10.3 Party Organization

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the organizational structure of American political parties?
  2. How do national party organizations differ from state and local party organizations?
  3. What functions do political parties perform?

The organizational structure of political parties consists of the machinery, procedures, and rituals party leaders and professionals employ so that parties operate effectively in the electoral and governing processes (Key, 1964). Party organizations establish connections between leaders and followers so that they can build and maintain a base of supportive voters they can count on during elections. Parties maintain permanent offices to assist their constituencies. They engage in party-building activities, including voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. They provide candidate support, such as collecting polling data and running ads (Eldersveld and Walton, 2000).

Party organizations take many forms. National and state parties are large and complex organizations. They have permanent headquarters, chairpersons, boards of directors, and full-time employees with specialized responsibilities. They maintain lists of officers and members, operate under established bylaws and rules, and hold scheduled meetings and conventions. Local parties range from highly active, well-organized, professional structures to haphazard, amateur operations (Frantzich, 1989).

National Parties

National party committees today are the power centers of the Republican and Democratic parties. They are the ultimate authority in the parties’ organizational hierarchy. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are located in Washington, DC. The DNC and RNC chairs are the leaders of the party organization and are visible representatives of the parties in the press.

National organizations are responsible for putting on the nominating conventions where presidential candidates are selected every four years. Nominating conventions provide an opportunity to rally the troops and reward the party faithful by having them participate as delegates. They also provide an opportunity for parties to showcase their leaders and policies in front of a national television audience.

National parties adapted to the era of candidate-centered politics by becoming service-oriented organizations, providing resources for candidates and officeholders. They stepped up their fundraising activities, expanded their staffs, and established stronger linkages with state, local, and candidate campaign organizations. The DNC and the RNC have established multimedia strategies that include traditional mass media appeals through press releases and staged events. They also get their message out using sophisticated websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels. Party websites are a one-stop shop for information about candidates and officeholders, issue positions, and voting logistics. They also provide a gateway for people to become involved in politics by providing information about volunteer activities and offering opportunities to contribute to the party.

Legislative Campaign Committees

Legislative campaign committees finance and manage legislative elections. Members of Congress officially oversee the committee staffs. The National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee help candidates for the House and Senate meet the demands of modern campaigning. They provide survey research to determine voters’ candidate preferences and stands on issues. They recruit volunteers and raise funds for campaigns. These committees organize media appeals to promote the party’s leaders and agenda through television advertising, press briefings, direct mail, e-mail solicitations, and social media (White and Shea, 2000).

State Parties

State party organizations operate in vastly different environments because of the political culture of individual states. There is fierce competition between parties in some states, while other states lean more favorably toward one party. Party competition, however, exists in every state. According to Gallup, the two parties were competitive in a majority of states in 2011. Only fourteen states were solidly Democratic and five states were solidly Republican (Jones, 2011).

Party and election laws vary greatly among states. In Maryland, voters must register and declare their party identification twenty-nine days before a primary election in order to participate. In Massachusetts, independents can register with a party to vote in that party’s primary on Election Day. In Wisconsin, party preference is part of the secret ballot.

Like their national counterparts, state parties provide candidates with services, such as volunteer recruitment and polling. They offer citizens access to government leaders and information about issues. State parties have become multimillion-dollar organizations, most of which own their headquarters, employ full-time staffs, and have operating budgets of over a half-million dollars. State legislative campaign committees assist in campaigns by dispensing funds to candidates (Morehouse and Jewell).

Local Parties

Local party organizations exist at the legislative district, county, city, ward, and precinct levels. Some local parties are extremely vital, providing the link between average people and parties. In addition to fulfilling the basic election functions, they sponsor public affairs programs, provide services to senior citizens and young people, and organize community events. Some local parties are less active because many community-level positions, like town council seats, are nonpartisan.

Key Takeaways

Party organization refers to the officials, activists, and members who set up the administration, make the rules, and carry out the collective goals and activities of the party. The Democratic and Republican national party committees are the central authorities for the two major American parties. Party organizations at the state and local level are influenced by the political environment in which they are situated.

Exercises

  1. What kinds of services do contemporary parties provide? Why does it make sense for them to provide these kinds of services?
  2. How do national, state, and local party organizations differ from one another? What are the main functions of each level of party organization?

References

Eldersveld, Samuel J. and Walton Jr., Hanes, Political Parties in American Society, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000).

Frantzich, Stephen E., Political Parties in the Technological Age (New York: Longman, 1989).

Jones, Jeffrey M., “Number of Solidly Democratic States Cut in Half from ‘08 to ‘10,” Gallup, February 21, 2011, accessed March 26, 2011, http://www.gallup.com/poll/146234/Number-Solidly-Democratic-States-Cut-Half.aspx?utm_source= tagrss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_term= State%20Politics.

Key Jr., V. O. Politics, Parties, & Pressure Groups, 5th ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964).

Morehouse, Sarah M. and Jewell, Malcolm E., “State Parties: Independent Partners in the Money Relationship,” in The State of the Parties, ed. John C. Green and Rick Farmer (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 151–68.

White, John Kenneth and Shea, Daniel M., New Party Politics (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000).

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