Political Parties: The Basics

Political parties are fairly well-structured organizations that are committed to a set of policies and principles, are led by party professionals, have clearly defined membership requirements, have centralized control over party nominations and financing, and have the power to exercise substantial discipline over party members who hold political office.  Political parties perform numerous functions that help support popular sovereignty and political equality, including ensuring competitive elections by recruiting candidates for public office, organizing and running elections, presenting alternative policies to the electorate, representing a broad range of groups, stimulating political interest, accepting responsibility for operating the government, and acting as the organized opposition to the party in power.

Political parties consist of three components:

  1. party-in-the-electorate, which refers to members of the general public who identify with a political party or who express a preference for one party over the other
  2. party organization, which is the formal structure and leadership of a political party, including election committees, local, state, and national executives, and paid professional staff
  3. party-in-government, which consists of all the elected and appointed officials who identify with a political party


By fostering a sense of loyalty with portions of the electorate, a party can insulate itself from changes in the system and improve its odds of winning elections and shaping public policy outcomes.  This is where the party-in-the-electorate, which is responsible for voting for a political party’s candidates during primary and general elections, comes into play.

A political party’s party-in-the-electorate is composed of many diverse and independent groups and individuals, including:

  • party identifiers, or members of the electorate who publicly represent themselves as being members of the party, and
  • independents who do not consider themselves to be members of a political party but tend to lean in the direction of one of the major political parties

Party identification is the byproduct of political socialization and is influenced by various factors, including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, family, region, ideology, and religious beliefs.

Graph showing results of Gallup poll on party affiliation in the United States, 1989-2017

Over the past several decades, partisanship, or belief in and affiliation with a political party, has been declining.  Today, Americans are less likely to identify with a political party and are more likely to consider themselves independents.  We see this phenomenon playing out in our state.  When looking at Texas’s voting-age population in 2021:

Pie chart depicting party identification among Texas's voting age population, 2021
Party Identification, Texas Voting Age Population.  From Haag (2021)
  • 29% consider themselves strong or weak Democrats
  • 9% consider themselves to be Democratic-leaning independents
  • 31% consider themselves to be independents
  • 7% consider themselves to be Republican-leaning independents
  • 24% consider themselves to be strong or weak Republicans

This declining party affiliation has changed how political parties approach their goal of fostering a sense of political loyalty within the electorate, which has in turn impacted campaigns and elections.

Party Organization

The party organization is responsible for coordinating party behavior and supporting party candidates.  It consists of three levels: the national party organization, the state party organization, and local party organizations (which includes precincts and counties).

The national party organization is far more visible than are the state and local party organizations; however, each level of the party organization plays important, distinct roles (summarized in the table below).

Local (Precinct & County) Organizations State Organization National Organization
Mobilize voters and donors Mobilizes voters and donors (greater fundraising responsibilities than local organizations) Engages in fundraising


Identify and train potential candidates for local offices Identifies and trains potential candidates for state office and to represent the state in national government (i.e., Congress); helps candidates prepare for state primaries Identifies and trains potential presidential candidates
Recruit new members of the party Creates a sense of unity among the party-in-the-electorate within the state


Tries to coordinate and direct the efforts of Congress
Find volunteers for Election Day Hosts conventions where local delegates discuss the needs in their respective areas and select delegates for the national party convention Coordinate national conventions, where the parties formally nominate candidates for the offices of president and vice president
  Drafts the state party platform  Drafts the national party platform

Party platform = document that outlines the policies, positions, and principles of the party and serves as guides to elected officials who form part of the party-in-government)

A Closer Look: Party Organization in Texas

In Texas, the state party organization and local party organizations consist of the temporary party organization and the permanent party organization.

Figure depicting Texas's temporary and permanent party organizations

Temporary Party Organization

The temporary party organization of each party assembles for a few hours or days in general election years to allow rank-and-file party supporters a chance to participate in the party’s decision-making process.  Citizens who voted in the primary election are eligible to participate in the precinct convention of the party in whose primary they voted.  The main business of precinct conventions is to elect delegates to the county and district conventions.  The main business of the county or district convention is to select delegates to the state convention. The number of delegates an election precinct may send to the county or district convention, or that a county or district convention may send to a state convention, depends on the size of the vote in that precinct for the party’s candidate in the last governor’s election.

The Republican and Democratic parties hold their state conventions in June.  State conventions perform several functions, including certifying party nominees for the general election, electing the state party chairperson and vice-chairperson, choosing members of the state executive committee, and selecting individuals to serve on the national party executive committee.  During presidential election years, state conventions also select delegates to the national party convention and name a slate of potential presidential electors to cast the electoral college votes for Texas should the party’s presidential candidate carry the state in the November general election.

Permanent Party Organization

Each party has a permanent party organization that operates year-round.

At the base of the permanent party organization are the precinct and county chairpersons, who coordinate and conduct primary elections by setting up and staffing polling places on Election Day.

The county executive committee is the next highest level of the permanent party organization.  The county executive committee receives filing petitions and fees from primary election candidates for countywide offices, places candidates’ names on the ballot, and arranges county and district conventions.

The state executive committee is the highest level of party organization in the state.  It includes the party chair and vice-chair and committee persons representing each of the state’s 31 electoral districts.  The state executive committee certifies statewide candidates for the spring primary, arranges state party conventions, raises money for party candidates, and promotes the party.  The state party chairs serve as media spokespersons for their respective parties.


The primary responsibility of the party-in-government is to achieve a political party’s policy goals.

Political parties determine the means through which their goals will be achieved: Republicans hold party conferences and Democrats hold party caucuses to discuss policy priorities, legislation, and strategies.  At the national level, key Congressional leadership positions, such as the party leaders and party whips, reinforce the strength of the party-in-government in the policymaking process.  Similar positions can be found within Texas’s state government, as well.

Party-in-government is not always effective in translating party platforms into policy actions, however.  Our system of separation of powers and federalism makes it difficult to maintain party loyalty as elected officials are often responsible to different constituencies who may share competing interests.  Not all political candidates who have the endorsement of a political party run on that political party’s platform; often, candidates have their own ideas and beliefs concerning various social and economic interests that diverge from those in the official platforms adopted at state and national conventions.  There are also structural characteristics that make it difficult to achieve party unity at both the national level (i.e., the committee structure and the Senate filibuster) and at the state level (i.e., the creation of a plural executive and the short regular sessions and “no party” organization of the Texas legislature).  Indeed, our political parties seldom behave as responsible parties that take a clear stand on issues within distinctive party platforms and then translate those beliefs and ideas into actions once elected, as outlined in the responsible party model.  Instead, they tend to follow the rational party model: political parties endorse candidates for office in hopes those candidates will represent that party and its interests.

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