The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do party platforms really matter?

The uproar over Todd Akin has hit a new flash point: The Republican Party platform, which is poised (yet again) to call for a human life amendment to overturn Roe vs. Wade and for a law applying the 14th Amendment to unborn children, while Mitt Romney has explicitly supported exemptions for rape and incest*. Republican Party officials insist that it's a meaningful distinction. "This is the platform of the Republican Party; it's not the platform of Mitt Romney," RNC chair Reince Priebus said on MSNBC. Democrats, however, insist that the official platform is representative of the entire party, which Romney would lead as president.

But do party platforms even matter? Much of the political science research suggests not — at least when it comes to the candidates' own views and actions. "The nominee is not necessarily constrained by the formal platform. They can agree with whatever bits and pieces and ignore the rest," says John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University. That doesn't mean that candidates can or want to take a diametrically opposed position: Platforms reflect the consensus views of party leaders, activists and interest groups. But pushing those views via the platform "is not necessary to ensure that the candidate stays on the reservation," Sides adds.

And this isn't the first time there's been a split between the party platform and the candidate. Since major changes were made to the nomination rules in 1972, the convention process has become far more candidate-driven than party-driven. That has sometimes made the platforms the outgrowth of the presidential nominees' own campaigns, as Sandy Maisel found in the 1992 election, turning them into "candidate platforms" rather than party platforms. But it's also created disjunctions between more independent candidates and their parties. In 1996, for instance, Bob Dole famously declared that he didn't even read the GOP platform after the party rejected his proposal to insert a "declaration of tolerance" in place of the anti-abortion plank.

"The nominee knows that he cannot be punished or rewarded for following the party platform," and may break from the party to appeal to independent voters, says Teri Fine, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. Fine points out that the platform is actually written before the convention officially begins, and questions how much it's a priority even for ordinary delegates. "How many off the plane from Tampa are going to say, 'I'm not going to go to this cocktail party, I'm going to sit in my hotel room and read the platform'?"

Sides also doubts that voters will care much about the platforms or even be aware of what it is in them. "Party platforms and their specific planks are not a major factor in how voters make up their minds. No one learns the details of the platforms," he says. "It's much more likely that voters will hear information about the nominee's positions, or even the running mate's positions."

"On the one hand they are the most important document that a political party produces. The platform tells you what the party stands for," Maisel, a political scientist at Colby, wrote in a widely cited 1993 paper. "On the other hand, they are worthless pieces of paper. How many citizens can tell you what is in the parties' platforms?"

But others warn against writing off party platforms altogether. "It's an opportunity for the party base to assert its principles, figure out what its principles are, to show its own strength in the party," says Stephen Engel, a political science professor at Bates College. He argues that it  serves as both a reflection of where the party base stands and a tool that interest groups try to wield when it comes to governing.

Engel points out that, for instance, that between 1976 and 1980, major changes were made to the Republican Party that heralded an ideological shift to the right: The 1980 platform dropped its previous support for the Equal Rights Amendment and moved to the right a few notches on abortion, among other changes.

In retrospect, it proved to be one "document of the ideological change of the party," Engel says. And after Reagan's 1980 victory, for instance, interest groups later cited the platform shift in trying to push his administration to move further to the right on abortion, notes David Karol, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. In that regard, platforms can serve as a way to hold politicians accountable.

Republicans, in particular, have also become increasingly concerned with ideological purity, using documents like pledges to pressure politicians. "Platforms are related to that," says Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University. While the voting public might not pay much attention to the party platform, interest groups and activists certainly do, Azari notes.

For example, Kris Kobach — the architect of Arizona's SB 1070 — just persuaded the GOP platform-writing committee to support stronger protections against illegal immigration. So anti-immigration advocates are likely to hearken back to the platform when the issue arises again on Capitol Hill. Other kinds of outside groups argue that this accountability mechanism is important. "The politicians will ignore the party platform unless forced to pay attention to it," Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks told the Huffington Post this week. "And it's really our job as citizens to hold them accountable to the document. And if we have a good platform, we're going to want to hold that over the politicians' heads."

Even those who don't believe platforms are all that significant agree they're useful for at least one thing: highlighting the baseline differences between the two parties. "The only way they have any meaning is when you compare one to the other," Maisel concludes. And in light of Akin, that's the message that Democrats are currently trying to push.

*Clarification: An earlier version of the post stated that the GOP platform called for an abortion ban without exceptions for cases of rape and incest. It calls for a human-life amendment, at least one version of which contains exceptions for rape and incest. But it also includes a 14th Amendment that would make all unborn children US citizens, which wouldn't seem to include any such exceptions.