The Life of the Parties: Activists in Presidential Politics

The Life of the Parties: Activists in Presidential Politics

The Life of the Parties: Activists in Presidential Politics

The Life of the Parties: Activists in Presidential Politics


"The research presented here is impressive and sophisticated in its methods... The only comprehensive study of caucus delegates that I have seen." -- Perspective


Political scientists have traditionally focused their attention on the behavior of political elites -- those in a society who occupy positions of authority in governmental institutions. Since the development of public opinion polling as a research tool during the 1940 s, political scientists have also devoted considerable attention to the political beliefs and behavior of members of the general public in the United States and other industrial democracies. Much less attention has been paid to a group which occupies a crucial intermediate position between the political elite and the mass public, the informal political activists. These are people whose involvement in politics extends beyond the act of voting to more intensive forms of participation such as campaigning for candidates or contacting public officials.

The informal political activists play a vital role in a democracy because their interest, attention, and activity allow them to wield disproportionate influence on political decision-makers. In addition, political decisionmakers are frequently recruited from the ranks of the informal activists. These informal activists therefore provide an important link between political elites and the mass public in a democracy.

One of the most important avenues of informal participation in democratic politics is the party organization. In all modern industrial democracies, party organizations play a crucial role in the recruitment of political elites. Participation in party affairs provides an opportunity for interested citizens to influence the selection of political leaders beyond the limited choice offered in elections. In the United States especially, the decentralized, permeable party structures provide multiple opportunities for citizen participation. Only in the United States do members of the general public have the opportunity to select party nominees in primary elections. The vast majority of local, state, and national officeholders in the United States are nominated in primary elections.

In addition to the state and local primaries, the Democratic and Republican parties provide many opportunities for citizens to participate . . .

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