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Elections 2004

Roles Change But Party Platforms, Voter Attachment Still Important
Interview with Professor L. Sandy Maisel, Colby College

The Republican and Democratic political parties continue to fill important roles -- such as providing an institutional structure for the many activities involved in the election process, says Dr. L. Sandy Maisel of Colby College.

With voters now directly choosing candidates through the primary system, the candidates themselves have come to have greater influence over the contents of the party platforms, making them more -- not less -- important than in the past, because, he explains, the winning candidate is, therefore, more apt to act on them.

And despite the rise in the number of voters who identify themselves as independents, belonging to neither major party, in reality most vote a straight party line, Maisel says.

In a recent interview with the Washington File, Maisel, co-author of "The American Party System" spoke of the role of political parties in America today. Following is the transcript of that interview:

United States Department Of State
Interview with Professor L. Sandy Maisel
Colby College, Maine
"The Role of Political Parties Today"

QUESTION: Political parties in the United States clearly don't control the whole election process. How do you see their role as having changed in recent years?

MR. MAISEL: If you're talking about the political party organization, which in the golden days of political parties controlled nominations and really ran the entirety of presidential campaigns, political parties are a shadow of their former selves. What they have become is, essentially, a service organization for campaigns -- they run research for a campaign, help with polling and raising money, and those kinds of things.

On the other hand, if you consider political parties as a symbol to which people -- citizens as well as candidates -- are attached, they still form an important link between voters and candidates. Many people, whether they're officially registered in a party or not, consider themselves a member of a certain party and tend to vote for the candidates of that party, especially when they don't know anything specific about a particular candidate.

QUESTION: Is it true that more and more Americans are describing themselves as independents rather than members of the Republican or Democratic parties?

MR. MAISEL: Absolutely. It varies tremendously from state to state, but now, nationally, about a third of the American people call themselves independents. Poll data shows, however, that even most of those who identify themselves as Independents generally vote consistently for one or the other of the two major parties; in other words, they perhaps call themselves Independents, but in their hearts they are Republicans or Democrats.

I think you can best observe how this works, by looking at voter behavior in our most important elections -- the election for president. In this instance, the voters know something about the presidential candidates, so even if they have an allegiance to one party, they can easily move away from that party and vote for the other party's candidate; whereas, in less salient elections, when people are faced with things like electing members to the state legislature, choosing the clerk of courts, or selecting a probate judge -- when asked to vote for positions and candidates that people don't know very much about, they tend to vote a strict party line, and they choose the candidate by his affiliation to a specific party, the one with which the voter feels most comfortable.

QUESTION: Do parties set the agenda and issues for the campaign debate or do the candidates and their campaign staffs do that themselves now?

MR. MAISEL: The party used to set the agenda for the campaign and debate, but I think it's safe to say that since at least the election of 1992 [when Bill Clinton was the Democratic candidate against the incumbent Republican President George W. H. Bush], if not even slightly before that, the candidate who was winning each party's presidential nomination dominated the agendasetting stage. In 1992, for instance, the Bush campaign and the Clinton campaign each had a tremendous amount of input, including staffing input, into the drafting of their party's platform and the passage of that platform. So it was really a Clinton platform and a Bush platform in '92, and I think you've seen that exact same thing since then.

The Democratic Party platform this time is very clearly a John Kerry platform. And the Republican platform will certainly have George W. Bush's stamp on it.

QUESTION: Do the platforms themselves continue to be important guiding documents for the parties and their candidates?

MR. MAISEL: I think the platforms are important for citizens to be able see the distinctions between the two parties. A lot of people have said they are only empty words, but if you go back, as political scientist Gerald Pomper [of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers] has done over the years, and look at what actually happens after an election and compare it to what's in their platform, the Republicans and Democrats, in fact, do tend to try to adopt the major party positions on issues. And, as the party platforms do differ significantly from one another, I think the platforms are not insignificant.

QUESTION: Do party identities change? I know the parties make shifts, at least incrementally, on various issues, but do the parties -- the two major parties -- still maintain the same core values that they had from their beginnings?

MR. MAISEL: I don't think from their beginnings, but I certainly think that has been the case since the New Deal [Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's program to lead the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s]. For over 70 years now, the Democratic Party, if it has one core value, it is believing that the government has an active role to play in both helping those who are least able to help themselves and in managing the economy. And, if the Republican Party has one core value, it's that all people are better off if the government stays out of their business. That's clearly an oversimplification in both cases, but that's basically what the difference between the parties is.

QUESTION: Did the advent of television, which allows candidates to appeal directly to voters, have a big effect on the role of the parties?

MR. MAISEL: I think there are a number of factors that affected the role of political parties. Television is certainly one of them, but because the candidates can't take advantage of this mass medium if they don't have the institutional backing and means of raising a great deal of money, there are other factors involved.

Probably, the biggest factor was the change in the primary system to allow the candidates to be selected directly by voters, instead of chosen by party leaders.
In many ways, it's the advent of the direct primary, which happened for most offices and in most states in the first quarter of the 20th century, which really changed the dominance of political parties in the U.S. electoral process.

The election of 1968 [Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and the American Independent Party candidate George Wallace] is really the dividing line of party control of presidential nominations. Before 1968, the presidential nominations were very much controlled by the party organizations. Since 1968, they've been very much controlled by the individual candidates.

QUESTION: How about parties or party apparatus at the state and local level? Are they still functional and powerful?

MR. MAISEL: Rarely powerful, but almost always functional. Their influence and structure vary from state to state and have progressed over time. If you asked that question 40 years ago, you would find most state party organizations were weak and under-funded, with no permanent staff and no permanent headquarters. If you asked it today, you would find most state party organizations have a permanent staff, they have a permanent headquarters, and they have some sort of ongoing yearround operation. Then, again, it varies significantly from state to state in terms of how big their budget is, how big their staff is, and so forth.

QUESTION: And how dependent or independent are the local parties from the national committees and organizations?

MR. MAISEL: They are structurally independent. But virtually all of the parties get a good deal of their money from the federal government -- and the local parties get a good deal of their money from the national parties which have passed it on to the states' parties. This was particularly true before the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 [also known as McCain-Feingold], but it's now a little unclear as to how it's all going to work. The national parties still pass money on to the state party organization in states where the national parties think that the presidential or senatorial or a congressional race will be close.

The national parties also do a lot of campaigning in those states they've determined are important -- television advertising and so on -- where the state parties alone can't afford to do it. For example, I live in Maine, and the Democratic National Committee has been running ads for Kerry there since the convention. The Maine state committee for Kerry has not been doing that and Kerry hasn't been doing it himself, but the Democratic National Committee has been doing it for both. The same is done for the Republican candidate in states where the Republican National Committee feels it needs to boost activity on behalf of its candidate.

QUESTION: Campaign finance reform to remove undue influence by big contributors has been an issue in the last several presidential campaigns. This is the first presidential election under the McCainFeingold law. What kind of impact has it had?

MR. MAISEL: Well, I think the important thing to note about the impact of the McCainFeingold Act -- the official name is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act but it is known by the names of its sponsors -- is that it sought to end, and has successfully plugged, some of the loopholes and some of the most egregious faults in the system -- such as doing away with soft money contributions to political parties [soft money refers to the unlimited contributions by groups, labor unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals to fund activities which were supposed to benefit only the political parties, not their candidates]. But what it has done, instead, is spawn the rise of the socalled 527 committees.

The number 527 refers to a clause in the tax code under which these committees were formed. These 527 committees can do political advertising, can accept large donations, and they can, with huge amounts of money received from individual donors and no government regulation, do lots of things on behalf of a candidate, or against his opponent, to affect the political process, just so long as they are not directly coordinating their activities with any specific party or any specific candidate.

QUESTION: Are you saying that McCainFeingold has not been completely successful in eliminating soft-money contributions?

MR. MAISEL: I have a theory, which is that those who seek to spend money in politics are more effective and have an easier job of doing it than those who seek to restrict the spending of money in politics. That is because of our First Amendment guaranteeing the right of free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided, repeatedly, that political donations are a form of free speech.

Every time that the government finds a way to stop one kind of organization from spending money, people go out and find some other way to legally spend money doing the same kinds of things.

QUESTION: There has been controversy in this election over the accuracy of political ads put out by groups not directly affiliated with the candidates, in other words, by 527 committees. Does anybody monitor the assertions made in these ads?

MR. MAISEL: There's a website called which shows an analysis of the truth or lack of truth contained in every ad. It's a very interesting website, I think, but, you know, the question is how much attention the American public gives this analysis -- probably not as much as to the ads themselves.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

Created: 02 Sep 2004 Updated: 02 Sep 2004

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