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What is a party platform, and why do candidates often ignore them?

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan closes the Republican National Convention. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

What is a party platform, and why do candidates often ignore them?

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan closes the Republican National Convention. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Once again, we’ve reached that point in the political calendar when major parties draft platforms and adopt them at their conventions. The Republicans passed their 2016 party platform by uncontested voice vote on the first night of their convention, and the Democrats will do the same this week.

Even if some Americans pay attention to a few prime-time addresses during the convention, few will read the roughly 50 pages of policy positions that each party publishes as their platforms. Platforms are a staple of party politics in the U.S. and elsewhere, but many see platforms as insignificant to our voting and electoral process.

Don’t let their lack of obvious purpose fool you.

My research on political interest groups and parties shows that platforms serve an important role in our politics not because they’re useful for persuading voters, but because they help party organizations build election-winning coalitions.

Platforms in other countries

Parties have been drafting platforms almost as long as there have been parties. In parliamentary democracies – such as those in the U.K., Canada, most of western Europe, Australia, India and elsewhere – parties are stronger organizations than they are in the U.S. In these systems, platforms tell voters what the parties stand for and candidates are bound to adhere to a party’s platform.

In American democracy, parties and candidates have no obligation to follow the platform. The modern American electoral system includes candidate-centered, as opposed to party-centered, campaigns for public office. U.S. candidates use party labels to tell voters where they stand, generally, on issues, but candidates face few consequences for bucking the party line.

So what purpose do American party platforms serve?

Platforms are for parties

In order to understand the role and value of party platforms, we need to understand exactly what American political parties are. Many Americans, about two-thirds of voters, hold a party identification such as Democrat or Republican. But the vast majority do not pay close attention to politics or how parties function.

Voters need parties because when voters have a sense of their own personal political attitudes, and a sense of the parties’ positions, voters can use candidates’ party labels to help them figure out who to vote for – even if they know nothing else about a candidate. Voters who hold a party identification are technically a part of the party, but they are not the people actively building the party.

Activists, pundits, organizers and interest groups pay close attention to politics and have a vested interest in the ideas and policy positions that are associated with a party. Some scholars have come to call this subset of a party the “intense policy demanders.” These people make up the central core of a party and determine what a party stands for and hopes to accomplish when they win an election.

But this subset of intense policy demanders is in constant flux. Parties are like organisms that feed on building successful coalitions to stay alive (i.e., win elections). There is a market-like process that helps determine which policy demanders get incorporated into each party in any given election cycle and which are left out. In our current election cycle we’ve been watching this play out in real time.

For example, free-trade and protectionist wings of the Republican Party have been jockeying to be a central component of the coalition. The party’s nominee, Donald Trump, takes a much stronger protectionist stance on trade than the party platform reflects, so the free-trade activists might call this a win.

Platforms play a critical role in helping the diverse coalitions of policy demanders negotiate whose interests are represented in the core party coalition. The platform is useful because it provides the coalition members, and wannabe members, something to bargain over. Without the document, the process of defining the values, policy intentions and members of a party would be even messier than it already is.

If we think of parties as extended networks, then the platform it adopts has an important institutional role to play it the process of producing this coalition.

A little to the left, a little to the right

In research I’ve done with Gina Yanitell Reinhardt, we found that in 2004, the Democratic Party heard testimony from 193 groups seeking to influence platform content in platform drafting hearings that spanned four cities over six months.

Highlights from the 2016 Democratic platform drafting hearings.

These groups try to draw the platform toward their political ideal, and some groups are highly persuasive. This explains why sometimes platforms include ideas that seem far from the party mainstream. For example, in 1996 the Republican platform included statements about abortion that were far to the right of candidate Bob Dole’s preference. The same thing happened in 2008 when John McCain was the GOP nominee and the platform was more pro-life than the candidate.

The 2016 Republican platform is far to the right on LGBTQ issues, which may not reflect the median of party. And this year, the Democratic platform adopted more progressive policies, including some in response to the the Black Lives Matter movement, and others pushed by Bernie Sanders.

There is strong evidence that parties are good at getting most policy elements of their platforms enacted.

Who gets more play?

My research with Reinhardt on the Democratic Party shows that they are most responsive to groups that are ideologically near the party median, and those that have shown great loyalty to the party. Groups that have many resources are no more or less likely to have their preferred positions included in the Democratic Party’s platform.

The party platform drafting process is a manifestation of a grand coordination dance between those jockeying to be part of a major party coalition. The platform is the thing over which all of these elements argue, bargain and compromise. Having something to bargain over helps these entities to coordinate. Without it, it would be hard to tell who was in and who was out.

Platforms may not mean much to the average voter, or even the average candidate, but they are important institutions that help our system of self-governance to organize.