NATIONAL PARTY ORGANIZATIONS AND PARTY BRANDS IN AMERICAN POLITICS

 

This book project examines the role the Democratic and Republican national committees play in party politics. The committees are the only national institutions in the organization of either party, but existing research has dismissed them as mere 'service providers' that assist the party through fund-raising and campaign advice, but lack decision-making power over issue positioning or candidate selection. In contrast, I argue that these national committees are essential in the eyes of party leaders because they view them as creators of their party's brand - defined as the understanding voters have of party positions on salient policy issues.

Modern parties rely on these brands to mobilize voters and achieve electoral success. By providing information on policy positions, parties create a heuristic that voters use in elections to decide which candidate to vote for - something which would be far costlier for individual candidates to achieve independently. I argue the national committees are important because they promulgate such national brands through their publicity activities. The committees have done so since the late 19th century when, due to Progressive Era developments such as the introduction of the secret ballot, local party machines declined and a new approach to voter mobilization became necessary. To achieve this, both parties began to rely on ''educational campaigns" through which the committees provide voters with publicity outlining the parties' positions on national issues.

While these publicity efforts are a core element of the committees' activities, I show that the extent to which they provide them is dependent upon the party's electoral success. When a party is the national majority - defined as having unified control of the federal government - party leaders can build a brand more easily through legislation and governance. As a result, the committees' publicity programs decrease, with the DNC and RNC focusing instead on other programs (e.g., fundraising). In contrast, when a party is in the national minority, the DNC and RNC step up publicity efforts in order to convince voting groups to (re-)join their coalition. National minority party committees prioritize their branding role by investing considerable shares of their budgets in their publicity divisions, inaugurating new publicity programs, and creating new communication tools to reach out to voting groups. Crucially, I also show that the committees of parties that do not hold the White House have considerable freedom to decide the type of party image to promulgate. Thus, they have agency to affect the crucial process that allows voters to connect parties to specific policies and ideologies.

To test this theory, I present a series of case studies of committee activities in the 20th century. The project consists of four empirical chapters: two assess committee activities in both parties over a longer period of time (1912-1948, and 1980-2012, respectively). The two other empirical chapters focus on detailed case studies of the DNC (during the Eisenhower and Kennedy-Johnson administrations) and RNC (during the JFK- LBJ, and Nixon-Ford years) as national minority and majority parties. In analyzing these cases, I rely on primary sources I gathered from eight archival collections (including the Library of Congress, the Kennedy and Truman presidential libraries, and collections at several universities). In these cases, I show the relation between party brands and committee activities, and the role of party electoral performance in predicting when committees invest in their publicity programs.

This view represents a major departure from the existing research on national committees. I argue that the committees' publicity services are different from regular 'services' because of the space committees frequently have as to what type of brand they promote. That is, the DNC and RNC can choose which image to promote and which voting groups to target. In doing so, the committees are not neutral: in major intra-party disputes about fundamental policy positions (e.g. Prohibition, civil rights) and ideology, the committees frequently take sides. In addition to reassessing the DNC and RNC as political institutions, this project expands our understanding of how parties create brands. Existing literature on American politics relies on party brands to explain Congressional party behavior and, because of this, also thinks of brands as being created by Congress. I argue that by bringing in other party institutions we get a more complete understanding of how parties communicate their positions to voters.