Political Parties and Spending Limits

By Baran, Jan Witold | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Political Parties and Spending Limits

Baran, Jan Witold, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

The Supreme Court is ambivalent about political parties. At times, it is wary of them,(1) but on other occasions, the Court rhapsodizes about sacred rights of association and speech.(2) Each time a case regarding political parties comes before the Court, the parties cringe like battered children, uncertain whether they will be struck or embraced. This jurisprudential ambivalence reflects the public's own mixed sentiments. Party identification is still the leading cue sought by voters in deciding how to vote,(3) yet parties are objects of public suspicion and occasional scorn.(4)


The confusion results in part from basic misunderstandings about what constitutes a political party, which is not an easy question to answer. Perspectives differ on the cohesiveness and collective power of parties. Will Rogers said he did not belong to an organized party because he was a Democrat.(5) On the other hand, Senator John McCain, in his 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination for president, said he was running against the party "establishment."(6) Both exaggerated. Contrary to Will Rogers's assertion, parties are not unorganized. But parties are not monolithic either, as suggested by Senator McCain.

Parties are unique in our society and our political system. These unincorporated associations include national, state, and local groups whose members -- through delegates -- meet only once every four years. In between these conventions, they function through thousands of volunteer committee members. Parties depend entirely on voluntary donations, which are spent mostly on public communications and on a relatively small staff. During the last presidential election cycle in 1995-96, the two major US parties raised and spent a total of approximately $625 million.(7) This represents only a portion of the estimated $4.2 billion spent overall by all participants at all levels.(8) Even this sum -- $2.1 billion per year -- seems a modest amount to spend on politics in this country. By comparison, the sum approximates the reported gross annual revenues of a single prominent media organization, The Washington Post Company.(9)


Unlike the Washington Post, political parties are not blessed with advertising revenues and family ownership that spans generations. Party activists, when they are not wearing funny hats at conventions, have personal and professional obligations outside the party. Party chairmanships are short lived: time-consuming and usually uncompensated at the state level, chairmanships are not particularly desirable. As a result, personnel changes constantly. For example, the most current campaign finance litigation involving a political party is Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee,(10) which started as an administrative proceeding in 1986.(11) In the fourteen years of this Dickensian litigation, there have been five chairmen of the Colorado Republican Party and six chairmen of the Republican National Committee.(12)

Upon reflection, it is remarkable that so many people are still active in political parties. Unlike past eras, parties do not control patronage, or actually conduct elections, or command predictable streams of income based on assessments of public employees. Indeed, they do not even offer much public exposure for ambitious party leaders, who must stand in the shadow of the party's real standard-bearers: its elected officials.

Candidate-centered politics has placed parties in the odd position of being dismissed by their own candidates.(13) In order to exist, a party must have candidates to articulate its messages. Candidates, however, do not always need a party. Party candidates do not even need to adopt a party's platform. Indeed, it is now almost commonplace for a presidential nominee to ignore his party's platform.(14) Even political coalitions are described by reference to candidates, rather than policy planks: "Reagan Democrats" or "Perotistas" or "the McCain Majority.

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