Do Party Platforms Still Matter?

Despite their waning influence over the years, the process leading up to the 2016 national conventions has underscored intra-party conflicts.

Mitt Romney celebrates with running mate Paul Ryan after accepting the Republican nomination at the 2012 national convention. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Keeping with over a century and a half of practice, Republicans and Democrats will each adopt an official national party platform at their conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia this month. Once the main public statement of the party’s positions and a centerpiece of its presidential campaign, the platform’s significance has faded. The status of the platform reached such a low point that in 2012, at the GOP convention in Tampa, then-House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview: “Have you ever met anybody who read the party platform?” And yet, just as the 2016 campaign has flouted so much conventional wisdom and bucked so many trends, the process of crafting the party platforms this year has turned out to be more revealing of today’s political climate than usual. While the platforms are unlikely to influence the election’s outcome, they’re telling about what’s changed—and what’s changing—within the two major political parties.

In Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention will be held starting July 18, delegates will vote to approve a party platform on its opening day. The Republican Platform Committee, chaired by Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, began to finalize the proposed platform Tuesday. Consistent with GOP rules, a small group worked on a draft for weeks and presented it to the full committee of 112 delegates, which comprises two people from each state and jurisdiction.

Given Donald Trump’s tenuous connections to party leaders and deviations from conservative policy positions, many Republicans running this year hoped the platform would put some distance between themselves and their party’s nominee. While conceding to Trump on some positions, most notably on free trade and a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the platform has created a firewall between what the party stands for and what Trump stands for. Looking ahead, the platform therefore provides down-ballot candidates the opportunity to run on the party’s conservative policies, especially on those issues where Trump might differ.

Meanwhile, Democrats are making changes of their own to their party platform. They will vote to adopt the platform when their convention begins on July 25 in Philadelphia. Following their party’s rules, the 15-person Platform Drafting Committee led by Representative Elijah Cummings has been working since mid-May, and has solicited testimony from 114 witnesses.

The context in which Democrats have been preparing their platform this year has differed greatly from that of Republicans. Hillary Clinton, the party’s presumptive nominee, faced a much stiffer challenge than expected during the primary season from Bernie Sanders, who developed a following of ardent supporters. Throughout the primary campaign, Sanders continually dragged Clinton leftward on policy. Leading up to the national convention, Sanders insisted that the party adopt “the most progressive platform ever passed.”

A recent draft of the platform foregrounds themes of economic inequality, channeling some of Sanders’s populist animus toward Wall Street by calling for a reimposition of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act to regulate banks. In fighting for revisions, Sanders has shown that he attaches great importance to the platform, seeing it as an instrument for legitimating his ideas and enshrining them as a starting point for future Democratic Party thinking.

So it goes: Trump proposed policies at odds with many conservative positions, and Sanders moved the Democratic Party’s platform to the left. The result is a greater degree of intra-party tensions than usual, making 2016 the most interesting platform process of this century. Yet it would take an event of far more dramatic proportions than has occurred so far to restore the platforms to anything like their previous role—when they were the documents that defined the “vision” of the national party. The more modest place of the platform today has resulted from big changes in the method of selecting nominees, in the relationship between party and nominee, and in communications technology.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, nominees were chosen at the party conventions, with the platforms being written and approved before the nominee was selected. For most of the 19th century, candidates rarely campaigned publicly either for the nomination or for the presidency itself, and they did not attend, let alone address, the national party conventions. Franklin Roosevelt was the first to break with this tradition, in 1932, when he attended and addressed the Democratic National Convention.     

The platforms, which were prepared by the parties, served as the voice of the campaign, supplying many of the talking points for the party operatives who campaigned on the nominee’s behalf. To that end, nominees were expected to adhere to the party’s positions. Although the personality and appeal of individual candidates were always important, it was customary to speak of the nominee’s party, not of the party’s nominee.

From the 1830s through the 1960s, platforms were occasionally employed as instruments for establishing a clear winning position in the party for a policy or principle. All of this activity came to a head at the party convention, where, along with choosing the nominee, the party platform battles were waged and decided. What would be considered contested conventions today were then the norm. The source of conflict was the party’s interest in winning elections; therefore, the platform might soften the party’s core views in an effort to appeal to certain voter constituencies or swing states. Alternatively, platforms could offer a clear choice, rather than an echo, to try to win a new majority.

The significance of the platform, however, started to wane once candidates began to campaign openly for both the nomination and the election. Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the shift when he called for presidential candidates and presidents to rise above and transform the parties. He argued that they should stand at the head of a new kind of party, as individual leaders articulating their own vision. With candidates campaigning to win delegates through primary elections, the party conventions would no longer decide the nomination but simply register the results. A platform would now be the product of the victorious candidate, and serve as an instrument to bind party lawmakers to follow the president. These are some of the arrangements and ideas that came to the forefront following the nomination reforms of the early 1970s.

In 1972, Democrats adopted reforms (Republicans followed later that decade) that made primaries and more open caucuses the principal way of winning delegates to the convention. These changes transferred the power to select the nominee from the party regulars to primary voters. As a result, candidates now had to create their own organizations and campaign themes to appeal to those voters.

With the advent of television, people and the press have also largely ignored the platform in favor of pre-convention campaigns and the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech at the party convention, which has become what many people take to be the candidate’s most comprehensive statement of the party’s campaign themes and policy positions. The purpose of the modern convention, in part, is to provide the audience and setting of the speech. Take 2008, when John McCain and Barack Obama’s acceptance speeches each garnered roughly 39 million television viewers. Obama took his speech outside the convention to a football stadium audience of 84,000 people, on a stage decorated with faux Greek columns. The acceptance speech has become the equivalent in role and importance to platforms of yesteryear—but the candidate and his or her speechwriters, not the party platform committee, write it.

Sandy Maisel, a political scientist, found that platforms drafted after the 1972 presidential nomination reforms were basically “candidate platforms.” Although there could still be some differences of emphasis between the acceptance speech and the platform, it rarely mattered much, as neither the candidates nor the public focused on the platforms. While all of the contestation this year over the platforms has momentarily renewed interest in them, it is unlikely that the platforms will return to the high profile position they once enjoyed. Primary rules, the modern media, and the importance attached to the nominee’s convention speech work against the platforms’ return to center-stage.

The platform writing process, however, served to heighten the drama of an already tense election year by underscoring intra-party conflicts. And though the platforms may be hovering in the background, they provide much insight about the 2016 race and offer tantalizing hints about the parties’ possible futures.