TOPICS > Politics

The Role of National and State Parties

BY Chris Nammour  December 15, 2003 at 12:00 PM EDT

Arizona Polling Place (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The presidential primary season is widely seen as the busiest time for the national political parties. They plan their respective nominating convention, aid in organizing the debates that lead up to the nomination, and raise as much money as possible to help support their party’s candidate in the general election. Along with the Federal Election Commission, the parties play a large part in structuring the primary races.

“The parties establish the rules of how they work and establish the calendar, which is very important,” said professor Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. “Long campaigns favor outsiders, who have a chance to build their support. Short ones favor insiders and incumbents.”

Herrnson also explained that the parties work to “keep the peace among the candidates” during the sometimes bruising process.

Traditionally, the national parties were also responsible for procuring massive amounts of funds to support their candidates (both nationally and on local levels). National party leaders would funnel money through state and local parties to help elect candidates that the national party felt were appropriate representatives, or when the race was considered important on a national level. But with soft money bans altering fundraising rules, the national parties have less financial influence on local elections.

In the past, the national parties could use funding to guide local parties toward backing the kind of candidates that the national party preferred. However, now that the national parties have less to give, there could be a loss of control.

“It’s going to decentralize the parties,” Herrnson said. “You’re going to see a lot more independent candidates.”

In response, the parties are being forced to find new ways to push forward their candidates.

“We’re spending a lot of our time spreading our grassroots base,” said RNC deputy press secretary David James. “That means being in regular contact with our activists around the country.”

James said that the bottom-up approach would continue to be a crucial strategy, especially in the final days of a campaign — briefing constituents about the issues at stake, setting up phone banks to contact potential voters.

“If you look at the last two election cycles, those that get their vote out in the last 72 hours win,” James said, referring to the massive phoning, mailing and door-to-door efforts that occur in the final days of an election. 

While anyone who is registered to vote as a Democrat or a Republican is considered a member of their respective party, actual members of the national committee are officials elected by their registered constituents. They, in turn, elect their officers — in the DNC’s case, four vice chairmen, a treasurer, secretary and finance chairman. The RNC has a cochairman and a deputy chairman.

The president usually chooses the top chairman of the national party controlling the White House. The duties of the chairman include leading fundraising efforts and acting as the party spokesman. The chairman also determines which candidates will get national party support, and consults with elected leaders on political and electoral strategies.

The current DNC chairman is Terry McAuliffe, who has held that title since February of 2001. McAuliffe, a former businessman, started his career out of college working on then-President Carter’s reelection campaign. He earned a reputation as a very effective fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, especially for President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

Ed Gillespie was chosen by President Bush to lead the RNC in June of 2003. Gillespie has had a great deal of experience as a lobbyist, and has held various positions as a communications advisor and strategist for the Republican Party, including general strategist for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate run in 2002 and director of communications and congressional affairs for the RNC in 1996.

Despite the size and prominence that the national parties have, it is the state parties that have a direct influence on both local elections and the primaries.

“Picture the country as a hospital,” said Melissa Waymack, director of communications for the Democratic Party of Arkansas. “The national party is like the hospital administrator. And the state parties are in charge of the different departments. We have our hand on the pulse of our residents, while national party has the pulse of the country.”

Waymack explained that while the local parties use the national parties as a guide on the issues, it is ultimately up to local officials to choose the policies and strategies they would endorse.

“I like to think of us as a local branch, with our own individualistic goals and applications,” Waymack said. “The goals of the Democratic Party in one state are different than they are in any other state.”

Professor William Mayer of Northeastern University, co-author of The Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations, went a step further in describing the independence of the state parties.

“The power of the national parties over the state and local parties is no more than advisory,” Mayer said. “They can’t issue binding orders to their state and local affiliates.”

One concrete power the national party does have over state parties is the seating of delegates at the national convention, where the party candidate is nominated for the presidential race. If a state party selects its delegates in a way the national party feels is inappropriate, then the national party will simply not recognize that state’s delegates — for example, the DNC refused to acknowledge the Mississippi Democratic Party delegation that had been elected through racially exclusionary rules at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

There is also legal precedent that favors national parties over state parties when election rules conflict. According to Mayer, several clashes between state and national parties, notably between the DNC and the Wisconsin Democratic Party, as well as the Supreme Court ruling on Cousins v. Wigoda (1975), favored the national party over the state parties. In Cousins v. Wigoda, two sets of delegates claimed they had been elected to represent Illinois at the Democratic National Convention — one group according to state law, the other group backed by the DNC but not according to state law. Illinois courts found the DNC delegates in violation, but the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the DNC.

“But that’s just a matter of legality — nobody doubted that the national party has it within their rights,” Mayer said. “It’s more about political power.”

The Republican and Democratic parties differ in how they assign delegates during the primaries. The DNC requires that state delegates are divided equally among men and women, and that primaries use proportional representation to assign delegates — candidates win the same proportion of delegates as they won in the popular vote. Under proportional representation, if a candidate wins 50 percent of the popular vote in a state with 20 delegates, then they are awarded half (ten) of those delegates.

The RNC, on the other hand, remains silent on the matter. States can use proportional representation, or they can use a winner-take-all approach — any candidate with a simple majority (no matter how slim) wins all the delegates for a state.

“The Democrats really relegate their state parties in really elaborate detail,” Mayer said. “The Republicans take a laissez-faire approach. In a way, it reflects the ideologies of the two parties.”

One rule that the two parties share is neutrality during the primary elections. While party leaders may show preference for a candidate on an individual level, the parties refrain from endorsing any one candidate.

“It’d be a violation of the understanding that exists of what the party is supposed to do,” Mayer said. “It would throw everything off.”