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  • Matthew Green

Do congressional party platforms matter?

Republicans recently held a party-wide retreat in Florida to discuss, among other things, a possible policy platform to present to voters prior to the November elections. Will such a platform really influence how Americans vote?

Members of the minority party certainly seem to think that election-year platforms matter, given that this is hardly the first time the minority has offered one. The Contract with America, crafted by House Republicans prior to the GOP election wave of 1994, is the most famous example. (Unsurprisingly, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who originated the Contract while in the minority, spoke at the Florida retreat and has since touted the Republican platform.)

But there have been other election-year agendas too. House Republicans offered legislative platforms in 1946, 1968, 1975, and 1992. After 1994, House minority parties offered them almost without fail every two years through the early 2000s (see table below). They appeared less often after 2010, but two years ago, Republicans proposed an agenda called “Commitment to America” (the same name as this year’s agenda).

(from Green 2015)

If these platforms are so popular, presumably it’s because they convince people to vote for the minority party. That was certainly the lesson that lawmakers took away from the Contract with America. But this is one of the common misconceptions of lawmakers. In truth, there’s little evidence that election-year platforms make a difference in election outcomes. Few voters know about them, and other factors, like economic growth and presidential popularity, do a much better job at predicting congressional seat gain.

So is crafting a minority party legislative agenda an exercise in futility? Not quite. In fact, doing so can accomplish other goals of the party out of power.

For instance, the construction of an election-year policy platform can help build unity and a feeling of team spirit, provided the process involves a wide range of lawmakers from different factions within the party. They also provide a creative outlet to entrepreneurial members of the party, and they give congressional candidates additional material they can use in their campaigns.

An election-year agenda is also very useful should the minority party successfully win control of Congress. As Jeff Crouch and I explain in our forthcoming book on Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America was developed in part to give Republicans a blueprint for governing. When they took over the House of Representatives, they were able to act quickly on popular legislation and put Democrats on the defensive. Today’s House Republicans could similarly benefit if they become the new majority party and have a clear legislative agenda to work from.

Those looking for an indication of what will happen in the November elections should not pay much mind to the content of the House GOP’s election-year platform. But that platform could give valuable clues of what the party will do should it win control of Congress – and how unified it may be as a governing party.

(from Green 2015)


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