How the Parties Are Organized

Both political parties resemble “pyramid-shaped” organizations, meaning there is a single leader at the top (national chairman), a broad base of grassroots workers at the bottom (precinct captains), and several layers of local, state, and national committees in between. Decision-making, however, is not simply a “top down” process; the different committees are actually in loose confederation with each other and maintain a certain level of autonomy.

National Organization

Each party has a national organization — the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The purpose of the national committee is to organize party functions, coordinate activity with state and local committees, raise money for officeholders and state parties, advocate policy positions in the media, and provide strategic and tactical support for candidates. The Democrats and Republicans have different methods for selecting national committee members, though both draw heavily from state organizations and elected officials.

Each national committee is led by a national chairman, who acts as the principal spokesperson for the party. In theory, the national committees are supposed to choose the national chairman; in practice, the two presidential candidates usually make this selection. In 2002, President George W. Bush replaced Republican National Chairman Jim Gilmore with close friend and ally Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana. Both national chairmen are elected every two years, and rarely serve more than two terms.

Following Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential election, prolific fundraiser Terry McAuliffe was voted Democratic national chairman, edging out former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson in a bitterly divisive contest. The selection of McAuliffe was somewhat unusual in that he was widely viewed as Bill Clinton's candidate because of his close ties to the former president and first lady.

Every four years, both national committees host a national convention, where their candidates for president and vice president are formally nominated. This time is also used to vote on national committee membership, adopt a national platform, and discuss rule changes for the primary system. The national conventions mark the beginning of the general election.

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