The Parties and Other Behind-the-Scenes Powers

The challenge of running a competitive campaign for the U.S. presidency is made easier by the existence of the political parties and other organizations that support individual candidates and their agendas. The Democratic and Republican parties sponsor political advertising, organize volunteers, and help get-out-the-vote on Election Day.

Early History: How the Political Parties Came to Be

The U.S. Constitution has nothing to say about political parties. In fact, the Constitution’s framers were resolutely opposed to the formation of political parties in this country. Based on their knowledge of the way things worked in Britain, the framers believed that parties created unnecessary and counterproductive divisions within a nation. They thought that candidates should be judged on their personal merits and their stands on the issues, not their party affiliations.

Before long, however, early opposition gave way to the political and practical convenience of a party system. Parties enhanced cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of government and made it easier to coordinate policymaking among the different levels of government—from the federal level down to the states, counties, and towns. More importantly, parties allowed diverse groups of like-minded Americans from throughout the country to come together and have an influence on national policymaking and the election of the president.

The Life of the Parties: The Democrats and Republicans Take Center Stage

From the beginning, American politics has been dominated by two major parties. However, the constituencies and the names of these parties changed during the early years of the republic.

Many observers note that in recent years the Republican Party has become increasingly conservative. Although there is a range of opinion within the party, Republicans generally advocate a limited role for the federal government in solving society’s ills. Republicans also tend to support lower taxes, cuts in a range of domestic programs from social welfare to environmental protection, and increases in spending for defense. They also tend to oppose reproductive choice and gun control.

The Democrats have been identified since the 1930s as the more progressive party, due in large part to Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, designed to alleviate problems caused by the Great Depression. The Democrats generally support a more active government role in protecting the environment, public education, and public health and in ensuring equal opportunity for all citizens. The party also tends to support reproductive choice and some forms of gun control.

The National Committees

Each of the major political parties is led by a national committee headquartered in Washington, D.C. While the national parties used to come to life only every four years in running the presidential nominating conventions, in the last three decades they have shifted dramatically to full-time professional organizations supporting state and local parties and recruiting and training candidates.

In recent election cycles, a key function of the Democratic and Republican National Committees (DNC and RNC) has been to raise money to support its party and candidates. In 2012, the DNC took in $316 million and the RNC raised $409 million. The amounts raised by the parties almost invariably increase from one election cycle to the next.

The State and Local Parties

The parties also have committees at the state and local levels throughout the country that play an important role in a presidential campaign. They keep up enthusiasm at the grassroots, distribute campaign literature, and provide staff for candidates’ headquarters. Support from party leaders and volunteers at the state and local levels is considered crucial to the success of a presidential campaign.

Independents’ Day: Beyond the Parties

The Democratic and Republican Parties have been the dominant political parties in the United States for more than a century, but for many years, a considerable number of Americans have called themselves independents. A 2012 NBC/WSJ poll asked the question: Do you consider yourself a (party identification)? The results were: 10% Just Independent, Republican Leaning Independent 12%, Not Strong Republican 7%, Strong Republican 22%, Democrat Leaning Independent 10%, Not Strong Democrat 8%, Strong Democrat 30% and Other 1% (total 100%).

Enter the Special Interests: Independent Groups Step Up Their Campaign Activity

The political parties aren’t the only organizations working to influence the outcome of American elections. Recent presidential and congressional races have seen groups such as the Christian Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the American Medical Association, the Tea Party, and many others playing an increasingly important role in promoting candidates and their ideas and getting Americans to the polls.

In addition, in recent elections, individuals and organizations with millions of dollars to spend have formed special committees to influence the outcome of the presidential and congressional races. In some cases, these groups are established under the law so that they can accept unlimited funds and may not have to reveal who their donors are.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), placed new restrictions on what interest groups can do to help favored candidates, especially in the period just before Election Day.