Political Parties: Organization and Identification

The image on the left is of Obama and his family in front of a large crowd of people. The image on the left is of several children on a stage in front of a large crowd of people. A large number of balloons are falling from above.

The families of the 2012 presidential candidates joined in the festivities at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, (left) and the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida (right). (Credit right: modification of work by “PBS NewsHour”/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

  • Ability to differentiate between the party in the electorate and the party organization.
  • Discuss the importance of voting in a political party organization.
  • Describe party organization at the county, state, and national levels.
  • Compare the perspectives of the party in government and the party in the electorate.

If the purpose of political parties is to work together to create and implement policies by winning elections, how do they accomplish this task, and who actually participates in the process?

The answer was fairly straightforward in the early days of the republic when parties were little more than electoral coalitions of like-minded, elite politicians. But improvements in strategy and changes in the electorate forced the parties to become far more complex organizations that operate on several levels in the U.S. political arena. Modern political parties consist of three components identified by political scientist V. O. Key: the party in the electorate (the voters); the party organization (which helps to coordinate everything the party does in its quest for office); and the party in office (the office holders). To understand how these various elements work together, we begin by thinking about a key first step in influencing policy in any democracy: winning elections.

The Party-in-the-Electorate: The Voters

A key fact about the U.S. political party system is that it’s all about the votes. If voters do not show up to vote for a party’s candidates on Election Day, the party has no chance of gaining office and implementing its preferred policies. For much of their history, the two major parties have been adapting to changes in the size, composition, and preferences of the U.S. electorate. It only makes sense, then, that parties have found it in their interest to build a permanent and stable presence among the voters. By fostering a sense of loyalty, a party can insulate itself from changes in the system and improve its odds of winning elections. The party-in-the-electorate are those members of the voting public who consider themselves to be part of a political party and/or who consistently prefer the candidates of one party over the other.

What it means to be part of a party depends on where a voter lives and how much he or she chooses to participate in politics. At its most basic level, being a member of the party-in-the-electorate simply means a voter is more likely to voice support for a party. These voters are often called party identifiers, since they usually represent themselves in public as being members of a party, and they may attend some party events or functions. Party identifiers are also more likely to provide financial support for the candidates of their party during election season. This does not mean self-identified Democrats will support all the party’s positions or candidates, but it does mean that, on the whole, they feel their wants or needs are more likely to be met if the Democratic Party is successful.

Party identifiers make up the majority of the voting public. Gallup, the polling agency, has been collecting data on voter preferences for the past several decades. Its research suggests that historically, over half of American adults have called themselves “Republican” or “Democrat” when asked how they identify themselves politically. Gallup found in a survey conducted from July 5-9, 2017, that 28% of Americans identified with the Democrats, 25 % with Republicans, and 45% as independents.[1]

The number of real independents can be deceptive; because, even among self-proclaimed independents, the overwhelming majority claim to lean in the direction of one party or the other, suggesting they behave as if they identified with a party during elections even if they preferred not to publicly pick a side. Partisan support is so strong that, in a poll conducted from August 5 to August 9, 2015, about 88 percent of respondents said they either identified with or, if they were independents, at least leaned toward one of the major political parties. At the time of the 2016 election, the party and party leaner total was 89% of respondents. Generally, this number declines in non-election years.

Gallup chart showing party identification including independent leanginings.

The data shows that the Democratic Party has had the greater number of party identifiers with only a few exceptions since 1992. Since neither party has a majority, even when independents who lean to one party or the other are taking into consideration, both parties must vie for the votes of the “true independents,” which generally represent less than 12% of the electorate. (Credit: The Gallup Organization at http://www.gallup.com/poll/201638/independent-political-lowest-six-years.aspx?g_source=position6&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles.)

Party affiliation is not quite the same thing as party membership. People may call themselves Republicans or Democrats without being registered as a member of the party, and the Republican and Democratic parties do not require individuals to join their formal organization in the same way that parties in some other countries do. Many states require voters to declare a party affiliation before participating in primaries, but primary participation is irregular and infrequent, and a voter may change his or her identity long before changing party registration. For most voters, party identification is informal at best. It does matter, however, because party identification guides some voters, who may know little about a particular issue or candidate, in casting their ballots. If, for example, someone thinks of him- or herself as a Republican and always votes Republican, he or she will not be confused when faced with a candidate, perhaps in a local or county election, whose name is unfamiliar. If the candidate is a Republican, the voter will likely cast a ballot for him or her.

Party ties can manifest in other ways as well. The actual act of registering to vote and selecting a party reinforces party loyalty. Moreover, while pundits and scholars often deride voters who blindly vote their party, the selection of a party in the first place can be based on issue positions and ideology. In that regard, voting your party on Election Day is not a blind act—it is a shortcut based on issue positions.

The Party Organization: Formal Structure of Party Activists

A significant subset of American voters views their party identification as something far beyond simply a shortcut to voting. These individuals get more energized by the political process and have chosen to become more active in the life of political parties. They are part of what is known as the party organization. The party organization is the formal structure of the political party, and its active members are responsible for coordinating party behavior and supporting party candidates. It is a vital component of any successful party because it bears most of the responsibility for building and maintaining the party “brand.” It also plays a key role in helping select, and elect, candidates for public office.

A chart with eight boxes arranged in two columns and four rows. The boxes in the first row are connected by a line and read

Political parties are bottom-up structures, with lower levels often responsible for selecting delegates to higher-level offices or conventions. Thus, even the county party can be said to be directed from smaller units, down to the precinct level. In some states, such as Texas, the county chairperson is selected by the precinct chairs who are themselves elected through primary elections of the party voters.

Local Organizations

Since winning elections is the first goal of the political party, it makes sense that the formal party organization mirrors the local-state-federal structure of the U.S. political system. While the lowest level of party organization is technically the precinct, many of the operational responsibilities for local elections fall upon the county-level organization. The county-level organization is in many ways the workhorse of the party system, especially around election time. This level of organization frequently takes on many of the most basic responsibilities of a democratic system, including identifying and mobilizing potential voters and donors, identifying and training potential candidates for public office, and recruiting new members for the party. County organizations are also often responsible for finding rank and file members to serve as volunteers on Election Day, either as officials responsible for operating the polls or as monitors responsible for ensuring that elections are conducted honestly and fairly. They may also hold regular meetings to provide members the opportunity to meet potential candidates and coordinate strategy. Of course, all this is voluntary and relies on dedicated party members being willing to pitch in to run the party.

State Organizations

Most of the county organizations’ formal efforts are devoted to supporting party candidates running for county and city offices. But a fair amount of political power is held by individuals in statewide office or in state-level legislative or judicial bodies. While the county-level offices may be active in these local competitions, most of the coordination for them will take place in the state-level organizations. Like their more local counterparts, state-level organizations are responsible for key party functions, such as statewide candidate recruitment and campaign mobilization. Most of their efforts focus on electing high-ranking officials such as the governor or occupants of other statewide offices (e.g., the state’s treasurer or attorney general) as well as candidates to represent the state and its residents in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The greater value of state- and national-level offices requires state organizations to take on several key responsibilities in the life of the party.

link to learningVisit the following Republican and Democratic sites to see what party organizations look like on the local level. Although these sites are for different parties in different parts of the country, they both inform visitors of local party events, help people volunteer to work for the party, and provide a convenient means of contributing to the party.

First, state-level organizations usually accept greater fundraising responsibilities than do their local counterparts. Statewide races and races for national office have become increasingly expensive in recent years. The average cost of a successful House campaign was $1.2 million in 2014; for Senate races, it was $8.6 million.[2] While individual candidates are responsible for funding and running their own races, it is typically up to the state-level organization to coordinate giving across multiple races and to develop the staffing expertise that these candidates will draw upon at election time.

State organizations are also responsible for creating a sense of unity among members of the state party. Building unity can be very important as the party transitions from sometimes-contentious nomination battles to the all-important general election. The state organization uses several key tools to get its members working together towards a common goal. First, it helps the party’s candidates prepare for state primary elections or caucuses that allow voters to choose a nominee to run for public office at either the state or national level.

Second, the state organization is also responsible for drafting a state platform that serves as a policy guide for partisans who are eventually selected to public office. These platforms are usually the result of a negotiation between the various coalitions within the party and are designed to ensure that everyone in the party will receive some benefits if their candidates win the election. Finally, state organizations hold a statewide convention at which delegates from the various county organizations come together to discuss the needs of their areas. The state conventions are also responsible for selecting delegates to the national convention.

The political platform adopted by an individual state organization will vary not only by party but also based upon the political culture of that particular state. In the 1960s, Daniel Elazar researched interviews, voting data, newspapers, and politicians’ speeches. He determined that states had unique cultures and that different state governments instilled different attitudes and beliefs in their citizens, creating political cultures.

State political cultures can affect the ideology and opinions of those who live in or move to them. For example, opinions about gun ownership and rights vary from state to state. Polls show that 61 percent of all Californians, regardless of political party, stated there should be more controls on who owns guns.[3]

In contrast, in Texas, support for the right to carry a weapon is high. Fifty percent of self-identified Democrats—who typically prefer more controls on guns rather than fewer—said Texans should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit.[4]

Within each political party, state political organizations will have different levels of strength and effectiveness reflecting not only the relevant strength of party identification in that state but also the number of public office holders from that state.

Post 2016, for their part, Democrats surveying the condition of their party at the state level can see considerable weakness. According to Reid Epsteirn and Janet Hook of the Wall Street Journal, Democrats hold majorities in just 31 of 99 legislative chambers nationwide, having lost 958 seats since former president Obama took office in 2009. Just 43% of elected lawmakers in state legislatures are Democrats. They are less than a majority on state governorships. Therefore, it is not surprising that there has been a renewed effort to build stronger state organizations in the Democratic Party. In particular, populist followers of Bernie Sanders have been mounting a sustained effort to work to take over the party from the bottom up. In fact, Sanders supporters seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and have won party positions throughout the country.[5]

National Party Organization

The local and state-level party organizations are the workhorses of the political process. They take on most of the responsibility for party activities and are easily the most active participants in the party formation and electoral processes. They are also largely invisible to most voters. The average citizen knows very little of the local party’s behavior unless there is a phone call or a knock on the door in the days or weeks before an election. The same is largely true of the activities of the state-level party. Typically, the only people who notice are those who are already actively engaged in politics or are being targeted for donations.

But most people are aware of the presence and activity of the national party organizations for several reasons. First, many Americans are more interested in the topics discussed at the national level than at the state or local level.

A second reason for the prominence of the national organization is that it usually coordinates the grandest spectacles in the life of a political party–the national conventions, where they officially nominate the party nominee for president of the United States.

People may see or read an occasional story about the meetings of the state committees or convention but pay little attention. But the national conventions, organized and sponsored by the national-level party, can dominate the national discussion for several weeks in summer.[6]

National party conventions culminate in the formal nomination of the party nominees for the offices of president and vice president, and they mark the official beginning of the presidential competition between the two parties.

An image of Clint Eastwood standing behind a podium. Next to him on the right is an empty chair.

In August 2012, Clint Eastwood—actor, director, and former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California—spoke at the Republican National Convention accompanied by an empty chair representing the Democratic incumbent president Barack Obama. (Credit: OpenStax incorporated image)

It is the national party organization that establishes the presidential primary timetable and rules about delegate selection. Therefore, it is the national committee of each party that controls the presidential nomination process. The national party organization for each of the political parties allot delegates to their national nominating conventions based on the number of registered party voters in each state based upon rules developed by each respective national committee. These rules and guidelines differ by party and can change over time. California, the state with the most Democrats, will send 548 delegates to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Wyoming, with far fewer Democrats, will send only 18 delegates.

The Republican national committee, in advance of the 2016 presidential nomination process, established a timetable forbidding states to have “winner-take-all” primaries before mid-march and made state parties subject to a loss of delegates for violating the party rules.

In 2008, the national parties ruled that only Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire could hold primaries or caucuses in January. Both parties also reduced the number of delegates from Michigan and Florida as punishment for those states’ holding early primaries.[7] Despite these efforts, candidates in 2008 had a very difficult time campaigning during the tight window caused by frontloading.

National conventions are not the spectacles they once were, and this fact is almost certainly having an impact on the profile of the national party organization. Both parties have come to recognize the value of the convention as a medium through which they can communicate to the average viewer. To ensure that they are viewed in the best possible light, the parties have worked hard to turn the public face of the convention into a highly sanitized, highly orchestrated media event. Speakers are often required to have their speeches pre-screened to ensure that they do not deviate from the party line or run the risk of embarrassing the eventual nominee—whose name has often been known by all for several months. And while protests still happen, party organizations have becoming increasingly adept at keeping protesters away from the convention sites, arguing that safety and security are more important than First Amendment rights to speech and peaceable assembly. For example, protesters were kept behind concrete barriers and fences at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.[8]

With the advent of cable TV news and the growth of internet blogging, the major news outlets have found it unnecessary to provide the same level of coverage they once did. Between 1976 and 1996, ABC and CBS cut their coverage of the nominating conventions from more than fifty hours to only five. NBC cut its coverage to fewer than five hours.[9] One reason may be that the outcome of nominating conventions are also typically known in advance, meaning there is no drama. Today, the nominee’s acceptance speech is expected to be no longer than an hour, so it will not take up more than one block of prime-time TV programming.

This is not to say the national conventions are no longer important, or that the national party organizations are becoming less relevant. The conventions, and the organizations that run them, still contribute heavily to a wide range of key decisions in the life of both parties. The national party platform is formally adopted at the convention, as are the key elements of the strategy for contesting the national campaign. And even though the media is paying less attention, key insiders and major donors often use the convention as a way of gauging the strength of the party and its ability to effectively organize and coordinate its members. They are also paying close attention to the rising stars who are given time at the convention’s podium, to see which are able to connect with the party faithful. Most observers credit Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with bringing him to national prominence.[10]

Conventions

Photo of President Obama giving a speech.

U.S. President Barack Obama accepts the 2012 U.S Democratic presidential nomination during the final session of Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012. (Credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)

While both political parties use conventions to help win the current elections, they also use them as a way of elevating local politicians to the national spotlight. Then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 convention. Although he was only a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat at the time, his address caught the attention of the Democratic establishment and ultimately led to his emergence as a viable presidential candidate just four years later.

link to learningBarack Obama’s inspirational speech at the 2004 national convention resulted in immediate speculation as to his wider political aspirations.

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

One of the first challenges facing the party-in-government, or the party identifiers who have been elected or appointed to hold public office, is to achieve their policy goals. The means to do this is chosen in meetings of the two major parties; Republican meetings are called party conferences and Democrat meetings are called party caucuses. Members of each party meet in these closed sessions and discuss what items to place on the legislative agenda and make decisions about which party members should serve on the committees that draft proposed laws. Party members also elect the leaders of their respective parties in the House and the Senate, and their party whips. Leaders serve as party managers and are the highest-ranking members of the party in each chamber of Congress. The party whip ensures that members are present when a piece of legislation is to be voted on and directs them how to vote. The whip is the second-highest ranking member of the party in each chamber. Thus, both the Republicans and the Democrats have a leader and a whip in the House, and a leader and a whip in the Senate. The leader and whip of the party that holds the majority of seats in each house are known as the majority leader and the majority whip. The leader and whip of the party with fewer seats are called the minority leader and the minority whip. The party that controls the majority of seats in the House of Representatives also elects someone to serve as Speaker of the House. People elected to Congress as independents (that is, not members of either the Republican or Democratic parties) must choose a party to conference or caucus with. For example, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran for Senate as an independent candidate, caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate and ran for the presidency as a Democrat.

link to learningThe political parties in government must represent their parties and the entire country at the same time. One way they do this is by creating separate governing and party structures in the legislature, even though these are run by the same people. Check out some of the more important leadership organizations and their partisan counterparts in the House of Representatives and the Senate leadership.

One problem facing the party-in-government relates to the design of the country’s political system. The U.S. government is based on a complex principle of separation of powers, with power divided among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. The system is further complicated by federalism, which relegates some powers to the states, which also have separation of powers. This complexity creates a number of problems for maintaining party unity. The biggest is that each level and unit of government has different constituencies that the office holder must satisfy. The person elected to the White House is more beholden a national constituency than are members of the House or Senate, because members of Congress must be reelected by voters in very different states, each with its own more local constituencies and also state-level and county-level parties.

Some of this complexity is eased for the party that holds the executive branch of government. Executive offices are typically more visible to the voters than the legislature, in no small part because a single person holds the office. Voters are more likely to show up at the polls and vote if they feel strongly about the candidate running for president or governor, but they are also more likely to hold that person accountable for the government’s failures.[11]

Members of the legislature from the executive’s party are under a great deal of pressure to make the executive look good, because a popular president or governor may be able to help other party members win office. Even so, partisans in the legislature cannot be expected to simply obey the executive’s orders. First, legislators may serve a constituency that disagrees with the executive on key matters of policy. If the issue is important enough to voters, as in the case of gun control, healthcare, or abortion rights, an office holder may feel his or her job will be in jeopardy if he or she too closely follows the party line, even if that means disagreeing with the executive.

A second challenge is that each house of the legislature has its own leadership and committee structure, and those leaders may not be in total harmony with the president. Key benefits like committee appointments, leadership positions, and money for important projects in their home district may hinge on legislators following the lead of the party. These pressures are particularly acute for the majority party, so named because it controls more than half the seats in one of the two chambers. The Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader, the majority party’s congressional leaders, have significant tools at their disposal to punish party members who defect on a particular vote. Finally, a member of the minority party must occasionally work with the opposition on some issues in order to accomplish any of his or her constituency’s goals. This is especially the case in the Senate, which is a super-majority institution. Sixty votes (of the 100 possible) are required to get anything accomplished, because Senate rules allow individual members to block legislation via holds and filibusters. The only way to block the blocking is to invoke cloture, a procedure calling for a vote on an issue, which takes 60 votes.

Questions to Consider

  1. What is the difference between a majority and minority party?

  2. Why is winning votes so important to political parties?

Terms to Remember

majority party–the legislative party with over half the seats in a legislative body, and thus significant power to control the agenda

minority party–the legislative party with less than half the seats in a legislative body

party identifiers–individuals who represent themselves in public as being part of a party

party-in-government–party identifiers who have been elected to office and are responsible for fulfilling the party’s promises

party-in-the-electorate–members of the voting public who consider themselves part of a political party or who consistently prefer the candidates of one party over the other

party organization–the formal structure of the political party and the active members responsible for coordinating party behavior and supporting party candidates

precinct–the lowest level of party organization, usually organized around neighborhoods


  1. http://www.galllup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx
  2. Russ Choma, "Money Won on Tuesday, But Rules of the Game Changed," 5 November 2014, http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/11/money-won-on-tuesday-but-rules-of-the-game-changed/ (March 1, 2016).
  3. Josh Richman, “Field Poll: California Voters Favor Gun Controls Over Protecting Second Amendment Rights,” San Jose Mercury News, 26 February 2013.
  4. UT Austin. 2015. “Agreement with Concealed Carry Laws.” UT Austin Texas Politics Project. February 2015. http://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/set/agreement-concealed-carry-laws-february-2015#party-id (February 18, 2016).
  5. Reid Epsteirn and Janet Hook (February 22, 2017) Wall Street Journal, "Bernie Sanders Loyalists are taking over the Democratic Party one county office at a time."
  6. Abdullah Halimah, "Eastwood, the Empty Chair, and the Speech Everyone’s Talking About," 31 August 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/31/politics/eastwood-speech/ (March 14, 2016).
  7. Joanna Klonsky, "The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process," Washington Post, 6 February 2008.
  8. Timothy Zick, "Speech and Spatial Tactics," Texas Law Review February (2006): 581.
  9. Thomas E. Patterson, "Is There a Future for On-the-Air Televised Conventions?" http://journalistsresource.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/vv_conv_paper1.pdf (March 14, 2016).
  10. Todd Leopold, "The Day America Met Barack Obama," http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/05/obama.meeting/index.html?iref=werecommend (March 14, 2016).
  11. Sidney R. Waldman. 2007. America and the Limits of the Politics of Selfishness. New York: Lexington Books, 27.