How Political Parties Work in the United States

The Functions and Responsibilities of the Republicans and Democrats

Republican National Convention
Delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay celebrate as the party nominates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president.

 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A political party is an organized body of like-minded people who work to elect candidates for public office who represent their values on matters of policy. In the U.S., home to a strong two-party system, the major political parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. But there are many other smaller and less well organized political parties that also nominate candidates for public office; among the most prominent of these are the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party, all three of which have run candidates for president in modern elections. Still, only Republicans and Democrats have served in the White House since 1852.

Did You Know?

No third-party candidate has ever been elected to the White House in modern history, and very few have won seats in either the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

The Role of a Political Party

Political parties are neither corporations nor political-action committees, nor super PACs. Nor are they nonprofit groups or charitable organizations. In fact, political parties occupy a vague space in the U.S.—as semi-public organizations that have private interests (getting their candidate elected to office) but play important public roles. Those roles include running primaries in which voters nominate candidates for local, state and federal offices, and also hosting elected party members at presidential nominating conventions every four years. In the U.S., the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee are the semi-public organizations that manage the nation's two major political parties.

Am I a Member of a Political Party?

Technically, no, not unless you're elected to a local, state or federal party committee. If you're registered to vote as a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian, that means you are affiliated with a particular party and its beliefs. But you're not actually a party member.

What Political Parties Do

The primary functions of every political party are to recruit, evaluate, and nominate candidates for election at the local, state, and federal levels; to serve as opposition to the opposing political party; to draft and approve a party platform to which candidates typically must abide; and to raise large sums of money to support their candidates. The two major political parties in the U.S. raise millions of dollars each, money they spend trying to get their nominees into office.

Let's take a closer look at how political parties actually work to accomplish these goals.

Political Parties at the Local Level

Political "party committees" operate in cities, suburbs, and rural areas to find people to run for offices such as mayor, municipal governing bodies, public-school boards, and Legislature. They also evaluate candidates and offer endorsements, which serve as guidance to voters of that party. These local parties are made up of rank-and-file committee people who are, in many states, elected by voters in primaries. The local parties are, in many locations, authorized by states to provide election judges, observers and inspectors to work at polling places. Judges of elections explain voting procedures and use of voting equipment, provide ballots and monitor elections; inspectors keep an eye on the voting equipment to make sure it works properly; observers scrutinize how ballots are handled and counted to ensure accuracy. This is the fundamental public role of political parties.

Political Parties at the State Level

Political parties are made up of elected committee members, who meet to endorse candidates for governor and statewide "row offices" including attorney, treasurer, and auditor general. State political parties also help to manage the local committees and play a crucial role in mobilizing the electorate—getting voters to the polls, coordinating campaign activities such as phone banks and canvassing, and making sure all the candidates on the party ticket, from top to bottom, are consistent in their platforms and messages.

Political Parties at the National Level

The national committees set the broad agendas and platforms for the party workers at the federal, state, and local levels. The national committees, too, are made up of elected committee members. They set election strategy and organize the presidential conventions every four years, where delegates from each state gather to cast ballots and nominate candidates for president.

How Political Parties Came Into Being

The first political parties—the Federalists and the anti-Federalists—emerged from the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The formation of the second party further illustrates one of the primary functions of political parties: serving as opposition to another faction with diametrically opposed values. In this particular case, the Federalists were arguing for a strong central government and the opposing Anti-Federalists wanted the states to hold more power. The Democratic-Republicans followed soon after, founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to oppose the Federalists. Then came Democrats and the Whigs.

No third-party candidate has ever been elected to the White House in modern history, and very few have won seats in either the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. The most notable exception to the two party system is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a socialist whose campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination invigorated liberal members of the party. The closest any independent presidential candidate has come to being elected to the White House was billionaire Texan Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election.

List of Political Parties

The Federalists and the Whigs and the Democratic-Republicans have been extinct since the 1800s, but there are plenty of other political parties around today. Here are some of them, and the positions that make them unique:

  • Republican: Takes more conservative positions on fiscal issues such as spending and the national debate and social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, both of which a majority of the party opposes. Republicans are more resistant to change in public policy than other parties.
  • Democrat: Tends to favor an expansion of social programs that assist the poor, broadening coverage of government-sponsored health care, and strengthening public education systems in the U.S. Most Democrats also support the right of women to have abortions and of same-sex couples to marry, polls show.
  • Libertarian: Favors a dramatic reduction in government functions, taxation and regulation and takes a hands-off approach to social issues such as drug use, prostitution, and abortion. Favors as little government intrusion into personal freedoms as possible. Libertarians tend to be fiscally conservative and liberal on social issues.
  • Green: Promotes environmentalism, social justice and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to receive the same civil liberties and rights others enjoy. Party members typically oppose war. The party tends to be liberal on fiscal and social issues.
  • Constitution: Formed as the Taxpayers Party in 1992, this party is socially and fiscally conservative. It believes the two major parties, the Republicans and Democrats, have expanded government beyond the powers granted in Constitution. In that way it is much like the Libertarian Party. However, the Constitution Party opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. It also opposes amnesty for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, wants to disband the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard.