Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Why party platforms still matter in an election

Marketplace Staff Jul 29, 2016
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

The back-to-back national conventions from both major political parties this month created an election fervor, with interparty drama, plenty of grandstanding and even a historic milestone. Couple the razzle dazzle with two of the most disliked presidential candidates ever, and it’s easy to see how the events can overshadow something seemingly arcane like party platforms.

These policy docs, officially adopted during the conventions, are roadmaps of what a party wants to achieve in the next four years, but they often receive little attention from the public.

“They’re pretty predictive,” said Gerald Pomper, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University. “And they’re certainly guides to where the candidates and future president want to go.

It used to be that a party platform represented the talking points for the presidential nominee in an election campaign. But the document lost its significance in modern American elections when candidates began to campaign publicly for both a nomination and the election, setting much of their rhetoric ahead of the convention. 

For more coverage from the Republican and Democratic conventions, check out our podcast “Politics Inside Out.”

So why should voters even pay attention to the platforms from GOP or Democratic Party?

For one thing, this year’s platforms reflected the division in each party and gave some insight on how those were resolved. The Democrats used the platform to bridge the gap between presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the party’s nominee Hillary Clinton. It resulted in Sanders pledging his public support for Clinton (even though this made some of his fans unhappy).

The GOP’s platform made sure to stick with its nominee Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric on many issues, even striving to “combine Trump-like statements with softer language to permit wiggle room for the presumptive GOP nominee’s critics within the party,” according to USA Today.

Platforms also provide context on how party goals have changed over time, but perhaps the most persuasive argument for a voter to pay attention to these documents is that parties tend to vote in line with the ideals they present in their platform most of the time. One study said it’s 80 percent of the time, while Pomper told us that platform statements are “fulfilled to some degree” about 70 percent of the time.

That means voters can’t expect parties to get everything they outline, especially extreme measures like repealing the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, said David Karol, a professor of government and politics at University of Maryland.

“Our system of government often does not allow one party to get its way. So they can make promises that they know won’t actually be able to carry out,” Karol said.

Still, these platforms provide a window into what a party wants to accomplish if its nominee makes it to the White House.

To help you get started, we broke down these policies the best way we know how: by outlining both parties’ views on the economy. Click on a topic to see more.

Infographic by Donna Tam, Janet Nguyen, Sarah Menendez, Greta Hallberg, Tony Wagner and Paul Brent.

Icons by Benjamin Harlow, Rafael Farias Leão and Arthur Shlain from the Noun Project.

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