Interest Groups: The Basics

Interest groups, like political parties, are groups of people who share similar interests, ideas, and/or beliefs.  Both political parties and interest groups monitor government activity, facilitate political participation, and work to create and implement government policies.

Interest groups differ notably from political parties, however.  Political parties have a broad agenda and encompass large segments of the population, whereas interest groups are more narrowly focused, generally organized around support of a specific issue or set of issues.  Furthermore, political parties focus primarily on winning elections to run the government and create certain policy outcomes, while interest groups try to increase awareness within the public and influence the behavior of political decision-makers to shape public policy.

Types of Interest Groups

Public Interests vs. Private Interests

Some interest groups are concerned with public interests, or interests that are connected in one way or another to the general welfare of the community.  These groups serve as advocates for a cause or an ideology.  Other interest groups are concerned with private interests that are associated with benefits for some fraction of the community.  These groups protect or advance the material interests of their members.


Most interest groups fall into one of four categories, depending on what their membership looks like:

  1. Membership organizations, which individuals join voluntarily and to which they usually pay dues (example: National Rifle Association)
  2. Interest groups representing companies, corporate organizations, and governments; to represent their interests, corporations may hire in-house lobbyists and/or contract lobbyists, and governments and government agencies may hire legislative liaisons
  3. Associations, which are usually groups of institutions that join with others who have a similar concern, often within the same trade or industry
  4. Volunteer or amateur lobbyists, which include citizens (sometimes referred to as “hobbyists”) who lobby for pet projects related to some issue or cause that they support

How Interest Groups Work

Interest groups go about conveying their views on issues and influencing government in two different ways: the inside game and the outside game.

Inside Game (“Direct Lobbying”)

The inside game refers to contacting and taking the organization’s message directly to lawmakers in an attempt to influence policy.  Examples include:

  1. Lobbying the U.S. Congress/Texas legislature
  2. Lobbying the U.S. cabinet and bureaucracy/Texas plural executive and bureaucracy
  3. Lobbying the courts (i.e., filing amicus curiae briefs in federal courts)

Outside Game (“Indirect lobbying”)

The outside game refers to taking the organization’s message to the public (usually via the media) in hopes that the public will then put pressure on lawmakers.  Examples include:

  1. Mobilizing membership
  2. Shaping public opinion with educational outreach and advertising
  3. Getting involved in campaigns and elections:
    • endorsements
    • hard-money campaign contributions to candidates
    • soft money spending on behalf of candidates (PACs)

There is evidence of increased importance of the “outside game” compared to the “inside game”, particularly when it comes to campaign finance in competitive elections (see Brown, 2018); however, direct lobbying still tends to be more effective than indirect lobbying.

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