The Role of Political Parties

Although the two parties are not as organized or powerful as in years past, they still play an important role in modern American politics. In particular, they perform five critical functions:

  • Recruitment of candidates. Parties need officeholders at the local, state, and national level to shape policy. National and state committees spend considerable time recruiting and training candidates to challenge incumbents and seek open seats. Both parties look for candidates with strong knowledge of the issues, deep ties to the community, and the ability to raise money. However, with the proliferation of primaries and caucuses, both parties now have a diminished role in the candidate selection process.

  • Raising money. As former senator Phil Gramm of Texas was fond of saying, “Money is the mother's milk of politics.” With the cost of campaigns increasing exponentially each election, the two parties spend nearly every waking minute raising money — and lots of it. In a given election cycle, both parties will raise hundreds of millions of dollars at the national and state level, and distribute the proceeds to candidates deemed to have a legitimate chance of winning office. Since taking control of Congress in 1994, the Republican National Committee has consistently outpaced the Democratic National Committee in fundraising by a 2 to 1 margin.

  • Campaign support. At one time, political parties completely ran political campaigns; the candidate simply served as a proxy for the party. Today, the parties provide numerous “support services” for candidates, including polling, opposition research, voter lists, position papers, legal and strategic counsel, phone banking, and media buying. Both parties focus their attention and resources on vulnerable incumbents and challengers running for open seats.

  • Government organization. Both parties are responsible for organizing the three branches of government. Party members in the legislative branch select the leadership, introduce legislation, and confirm executive branch appointments. In the executive branch, the party in power is responsible for thousands of appointments, including judgeships. It would be hard to imagine the effective operation of government without political parties.

  • Advocacy of political issues. The political parties are expected to define the issues and advocate a position consistent with their core values. This is especially important when new issues arise, such as human cloning, domestic terrorism, and the taxation of Internet commerce. Voters look to political parties to offer direction and solutions for issues both new and old.

In 2002, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation banned the two parties from raising “soft money” (unlimited corporate and individual donations). Now the parties must rely on “hard money,” or capped contributions from individuals. In the short time McCain-Feingold has been law, Republicans have widened their fundraising advantage by a margin of 3 to 1.

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