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Parties Vote with Their Platform 82% of the Time: Expert

July 8, 2024

With the Republican National Convention scheduled for next week, delegates on the platform committee met ahead of time to decide the party platform the GOP will carry into the 2024 election. The platform adopted by the committee watered down the platform’s stance on key issues such as protecting unborn life, but such a move could spell trouble for a party whose post-Roe electoral victories have usually capitalized on a wave of pro-life momentum.

“These party platforms are not just these rhetorical expressions, but they are roadmaps for the future,” explained Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. 

In fact, from 1981-2020, partisan elected officials voted to fulfill promises made in their party’s platform 82.2% of the time, according to research conducted by Dr. Lee Payne, party platform researcher and professor at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Notably, “There was a difference between the Republicans and the Democrats” in adherence to the party platform, Payne explained on “Washington Watch” last week. Republicans voted with their party platform 87.5% of the time, while Democrats voted with their party platform only 69.7% of the time. Perkins quipped, “I actually would prefer that the Democrats not keep their promises based upon their platform.”

For some, these statistics suggest that the party platform influences party voting trends, particularly among Republicans.

Critically minded readers may object that the causal link may be the other way around — that the policy positions held by a party’s elected officials (or leaders) will be reflected in the party platform. Although this is an oversimplification of the way party platforms are constructed, there is likely an element of truth in it, to the extent that partisan elected officials hold well-informed, principled views on policy issues.

However, it strains credulity to suggest that every politician is both well-informed and principled about every policy promised in their party’s platform. The Founders expected men with more ambition than principle to seek political power, and they deliberately constructed our system of government to bend that ambition to the public good. Such politicians will espouse whichever policies they believe are most popular, and they can be as difficult to root out as the weeds sown among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). More innocently, a banker might excel at fiscal policy but defer to the opinions of allies on the finer points of health care policy, while a pharmacist might do the opposite — with no malice conceived or intended by either.

These considerations suggest the more complete picture, that the causal relationship between a party’s platform and the policy positions its elected officials espouse is a two-way street. The platform is shaped by the existing views of a party’s members, and it also influences the future of the party, if only by providing a place of consensus for fellow partisans of divergent viewpoints. This is why party platforms are and remain important, even though “we vote for candidates with a party ID,” Payne pointed out, instead of voting strictly for a party, as voters do in other electoral systems.

A second reason why party platforms are both important and helpful is that they offer voters “a choice, not an echo,” to use the late Phyllis Schlafly’s phrase. This is particularly relevant in an era where “both parties are reverting to their ideological spectrums,” said Payne. “My hypothesis all along was, with polarization increasing, the platforms would take more different stances on their policies to give people a clearer picture of what they stand for.” His research shows that this “is what has happened.”

Payne explained that, in the 97th Congress (1981-82), Republicans and Democrats were divided only 43.5% of the time in the House and 46% in the Senate. House partisan division peaked in the 114th Congress (2015-16) at 85.5%, and Senate partisan division peaked in the 116th Congress (2019-20) at 87.7%. Not only do these peaks show nearly double the partisan division from three-and-a-half decades earlier, but they are also approaching the maximum possible division.

Such sharp contrasts between the parties “isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he argued. “If Coke and Pepsi tasted the same, there would be no reason to pick one over the other. So, when the parties became more polarized in their platforms … it gives voters a clearer picture of what they’re voting for.”

As FRC’s president put it in another conversation, voters need that contrast. “But that’s not always the case. The party platform [is] an opportunity for the parties to state their priorities, their policy priorities, and their principles. But oftentimes what we’re seeing are two parties — one in the HOV lane, speeding down the road, the other just over in the slow lane. [But they need] to be going the opposite direction.”

Payne explained that, given their limited time and information, most people make voting decisions using an “intellectual shortcut” or “heuristic.” “Party ID is the number one heuristic that people use,” he said.

“Now, there are still mistakes made,” Payne admitted. “As you know, Republicans are considered the pro-life party, [and] Democrats are the pro-choice party, [but] there are pro-choice Republicans who people may vote for, using the heuristic, if they don’t do their research into the candidates.” But people use heuristics because these intellectual shortcuts usually serve them well. “If you don’t have time to vet the candidates, your fallback is, ‘To which party do they align with?’” Perkins agreed. “With that in mind, how important … that the parties keep those strong platforms that speak to those issues!”

“A crucial aspect of democracy of our republic is that voters get to decide who will govern,” declared Perkins. “Elected representatives remain responsible to the voters who elected them, and [their] obligation [is] outlined clearly in the policy platform that’s created by the party.”

After a party platform is created, elected officials are “not bound to it,” Perkins added. “But history shows that the parties pretty much do stick to it, because it is a statement of priorities and principles, and it offers a distinct choice between voters.”

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.