing about the local party's behavior unless they receive a phone call or a knock at the door prior to an election.The state-level party follows the same pattern of activities.People who are affected by this are usually only those who are already active in politics or are being targeted for donations.

Most people, however, are aware of both the presence and activity of the national party organizations for several reasons.It's a fact that most Americans are more interested in national issues than in state or local ones.

It plays a crucial role in organizing one of the most prestigious events in the political party's life, the national conventions, during which the party's presidential nominee is selected.

Sometimes you may read or see a story about a state committee meeting or convention, but most people don't pay attention to those events.Nonetheless, the national conventions, organized by and sponsored by national parties, can dominate the national discussion for several weeks during the summer.

During these national conventions, party nominees to the offices of president and vice president are formally announced, marking the official beginning of the presidential race between the two parties.


.(Credit: OpenStax)

The national party organization sets the presidential primary schedules and rules regarding the nomination process.Accordingly, it is the national committee of each party that controls the nomination process.The national party committees of political parties allocate delegates to their national nominating conventions based on the number of registered voters in each state according to rules set by the national organizations.There are different rules and guidelines for each party, and they can change over time.Wyoming, with far fewer Democrats, will send just 18 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in 2016, while California, the state with the most Democrats, will send 548 delegates.

Before the 2016 presidential nomination process, the Republican national committee implemented a timetable making it illegal for states to hold "winner-take-all" primaries before mid-March and penalizing state parties for violating the party rules.

According to 2008 rules, only Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire qualified to hold caucuses or primaries in January.Due to early primaries, both parties reduced the number of delegates from Michigan and Florida in 2008. Despite these efforts, candidates in 2008 had a very difficult time campaigning due to the limited window created by frontloading.

The national conventions are no longer the spectacles that they once were, and this consequently has an impact on the national party organization's profile.As a communication medium, both parties recognize the value of the convention.It has been the parties' aim to turn the convention into a highly sanitized, highly orchestrated media event to ensure good public perceptions.Speakers are often required to have their speeches pre-screened to ensure that they do not deviate from the party line or risk embarrassing the eventual nominee-whose name has been well known for weeks or months.Although protests still occur, parties are becoming more and more adept at keeping protesters away from their convention sites, arguing that safety and security are more important than rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.Demonstrators were incarcerated behind concrete barriers and fences during the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

With the advent of cable TV news and the growth of internet blogs, major news outlets no longer feel compelled to provide the same level of coverage they once did.A total of 50 hours of coverage of presidential conventions was reduced from ABC and CBS between 1976 and 1996.*9> One reason for NBC's shortened coverage may be that the nominating conventions are also typically known in advance, which means there is no drama.Today's acceptance speech is expected to last no more than an hour, so it will take up no more than one prime-time TV block.

This isn't to say national conventions aren't important or that national party organizations are less relevant.Both parties still rely heavily on conventions and the organizations that run them to make a wide range of important decisions.The party platform, the campaign strategy, and the key elements of the national campaign are adopted at the convention.Although the media pays less attention to the convention, key insiders and major donors usually use it to gauge the party's strength, as well as its ability to organize and coordinate its members.As part of that same effort, they are closely watching the rising stars who take the stage at the convention, to see which ones can connect with the party faithful.The 2004 Democratic National Convention speech by Barack Obama is generally credited with bringing him to national prominence.10

The United States'.President Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination for 2012 at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012.(Photo by REUTERS/Jim Young)

Both major parties use conventions to help win current elections, but they also use them to boost local politicians into national prominence.State senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address to the convention in 2004.Though he was only running for a.senatorial seat at the time, his speech drew the attention of the Democratic establishment, which ultimately led to his emergence as a viable presidential candidate four years later.

The Party-in-Government: Party Members Holding Public Office

Politicians, or party identifiers, who have been elected or appointed to public offices, face the challenge of achieving their policy goals.It is decided by meetings of the two major parties; Republican meetings are referred to as party conferences and Democrat meetings as caucuses.In these closed sessions, members of each party decide what items will be placed on the legislative agenda and select which party members will serve on the committees that draft proposed laws.Also elected by the party members are the leaders of their respective parties in the House and the Senate, and their party whips.Party leaders serve as party managers and are the most senior party members in Congress.In addition to making sure members attend when a piece of legislation is voted on, the party whip instructs them as to how to vote.Typically, the whip holds the second position in the party in each chamber.Consequently, the House and Senate have leaders and whips for both parties.A majority leader and majority whip are members of the party that holds the majority of seats in each house.Majority leaders and minority whips are those of the party with fewer seats.Speakers of the House are also elected by the party with the most seats in the House of Representatives. .Unlike Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran for Senate as an independent, he now caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate and ran for president as a Democrat.

The parties in power

Among the issues facing the government is the way in which the country's political system was designed. .A federal system further complicates matters by relegating some powers to the states, which also practice separation of powers.Due to this complex structure, it is hard to maintain party unity.One of the biggest challenges is that each level and unit of government has different constituencies to satisfy.In comparison with Congressmen and senators, the person elected to the White House is more closely associated with a national constituency. This is because members of Congress must be reelected by voters in very different states, each of which has its own constituencies and state and county parties.

When one party controls both branches of government, this complexity is eased to some degree. .People are more likely to vote for a candidate for president or governor if they strongly believe in him or her, but they are also more likely to hold that person responsible for the government's failures.

A governor or president who is popular can help other party members win office if he or she is from the executive's party. State lawmakers are under pressure to make the executive look good in order to help gain support from other party members.Nevertheless, partisans in the legislature can't just follow the executive's orders.First, legislators may serve a constituency that disagrees with government policy on key issues.Especially if the issue is important to voters, like gun control, healthcare or abortion rights, an elected official may feel his or her job is in jeopardy if he or she adheres too closely to party orthodoxies, even if that means disagreeing with the executive.

A second challenge is that each chamber of the legislature has its own leadership and committee structure, and those leaders may not be in complete accord with the president.Members of Congress may benefit from committee appointments, leadership positions, and money for important projects in their home districts if they follow party policy.Majority parties, which control more than half of one of the two houses, are particularly vulnerable to these pressures.Speakers of the House and Senate majority leaders, leaders of the majority party, have many tools at their disposal to punish party members who defect on a particular vote.Finally, minorities may have to collaborate with the opposition on some issues when trying to achieve the goals of their constituency.The Senate, a supermajority institution, is no exception.The Senate requires sixty votes for anything to be passed, because it allows individual senators to block legislation via holds or filibusters.Only the cloture procedure, which requires 60 votes, can prevent the blocking.