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Interest Groups

The Outside Game: Public Pressure and Electoral Influence

The Inside Game: Lobbying

The Pros and Cons of Interest Groups

Besides lobbying, interest groups also play the outside game by trying to convince ordinary citizens to apply pressure on their government representatives. Interest groups playing the outside game often rely on grassroots activism and electoral strategies to achieve their goals.

Grassroots Activism

Grassroots activism consists of mobilizing large numbers of people to achieve the interest group’s goal. By mobilizing thousands (or millions) of voters, an interest group can demonstrate to government officials that the public strongly supports its particular cause. Some grassroots efforts are general, trying to motivate as many people as possible, whereas others are more targeted. An interest group, for example, might target a member of Congress by holding rallies in his or her district and encouraging his or her constituents to write letters. A member of Congress who receives tens of thousands of letters endorsing health care reform, for example, is likely to pay attention to the group that sponsored the letter-writing campaign. In fact, most grassroots activists rely on a number of tactics to achieve their goals, such as the following:

  • Rallies and marches: Bringing together thousands of people generates excitement and determination among supporters.

Example: In late spring 2006, a number of groups staged a rally for Darfur (a war-torn region of the Sudan) on the national mall in Washington, D.C. The groups demanded that the American government take a more active role in stopping the violence in Darfur.

  • Letter-writing campaigns: Interest groups often encourage members to write to their senator or member of Congress, seeking to demonstrate their influence through the number of letters sent. Interest groups make it easy for their members by providing them with form letters that require only a signature.
  • Petitions: A group can also write a petition advocating a certain position on an issue and collect signatures. The effect is similar to that of letter-writing campaigns.
  • Hill visits: Sometimes an interest group will arrange for its members to visit Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. Although this is a form of lobbying, it is also a grassroots effort because it puts members of Congress in contact with their constituents.
  • Institutional advertising: Although not strictly a form of grassroots activity, institutional advertising, which aims at advancing the image of an organization, can influence public opinion, thereby affecting policy and lawmakers.

Electoral Strategies

Most elected officials want to be reelected, so they listen to people who can help or hinder that reelection. Interest groups take advantage of this situation by rallying voters to their cause and contributing money to reelection campaigns.

Rallying Voters

Most interest groups cannot legally encourage their members to vote for or against a particular candidate, but they can achieve the same effect by informing their members of candidates’ stances on issues. For example, for years the Christian Coalition has issued “voter guides,” which describe the candidates’ positions on issues that are particularly important to group members, such as abortion. Other groups (including the American Conservative Union and the Americans for Democratic Action) play the ratings game by publishing the positions of all members of Congress on key issues with the hope of swaying voters.

PACs and Campaign Contributions

Politicians also listen to people and groups who can donate lots of money. Interest groups are not allowed to donate money to campaigns directly, but they can contribute money through their political action committee (PAC). Theoretically independent of interest groups, PACs can solicit donations from group members and then give that money to candidates they support. A PAC can only give $10,000 ($5,000 in the primary campaign, $5,000 in the general election campaign) to each candidate during an election, but they can give money to as many candidates as they wish.

Most money that PACs donate goes to support particular candidates, but PACs sometimes fund opposing candidates to punish the politicians they normally support who have not been paying attention to the PAC’s interest group. The vast majority of incumbents win reelection, but in a close race, a PAC’s money can be very important.

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