Campaign Contributions by Political Parties: Ideology vs. Winning

By Wilhite, Al; Theilmann, John | Atlantic Economic Journal, June 1989 | Go to article overview

Campaign Contributions by Political Parties: Ideology vs. Winning


Wilhite, Al, Theilmann, John, Atlantic Economic Journal


Campaign Contributions By Political Parties Ideology vs. Winning

An oft quoted definition of a political party is, "a team seeking to control the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election" [Downs, 1957, p. 25]. The expansive implications of this definition have proved to be fertile ground for understanding the actions of office seekers. From this perspective, winning is paramount and ideology merely a tool used to obtain this objective. Succinctly stated by Anthony Downs [1957, p. 28], "parties formulate policies in order to win elections rather than win elections in order to formulate policies."

This elegant thesis has resurfaced in spatial theories that encompass participation and voting [Aldrich, 1983(a), 1983(b); Enlow and Hinich, 1984], and it has been broadened by efforts to distinguish between vote maximizing and plurality maximization [Hinich and Ordeshook, 1970]. Still, there is a constant that binds these theories together--the primary goal of parties is to win.

Interestingly, empirical studies find important ideological components in party affiliation. Poole and Daniels [1985] claim 80 percent of the variation in legislative voting is explained by a single liberal-conservative dimension. Similarly, Shaffer [1982] shows a consistent ideological split along party lines. Earlier works [Turner and Schneier, 1970; Clausen, 1973; Clausen and Van Horn, 1977] lend support to the contention that ideology and party affiliation have had a stable relationship over a long period of time.

There is an inconsistency here. If parties adopt a platform with the sole objective of winning, then an historical party alignment would be merely coincidental. The long-term stability found in the empirical studies casts doubt on this explanation. Similarly, if a party exists because of ideology, and if it adheres to this ideology, it will consistently lose to a party adopting a winning strategy. It seems likely there is another dimension involved that may lead to a reconciliation of the theory and empirical findings.

Shepsle [1972] offers a potential explanation by introducing risk. He suggests voters resist the unknown (they are risk averse) and so the adoption of an identifiable platform can be beneficial for a party. This lends an inertia to a party's ideology once it is learned by the electorate.

In another approach, Schlesinger [1975] suggests there are two types of party members, office seekers and benefit seekers. The former wants to gain power and ideology takes a back seat, as suggested by Downs. The second type of individual views the office as a means to an end (the collection of certain benefits). Benefit seekers want parties to adopt an ideology and for allegiances to be known. Schlesinger [1975] suggests both types of individuals exist in all parties, resulting in a combination strategy that stresses winning and ideology.1

This paper expands the above discussion in two directions. First, a reconciliation of the apparent importance of both winning and ideology is offered that does not rely on the specific preferences of voters or candidates (as do Shepsle and Schlesinger): Second, an empirical model derived from this theoretical construct is used to explore party behavior. (1)Some studies assume both ideology and winning are party objectives [Chappell and Keech, 1986; Wittman, 1973] and then explore the implications of these assumptions. For the most part, however, these works do not ask why ideology matters.

I. The Party in a Legislative Body

This paper suggests the importance of ideology is office specific, that is, legislative and executive bodies differ. The theoretical works discussed above seem to be particularly applicable to executive office elections. When a candidate runs for the presidency or a governorship, the state hands over the prize to the winner and he or she gains control of that branch of government.

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