How Political Parties Work
A political party is an alliance of like-minded people who work together to win elections and control of the government. Political parties compete against one another for political power and for the ability to put their philosophies and policies into effect.
Many voters demonstrate party identification, even though they do not formally belong to a party. So a voter might claim to be a Democrat, even though she does not pay dues, hold a membership card, or technically belong to that party. Other voters see themselves as independents: These voters do not belonging to any party, and they willingly vote for the best candidate regardless of that person’s party affiliation.
Political socialization influences party identification. Family beliefs, education, socioeconomic conditions, and recent political events all help determine whether a person chooses to identify with a political party.
Party organization is the formal structure and leadership of a particular party. The major parties in the United States do not have a single party organization; rather, they have a series of organizations that cooperate to win elections. These organizations include the following:
- National party committees
- State party committees
- County party committees
- Party committees in Congress
Although the national party committee nominally functions as the head of the party, the national committee cannot force other party organizations to do what it wants. Sometimes different party organizations argue with one another about how to achieve their goals.
Example: Following the 2004 presidential election, former Vermont governor Howard Dean became the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Working toward the 2008 elections, Dean clashed with Rahm Emmanuel, a representative from Illinois and the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, over how to spend party money. Dean wanted to spend the money building grassroots party organizations in every state (particularly in states that favor Republicans), whereas Emmanuel wanted to spend the money supporting candidates in specific races that are more likely to be won.
In the United States, parties perform many functions:
- Recruit candidates: Parties want to win elections, so they must recruit people who are likely to win.
- Organize elections: Parties work hard to mobilize voters, encourage people to volunteer at the polls, and organize campaigns.
- Hold conventions: Every four years, the parties hold national conventions to formally declare the party’s platform and to choose the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees.
- Unite factions: Parties are not centered on a person but on a set of policy positions known as the party platform. The platform brings together a wide range of people with similar interests.
- Ensure plurality: The out-of-power party articulates its views in opposition to the ruling party. By doing this, the opposition party gives the public an alternative.
Convention delegates are the party members or officials who vote on nominations and ratify their party’s platform. Delegates are party activists, people who believe so strongly in the ideology of their parties that they devote time and energy to working on the platform. Nowadays, conventions primarily serve as large-scale advertisements for the parties. In recent years, party leaders carefully choreographed conventions to present a united front and to put a positive face on their party. Controversial issues are sometimes avoided, whereas speeches aim for broad appeal.