National versus state versus local party organisation continues to be an issue in American Politics. Up to the 1990’s it was accepted that the three forms of party that are stated in the title, existed as three separate entities and that they only came together during a presidential election campaign – once every four years. 

Local parties jealously guarded their independence from state dominance, while state parties did what they could to stop national interference. Bowles, Grant and Vile have all written about the hundreds of parties that used to exist in America at a local, state and national level with just one thing in common – the Democrat or Republican title. However, during the 1990’s there has been an attempt to change this and give national party leadership more political clout throughout the party, and the nation, as a whole.

This started back in 1977 with the Republican National Committee (RNC) during the chairmanship of William Brock. Up to this time “state parties had no real reason to co-operate (with the national committees) and the national committees’ Washington offices were run by small skeleton staffs.” (Grant) Brock in his five year tenure, was involved with raising money, recruiting candidates against Democrats who were considered vulnerable and conducting centralised polling and advertising campaigns. 

The Congressional Campaign Committees have provided funds, advice and support to favoured Republican candidates in legislative elections. The RNC has also helped to co-ordinate business and corporate PAC contributions to Republican candidates. Therefore, since the time of Brock, there has been an attempt by the Republican National Committee to actively involve itself and its off-shoots in the heart of politics. This came about because of the very apparent weakness of the Republicans in the mid-1970’s and Brock’s determination to improve and bolster the party’s financial standing and its general organisation.

If there was an increase in the participation and effectiveness of the RNC, then there was a decrease in the old-style effectiveness of the state parties. The RNC raised large sums of money principally by direct mail solicitation of known supporters and this allowed the Republicans nationally to involve themselves in party-building activities and strengthening party organisation across the country.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) started a similar process and also developed their organisation by fund raising. By the 1990’s such large sums of “soft money” had been raised and spent at national and state level, that concern was expressed as this money was not subject to electoral law nor regulation. The DNC also gained power over the state parties by stating clear and categorical rules over the composition of delegations at national conventions. The DNC has determined acceptable delegate selection procedures. These have changed for every national convention to ‘change with the times’ but such change has caused instability in that state parties cannot predict what their state delegation will be until the ‘rules’ have come from the DNC. In recent years, Democratic state party delegations have had to put an emphasis on young people, women and minorities. However, in the most recent national conventions, there has been an emphasis on “super delegates” while at the same time, expecting state delegations to represent the population profile of their states.

Therefore in recent years, the move by national committees to head the party, as much as is physically possible in a country the size of America, has apparently been successful in that they both now have more political clout than before. However, both state and local parties do have power that the national committees cannot weaken.

A vast amount of work is done by party activists at local level during an election campaign. Frequently this work is done for free and is invaluable to a presidential candidate. However, if these party activists do not approve of the presidential candidate for their party, are they likely to put in the same amount of work for that candidate? Is there a guarantee that they will put in any work at all? Therefore, there has to be a conscious realisation by the national committees of both parties, that the presidential candidate must have some degree of popular support throughout the country. Why would anybody give of their time for a candidate that they did not support ?

With the increasing difficulty of predicting voting patterns and the greater popularity of ticket-splitting, local and state party thoughts have to at least be considered and therefore the drive by national committees to advance their authority has by the very nature of teamwork been limited – this might also explain why any statements from national party chairmen have been vague and relatively free from controversy. Why upset those who will be needed during the most important time of a party’s existence – election time ?

The evidence seems to suggest that party activists at a local level will work hard when a presidential candidate is popular – such as Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s – and far less so when the candidate appears to be doomed to defeat – such as Robert Dole in 1996 when the evidence seemed to suggest that Clinton would win an overwhelming re-election victory. 

When a presidential candidate appears to be doomed to defeat at a national level, party activists seem to concentrate their efforts on Gubernational (governors), Congressional and local electoral candidates as elections for these are frequently held at the same time as a presidential election. This approach has not helped the Democrats in recent years as their presidential candidates have frequently been seen to be liberal which has not received support in southern states. This has lead to the Republicans being far more dominant in the south despite the southern origins of Bill Clinton.

The 2000 election was an example where all party activists got involved as the right presidential candidates were nominated – Al Gore for the Democrats and George Bush for the Republicans. Gore  had not attracted controversy in his time as Vice President and he was fiercely loyal to Clinton during the impeachment process which indicated that he was a good party man. He is also from the south which should have been of some help within that region. To get a third term in office, the Democrats from the national committee to the activists at ward level should have been working flat out to support this candidate – in theory. This, in fact, did happen. The Republicans also experienced the same pattern. George Bush Jnr. was a strong and popular candidate. He represented Texas as governor during the election campaign and has a reputation as a no-nonsense politician. His father was also president. Therefore, logically the Republican machine should also have been working flat out for their candidate. Therefore, with two potentially popular candidates and with no obvious advantage to either side, the 2000 election was the obvious battleground to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of party at all levels – possibly for the first time in 8 years and with the added impact of the Internet and the media in general.

However, as the approach to politics in America becomes very professional, it may well be that the party machine will play a relatively small part in future election campaigns. The two parties fund raising capabilities will be vital, but future candidates will be becoming reliant more and more on personal organisations headed by professionals to formulate and sustain an election campaign. 

These organisations are hand-picked and are out of the jurisdiction of the national committees. Those picked for these organisations will be more loyal to the person they are campaigning for rather than the party as an entity. Victory for the person is considered more important than victory for the party. Those who demonstrate loyalty, skill and success in these organisations can expect some form of reward at the end of a successful campaign such as elevation to the future president’s cabinet. An unsuccessful campaign will be seen as failure and those involved in such a campaign cannot expect to be rewarded when the ‘other side’ has won.

Presidential campaigns now appear to be going over the candidate-centred campaigns. The reason for this is the increasing use of primary elections when nominating party candidates. Successful nominees will have their own campaign staff and activists will be increasingly side-lined unless they happen to support that candidate and wish to maintain their involvement in a campaign. There has been an increasing use of political consultants to aid a campaign and give it direction : this has been very expensive but it is an indication of the professionalism that is becoming endemic in American politics and is moving away from the era when party activists at whatever level were important. 

Though they will still play an important role – if only getting people mobile to voting stations and delivering leaflets – the new dawn appears to be with the educated consultants. The 1990 Congressional elections left political consultants better off to the tune of $188 million. This figure has  grown as presidential elections become more professional in organisation. Philip John Davies writing in “Political Issues in America Today” claims that the presidential candidates will maintain and build on this new structure of campaigning as they feel that they have more control over it compared to the established system:


“It is not so much a case of candidates being chosen to represent the party line by party loyalists, as it is of party organisations capturing the part nomination, thereby eliminating some competitors, and gaining the use of party assets, on the way to a personal victory.”



Davies also states that the party organisation may well continue to do what it has always done but that it will duplicate the work done by the professional staff selected by the candidate. Grant refers to the “decline of American party organisation”, but this is a reference to the party organisation that existed throughout most of the C20th. A new system of organisation has developed which has meant that the old traditional power bases of party – the cities with ‘machine politics’ – has declined. The increased use of expert specialists, the use of modern media and the fragmentation of cities in suburbs has weakened the way parties were organised. A new century will almost certainly see a continuation of this and its replacement with a more modern method of organisation.

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