Effective party organisation is vital for success in America’s political structure. For the purposes of this work, parties refers only to the Democrat and Republican Parties. Other political parties do exist in America politics but their national political clout is essentially non-existant.

The parties are decentralised within America but the depth and pattern of organisation varies from state to state. There are differences even from county to county. This can be explained by their strongly held belief in states’ rights over federal might. 


“In organisation, it is more accurate to regard the US as having a hundred parties rather than two.” (Bowles)


The US party system is a loose confederation of parties drawn into a nominal two-party system. As early as 1954, Maurice Duverger labelled parties as “decentralised and weakly knit.” This still remains true today. The party machinery no longer has a hierarchical command structure. Washington does not tell California what to do; California does not Orange County what to do and Orange County does not tell Los Angeles what to do. Each segment is meant to work in harmony together with the combined aim of producing a good presidential candidate who has a good chance of winning an election.

The main units of party organisation are: precinct, ward , city , county , state and national in ascending order of size. These exist mainly for electoral purposes. The cohesiveness found in Britain’s political parties organisation is not found in America where each unit is more loyal to itself rather than to the next stage up – except when an election is pending. 

Parties do not have ‘members’ as such. They have activists who work on their behalf though there are social clubs that exist which are associated with parties who have a members only policy i.e. if you belong to X club and it is linked with the Democrats, logically those who are members of it would support the Democratic Party. Unlike Britain, parties in America do not have access to membership fees. The autonomy that each one has keeps each unit independent from the other. 

Samuel Eldervelds described the relationship that each unit had with others as “stratarchy“; i.e. a non-authoritative relationship that is layered. Each layer works in collaboration with the others and the word “authority” is rarely used in describing the relationship each one has with the others. This, of course, is a generalisation as party organisation in some states was seen to be very authoritative when their relationship with cities, precincts and wards was examined : New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania were prime examples of this control.

Party organisation at a local level frequently rely on just a handful of committed staff. The parties are open to anyone who wishes to join them – though few do – and local organisation is best described as flexible and informal. Disputes within a local party branch are rarely over ideology and those involved with party organisation at a local level are virtually free from any interference from the party machines that exist at city or county level. The dominance of powerful local businessmen within local parties is rare now – though it still exists in places.

In bygones days, cities such as Chicago had very well structured local party organisations and party influence at a local level could be immense as patronage was common. Those who wanted important jobs in places such as Chicago, Kansas City etc. had to be supported by the local party machine. 

The growth and development of the civil service and action by the Supreme Court have both lead to a decrease in patronage at a local level and as a result, the power of the local party machine has dwindled. An off-shoot of this has been a large decrease in those people who are willing to help out on such jobs as canvassing a local community during the run-up to an election thus denying the local parties knowledge of how their area might vote. The traditional link that the local parties had was that of negotiator between local voting districts and government. This has also been undermined by the use of modern media mechanisms in recent years – such as the Internet and television adverts.


“Party labels are still necessary, but local and state party organisations are now usually marginal to the tasks of campaigning and winning elections.” (Bowles)


State party organisations are now characterised by the following:

a head office with permanent staff a commitment to raise money and conduct opinion polls supply party candidates running for office at all levels of government within the state with the relevant data and analysis of issues relevant at a local/state level

Such a set-up allows a party to establish a good spirit of common purpose but a downside of this is that state party central committees rarely concern themselves with the development of policy. They have become a service provider of the necessary knowledge/data a party candidate needs to have to be successful. State party organisations are essentially separate from party organisations in the state legislature; therefore, there would be little point in attempting to formulate policy as this is done elsewhere away from state party organisations (just as the parties national committees are separate from the two Congressional parties).

American political parties find their primary organisational expression at the local level rather than at a state or national one. The national organisation of the parties has always been weak. As early as1942, Schattschneider wrote that national party organisations possess “only the transparent filaments of theghost of a party.” When Nixon ran for re-election in 1972, his campaign was run wholly independent of the Republican National Committee. His opponent, McGovern, was also practically independent of the Democrat National Committee (DNC). Ironically, the ignorance of CREEP showed itself when they tried to bug the Watergate building (which had the headquarters of the DNC in it) despite the fact that the DNC played practically no part in the Democrats election campaign !!

The revival of the Republicans in the 1980’s was due to the work of the RNC chairman Bill Brock. He devised the tactic of directly targeting potential voters and then directly mailing them with party material. When president, Reagan continued with Brock’s services. Thus for a while the RNC had some influence and the DNC tried to replicate its success. National party organisations are now much more important for fund-raising. The use of modern methods and technologies have enabled both National Committees (NC’s) to raise considerable sums of money and both NC’s have a major role to play in distributing funds to state and local parties in order to maximise the vote during a presidential campaign. The limitations put on the PAC’s by legislation, mean that NC’s have an important role to play in raising funds (though the sums raised are well below those raised by PAC’s).

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