Political party platforms are the actual documents that communicate the key principles of a party and its core ideologies. Namely, what’s our government for and how should it serve the people?

Recreational reading, they are not.

But understanding them can help voters steer through some of the election-season spin. The platforms actually provide some real, concrete insight into how party officials and candidates stand on critical issues – things like the economy, education and foreign affairs and social policies.

How are political platforms created?

Every four years, prior to the party conventions, the national committees for the Democratic and Republican parties (DNC and RNC) choose key party members who meet to contribute, debate and vote on policies stances that become the basis of their parties official platform. Party delegates—citizens selected to represent their states at national conventions—vote to support or amend platform drafts. Eventually, each position is presented as a carefully worded “plank” in a final platform document.

In 1840, the newly formed Democratic Party generated the first national political platform. It contained nine planks and fits onto a single page, a steep contrast to the lengthy documents that each party produced this year. Republicans got into the game in 1856.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the party platforms constantly evolve. So the 2012 Republican platform, for instance, could have some significant ideological differences from the party’s platform in past election years.

How important are the national platforms in an election year?

Today, party platforms are marketing tools as well as political ideologies. They’re used both to rally the troops and convince undecided voters. Speechwriters often mine the platform documents for key talking points that can be included in a candidate’s stump speeches on the campaign trail. Political analysts and journalists dissect every word to decipher each party’s motives.

Are the platforms still important after the election is over?

Party platforms can be used to guide an elected official’s decision-making process, but they aren’t legally binding. If elected officials stray too far from the party line, though, they can risk alienating themselves within their own party or being accused of hypocrisy by the opposing party. That said, elected officials inevitably have to respond to unanticipated events and – ideally – will draw compromises to reduce political gridlock.

In the gloves off sport of politics, opponents often highlight when a candidate deviates from the party platform. For example, the 1988 Republican National Platform had this to say about tax increases: “The Republican Party restates the unequivocal promise we made in 1984: We oppose any attempts to increase taxes.” And when George H. W. Bush accepted his party’s nomination at the Republican Convention, he famously promised, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Then reality set it. During the senior Bush’s administration, an economic recession began, the national debt skyrocketed, and taxes were increased, leaving the candidate weakened and vulnerable when he ran for re-election four years later against Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.

In like-minded fashion, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is taking a shot (among many) at President Obama for his failed promise to close the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, one of the planks that appear in both the 2008 and 2012 Democratic platforms.

Do other political parties have platforms?

They do. The Green Party, The Tea Party Movement and the Libertarian Party all have platforms, as do all the parties represented on the national ballot this year.Actually, if you so desired, you could actually write your own political platform, one that reflects your personal take on the major issues. For real. You could circulate it among people who have similar perspectives, invite their input, publish the official My Party Platform and start your own little third-party political movement. There’s always 2016!


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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