Should we invite them to the party?

Fifty-six percent say that political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state, while 44% say that they are private associations and cannot be regulated.

The author would like to thank Professors Mike Barber and Chris Karpowitz for advice and assistance they provided with this blog.  In the spirit of full disclosure, the author of this blog has also done some polling work for Count My Vote in the past.

Political parties have a complicated history in American politics. Several founding fathers disdained them because they feared the effects of conflict. However, as the nation developed a routinized politics, the founding fathers lost their dread and became founders of our two-party system.

As the American political system developed, the question shifted from whether or not we would have a party system to who would control the political parties. Elected officials, party administrators, and rank-and-file members competed for control. These separate entities today all claim a share of a party’s identity and structure.

The Republican Party administrators in Utah have re-energized the tensions that naturally exist between these entities. They have asserted a right to dictate rules to select candidates, a decision that puts them at odds with the compromises, legal and political, that party administrators, voters, and elected officials have negotiated over the last two centuries. A compromise that, according to one political scientist, assigns political parties a status akin to a “public utility.”

The question, once again, at issue is really who controls the parties. While party officials are quick to claim control, rank-and-file voters do not believe that control is exclusive. In the February Utah Voter Poll we asked, “Which statement comes closest to your view? Political parties are private associations and cannot be regulated by the state or Political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state.”

Fifty-six percent say that political parties are public institutions and can be regulated by the state, while 44% say that they are private associations and cannot be regulated.

Public's View on Political Parties

As expected, significant differences exist between the parties. Indeed, there is almost a monotonic effect as the scale moves from a “Strong Democrat” to a “Strong Republican.” Eighty-two percent of those who identify as “strong Democrats” express the opinion that parties are public institutions, whereas only 35% of the “strong Republicans” do so.

View of Political Party by Party Affiliation

And of course, the pure independents (those who choose not to identify with any party) find themselves right between the two parties, but more likely to choose the “public institution” category.

The findings raise an interesting question: is it the ideology of the party or is it institutional self-interest that explains the pattern? For example, do Republicans view the party as a private association because they normally oppose government regulations or because they think it will dilute the significant advantage the party enjoys in the state? The same calculus applies to the Democrats, but only in reverse. Do they favor regulation of the parties because that is what Democrats conventionally believe or because they think it will make it possible for them to finally compete politically in the state?

The February UVP asked a question that may point toward an answer. The question provided a choice where individuals could choose between an advantage enjoyed by the major parties and a concept related to election administration: ballot access. The question asks: “State law says that political parties need to receive a certain level of support from voters before their candidates can appear on the election ballot. Some say that this gives an unfair advantage to the two major political parties (Republicans and Democrats). Others say it keeps the election ballot from becoming too cluttered with candidates. Which position comes closest to your view?”

Fifty-six percent say that “all parties should receive access to the ballot,” and 44% say, “Only parties that receive a certain level of support should be on the ballot.” The proportions are identical to the “public institutions/private associations” question.

Access to Ballot

However, the partisan distributions differ noticeably. Support for ballot access remains relatively stable across all categories for Democrats and even fairly high for the Independents who lean Republican. Only the “not so strong Republicans” and “strong Republicans” have a majority who want restrictions on ballot access.

Access to Ballot by Party Affiliation

If the major political parties were motivated solely by their concerns about regulation, we would not have expected this pattern. What seems clear is that the “strong Republicans” respond to these two questions as if they know they have the most to gain by preserving the status quo.

As a test of this idea, I combined those individuals who answered “only parties that receive a certain level” and “parties are private associations” into one category. I am interested in the characteristics of the individuals who would choose those two options as opposed to the other combinations. Selection of those two choices seems to indicate a preference for preserving advantages. I use a probit model to estimate the probability of selecting that combination of options as opposed to the other combinations.

The figure below displays the probability of selecting both of the options described above by the different partisan categories. The individuals most likely to choose both categories are the “strong republicans.” Democrats are also quite different from all categories of Republicans.  But the figure essentially shows that the “strong Republicans” have a much higher likelihood of choosing both response categories that preserve the advantages they currently enjoy in the state.

Party Identification Predictions

Political parties have an interesting relationship with the American republic. They are private associations that engage in a highly public activity that is subsidized by the state (e.g. cost of elections, ballot access). The parties help to organize elections, but the Constitution gives control of elections to the states. And perhaps it is that tension which made the founding fathers both fear and embrace them.

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1 Response to Should we invite them to the party?

  1. Daniel B says:

    Professor Patterson:

    Dan Burton here, BYU class of ’02. I passed your Congressional Politics class in my last (or second to last?) semester. One of the most interesting classes of my undergraduate education.

    It seems like underlying your analysis of why Republicans tend to see parties as private and also tend to want to limit access to the ballot is that Republicans want to maintain a certain level of control of the supermajority they have in the state. It seems to follow, then, that these results, especially as it relates to ballot access, would likely shift in a state where Republicans are not in the majority or are in a small minority (speaking specifically of state offices and legislative bodies). For example, California or New York. Would that be an accurate extension of your logic? Or am I reading too much into it?


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