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Political Party Organizations

Summary and Keywords

How political parties organize directly affects who is represented and which policies are prioritized. Political parties structure political choice, which is one of the main functions generally ascribed to them. Their roles as gatekeepers for policies and political careers are closely linked to their nature as membership-based organizations, and to the extent to which they empower members to directly or indirectly influence these crucial choices. Parties also play a crucial role as campaign organizations, whose organizational strength influences their electoral success. The literature often summarizes differences in how parties organize and campaign by identifying major party types, which can be regarded as “classic models” of party organization. Yet, actual parties must adapt to changing environments or risk being supplanted by newer parties or by other political actors. For instance, in recent years one popular adaptation has involved parties opening their decision-making processes by introducing party-wide ballots to settle important questions. Changes like these alter how parties act as intermediaries in representation and political participation. Thanks to the increasing availability of comparable data on party organizations in established and new democracies, and in parliamentary and presidential systems, today’s scholars are better equipped to study the origins and impacts of parties’ organizational differences.

Keywords: political parties, political party organization, party members, intra-party democracy, party patronage, party types, party strength, PPDB


Political parties live a Janus-faced life. On the one hand, they look towards the state, running the machinery of modern democracy in parliaments and governments. On the other hand, they look towards society, serving as social organizations that potentially provide essential connections between the governing institutions and the population at large. It is the latter incarnation of political parties that this article covers: parties as social organizations that contest elections with the aim of placing their personnel in parliaments and government. This is one standard minimal definition of “political party.” Political parties also organize in non-democratic regimes, but parties whose activities are not guided by electoral imperatives may organize in very different fashions. Thus, this discussion is limited to parties in modern democracies, looking in particular at different ways that parties as social organizations may work to connect citizens with wider political processes.

Parties as organizations structure political behavior in many ways. By offering choice between policies and candidates, they encourage or inhibit political participation. Their internal operations may be more or less inviting for ordinary citizens to get involved in political activity. To the extent that these organizations do a better or worse job of channeling participation and of reflecting popular priorities, they may influence levels of legitimacy and public protest. As we show in this article, political parties are key players in the political process, and the ways they organize have a direct bearing on who is represented and which policies are prioritized.

How parties structure political choice is one of the main functions generally ascribed to political parties. The first section of this article demonstrates that their performance of these functions is closely linked to their nature as membership-based organizations, and to the extent to which these organizations empower members to directly or indirectly influence crucial party choices. The second section turns to parties’ role as campaign organizations, whose organizational strength has an impact on their electoral success. Because research has traditionally summarized the differences in how parties organize and empower their members by identifying major party types, the third section introduces these classic models. Parties as social organizations must constantly adapt to changing environments or risk being supplanted by newer parties or by other political actors. Therefore, the fourth section discusses some of the most important approaches to explaining party change in general, and party organizational change in particular. The conclusion argues that questions about the origins and impact of party organizational differences continue to generate fruitful research projects, providing new insights into the ways that political parties act as intermediaries in representation and political participation.

Party Organizations as Gatekeepers for Political Choice

Parties influence or even control the political choices offered to citizens through the parties’ roles in a number of central functions of the democratic political process. Scholars have put forth many different lists of party functions, but there is widespread agreement that parties are, above all, organizations that formulate policy, recruit elites, run election (and other) campaigns, and provide linkage between rulers and ruled. There is much less agreement as to whether and how parties’ extra-legislative organizations affect the types of policies they formulate or the candidates they select. For instance, policy formulation has been one of the strongest fields of comparative research on political parties, and the Manifesto Project has accumulated a large body of comparable data on the election manifestos of parties in the democratic world since 1945 (Budge, Klingemann, Volkens, Bara, & Tanenbaum, 2001). While this contribution has stimulated and informed invaluable research on the electoral process, particularly on party competition and on the quality of representation, the organizational dimension of manifesto writing has only recently entered into the focus of party research. For instance, it has been shown that parties which are more leader-dominated change their manifestoes more extensively than parties where the rank-and-file has a strong role in policy formulation (Hennl & Franzmann, 2017), and that manifesto writing is directed to intra-party audiences as well as to voters (Däubler, 2012). However, there are few systematic studies of how—if at all—it matters that parties organize this central task differently from one another, or in different ways for different elections.

While the capacity of parties to formulate policy alternatives is open to debate (Mair, 2013), parties are indisputably still the main gatekeepers for political careers. Political careers in democracies require the endorsement and often the active support of political parties, even if in some cases the parties in question may be the vehicles of individual candidates. This is why the modalities and consequences of candidate selection have been gaining increasing attention from party scholars. It is party organizations that select candidates for elections. As private associations, these organizations set important parameters of political involvement by writing some or all of the rules that govern these processes. For instance, the inclusiveness of the selectorate (those who select the candidate) is a central factor influencing the democratic quality of selection of candidates in terms of intra-party dynamics. If only a small group of party leaders picks parliamentary candidates, this is obviously less internally democratic compared to the involvement of large party assemblies or even all party members (Kenig, 2009; Hazan & Rahat, 2010). However, more inclusive selectorates do not necessarily lead to more electable slates of candidates, or to ones who are demographically more like the population a party strives to represent (Childs & Webb, 2012, Chapter 3; Katz & Cross, 2013). Moreover, rules that give decisions to all party members are not necessarily more representative of the will of the party than those that give decisions to party conferences; instead, giving votes to members could actually empower party elites at the expense of mid-level activists (Katz & Mair, 1995).

While the verdict is still out on the impact of specific new forms of candidate selection, we can say that in recent decades many parties in parliamentary and presidential democracies have been experimenting with giving ordinary members more say in such decisions through membership ballots (Scarrow, 1999). Indeed, some parties have even experimented with selecting candidates by holding primaries open to non-members as well (Childs & Webb, 2012; Indriðason & Kristinsson, 2015). These changes in parties’ organizational rules potentially provide citizens with meaningful new opportunities for political participation and carry implications for the types of candidates selected.

Intimately related to the process of selecting legislative candidates is the way parties choose their organizational leaders, individuals who may also become their electoral leaders—the top leader in a parliamentary party or a presidential candidate. Such choices can affect a party’s policy direction as well as its electoral fortunes (Bittner, 2011; Costa Lobo & Curtice, 2015). Here, we have seen a parallel trend towards the opening up of the process of leadership selection towards the party membership at large through membership ballots (Cross & Pilet, 2015). A still rare but nevertheless politically consequential development is the introduction of open primaries that invite non-members to choose the party leader or electoral leader, as practiced for instance by the Italian Democrats in 2008, the French Socialists in 2011, and the British Labour Party in 2015 and 2016 (Cross & Pilet, 2015; Sandri, Seddone, & Venturino, 2015). The consequences of such innovations are not unequivocal: Whereas studies of primaries in the United States often characterize them as part and parcel of the process of “party decline” given the way in which they undermine control by party elites, the precise opposite interpretation has been adopted by many scholars of European parliamentary parties, where primaries might work as a means of bypassing an activist middle stratum of party organization, to the benefit of leaders (Sandri et al., 2015, p. 5). For instance, a study using data from the Political Parties Database (PPDB) found that of 121 parties in 19 parliamentary democracies during the 2010–2014 period, 26% of them (n = 32) accorded their individual members some kind of decisive role in the selection of leaders (Poguntke, Scarrow, & Webb et al., 2016; for PPDB data).

Although this new trend is notable, recent developments in the United Kingdom might serve as a warning about easy generalizations as to whether moves in the direction of member and supporter votes are either inevitable or irreversible. The British Labour Party’s 2014 decision to open up leadership elections to “registered supporters” as well as to full members contributed to the election of a surprise new leader from the radical left of the party in 2015. In turn, challenges to this internally controversial new leader helped to drive the party’s traditional membership figures to levels not seen since the 1970s. By that measure, the more open decision-making certainly strengthened the Labour Party organization, but at least in the short term, the intra-party turmoil had the opposite effects on the party’s broader popularity and electability. To the extent that party rule changes are influenced by cross-party and cross-national contagion, such results may put a brake on other parties’ moves in this direction.

Party Organizations as Arenas for Individual and Group Participation

Policy formulation and elite selection are integral to the concept of linkage, which emphasizes the role of party organization as a stable and formalized connection between the population and the process of governance (Lawson, 1988; Poguntke, 2002). This perspective on the organizational life of political parties focuses on their capacity to generate linkage to their relevant social and political environments. Essentially, this represents an organizationally mediated exchange process whereby parties offer political representation in exchange for organizational and electoral support.

Organizational Approaches to Linkage

Some parties have emerged as representatives of social groups in societies where politics revolves around inter-group conflict. Cleavage-based parties may make very different organizational decisions compared to decisions by parties built around the charisma of a dominant leader. For one thing, they may be able to rely on other cleavage organizations to do much of the work of mobilizing individual political participation, but in return, such organizations may receive important participation opportunities and rights within the party. Thus, in many countries, Social Democrats have traditionally counted on support (in terms of finance and voluntary labor) from trade unions, whereas Christian Democratic parties have counted on support from lay religious associations, and sometimes from clerics (Poguntke, 2006). In some parties of the left, these relationships formally gave trade unions a voice inside the parties that represented workers’ interests; as part of this arrangement, parties granted trade union members automatic party membership. Parties with some kind of trade union affiliation at one time included Swedish Social Democrats, the Canadian New Democratic Party and the British Labour Party. Of these, only the British Labour Party currently maintains this arrangement; the other two parties remain associated with the goals of the trade union movement, but are not formally allied (Webb & Bale, 2017). The way this cooperation has continued without the maintenance of formal organizational ties is currently the focus of a large comparative research project located at the University of Oslo (Allern & Bale, 2012; Allern & Verge, 2017; see

Another specific variant of linkage is more problematic from the perspective of modern democracies, namely party patronage and clientelism. They are closely connected and frequently used synonymously. However, there is an important difference in that clientelism is based on the provision of public goods and services to individuals in exchange for votes. Here the party is the mediator that allocates state revenue in exchange for political support (Piattoni, 2001; Kitschelt & Wilkinson, 2006). Patronage, on the other hand, refers to the widespread practice by political parties of placing their members or supporters in the state machinery. This can clearly be used as a tool to attract members and voters by offering individual benefits. However, to a certain degree it may also be understood as a necessary precondition for parties to actually implement their policies. Nevertheless, the degree to which this happens is frequently a matter of political controversy and can threaten the legitimacy of democratic governance. One recent comparative project attempted to measure the degree and also the change over time of party-based patronage in a number of democracies. This study showed wide variations in the extent of party patronage in contemporary democracies (Kopecký, Mair, & Spirova, 2012).

A third linkage strategy is one that makes parties something like brands in search of consumers. This may lead to appeals that are as personalistic as those of patronage-based parties, but that are uncontroversial from the perspective of democratic theory, since they do not entail the direct provision of individual public resources to particular voters in exchange for political support. Such parties, which Gunther and Diamond (2003) label “electoralist,” may run organizations that are much more professionalized, and much leaner between elections, than the organizations of cleavage-based parties. Some electoralist parties may make appeals that are more candidate-focused than programmatic.

Parties as Membership Organizations

Whereas all moderately successful parties have office-holders and some kind of extra-legislative campaign organization, they show more variation as to whether they formally organize their “party on the ground” as a membership association—ones that are statutorily similar to associations such as Rotary clubs or Amnesty International chapters. If they do, these associations have dues-paying members and rules for joining (and usually, for expulsion), and they have statutes that define authority relations between party office-holders and the voluntary organization. This form is widely used by parties in parliamentary democracies, with only a few eye-catching exceptions among parties that hold elected offices. The most often mentioned example is the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, whose leader and sole member is Geert Wilders, its founder. Parties in presidential democracies seem to have been much less reliant on formal membership, although in fact there is not as much research comparing the roles of party members in different presidential democracies.

Although parties in parliamentary democracies have tenaciously retained this feature of their organizational model, there are signs that the meaning and importance of party membership is evolving. In recent years many parties have experimented with new ways to connect with supporters, offering them less costly affiliation options such as trial memberships, or registered supporter status (Gauja, 2015; Scarrow, 2015; for more on this and other aspects of party membership, see Scarrow, 2017).

Where parties do offer their supporters the chance to enroll as party members or as registered supporters, it may affect political behavior in three main ways. First, and most obvious, the act of enrolling can itself be interpreted as an act of political participation, with citizens choosing to publicly identify with and support a favored party. Viewed in this most basic way, party membership seems to have dwindling importance as an avenue for political participation, with overall enrollments declining in most parties in established parliamentary democracies, and with membership parties remaining at low enrollment levels in newer parliamentary democracies. While there are some exceptions to these trends, and while some of the decline reflects more accuracy in record-keeping, it seems probable that party enrollment levels have stabilized at levels lower than those found in the 1960s and 1970s (van Biezen, Mair, & Poguntke, 2012; Scarrow, 2015; Kölln, 2016). Yet the impact of membership on political participation is probably more complex than this. For one thing, those who join political parties are more likely to vote and to be politically active in other ways compared to those who have similar resources and demographic characteristics (education, income, age, religiosity; Scarrow & Gezgor, 2010). This may be a selection effect—more active citizens are most likely to join—but it probably also reflects the impact of party efforts to recruit and mobilize members. In addition, party membership may affect political participation by non-members, for instance when members act as ambassadors for the party message and nudge those within their social networks to discuss politics and to vote. Party members’ contributions to doorstep campaigning may also stimulate electoral participation, providing their parties with small but potentially crucial organizational advantages (Carty & Eagles, 1999; André & Depauw, 2016).

Why do supporters choose to get involved in parties in these ways? Since the 1990s, the most commonly utilized intellectual framework for explaining why people join and (sometimes) become active within political parties is the “general incentives” model first developed by Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd. This approach was “grounded in the assumption that participation occurs in response to different kinds of incentives, but it goes beyond a narrowly cast economic analysis of incentives to include emotional attachments to the party, moral concerns, and social norms, variables which lie outside the standard cost-benefit approach to decision-making” (Whiteley, Seyd, & Richardson, 1994, p. 109; see also Seyd & Whiteley, 1992). To summarize the model, it incorporates inter alia a combination of collective policy incentives, ideological motivations, selective personal benefits, social norms, and an assessment of the costs of membership/activism. This view of partisan participation offers a good explanation of why supporters might be involved even if they get no tangible benefit and even if they do not exercise direct control over political outcomes; however, it does not discount that supporters might find party membership more appealing if it offers opportunities for meaningful participation in political decision-making. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that some parties have responded to declining membership enrolments by putting more emphasis on members’ intra-party participation rights.

The Changing World of Intra-Party Democracy

Many types of fee-based membership organizations operate without great attention to members’ control over organizational decisions. For instance, members of a sports team fan club may have strong feelings about the merits of various players, but they do not expect the coach to let them vote on the starting lineup for a match. Members of an automobile club may be given a vote in selecting the organizational leadership, but they join the club primarily because of the consumer discounts and insurance benefits that it offers, not to get a say in the running of the organization. In contrast, political parties in democracies tend to be held to a different standard, operating with some expectation that they will conform internally with the democratic standards that they espouse for the wider political systems in which they compete; in some countries this expectation is enshrined in legal standards. Hence, it can come as no surprise that ever since the path-breaking study by Robert Michels (1989) of the oligarchic tendencies of the SPD in Imperial Germany, political scientists and the wider public alike have been concerned with the democratic quality of intra-party politics (e.g., Teorell, 1999; Cross & Katz, 2013). This has already been discussed in relation to elite selection, and the article will now turn to the general quality of intra-party democracy (IPD).

There is widespread consensus in the literature that the degree of inclusiveness represents the core of IPD. In a nutshell, if more party members have a say on decisions over policy, elite and candidate selection, and the general steering of the organization, this is considered to be more democratic (Kenig, 2009; Hazan & Rahat, 2010; von dem Berge & Poguntke, 2017). Inclusiveness can be achieved by empowering party assemblies or by giving the membership at large (or even supporters) a say in individual decisions through organizing ballots. These two methods embody two inherently different logics: whereas assembly-based intra-party decision-making (AIPD) connects decisions with the debate over the substance of these decisions, the plebiscitary variant (PIPD) disconnects the formulation of alternatives from the act of voting, which is individualized. The actual decision is not the result of an exchange of arguments, even though there may well be a wider debate over the alternatives before the actual ballot takes place. Figure 1 demonstrates the ways in which parties might combine these different procedures. Traditionally most parties have been located in quadrants I and IV, with low PIPD. Increasingly, however, parties are turning to PIPD for some decisions, be these traditional mass parties that add plebiscitary elements on top of assembly-based statutes (for example, the British Labour Party or the French Socialists, in quadrant II), or be they new politics parties such as the Greens.

Political Party OrganizationsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Patterns of intra-party democracy.

Notes: AIPD: Assembly-based intra-party democracy; PIPD: Plebiscitary intra-party democracy. Adapted from von dem Berge & Poguntke, 2017.

Party Organizations as Campaign Machines

One of the reasons for the enduring relevance of party organizations in the process of elite selection is their function as campaign organizations: Successful candidates generally work with, not around, the parties’ national organizing efforts. This is true even though modern campaign technology, and particularly the use of the Internet, may provide individual candidates with more scope to campaign independently. In most parties and most liberal democratic countries, candidates need to be able to draw on the organizational resources of their parties if they are to campaign effectively for elective office. This section, therefore, turns to the issue of the organizational strength of parties, as indicated by four key resources: money, members, staff, and the territorial dispersion of local party units.

In reporting on a new empirical survey of the organizational strengths of parties in 19 contemporary democracies (from the PPDB data set), Webb and Keith (2017) note several pertinent findings. Party staffing levels are generally quite modest (though probably not falling) in most of these countries. In addition, countries where there is an emphasis on what is local, either because they are small or because their political systems are decentralized, tend to have the highest relative concentrations of party branches across national territory. Moreover, the authors discovered that country differences consistently seem to outweigh party family differences in explaining patterns of variation in these party organizational resources.

Webb and Keith also used the PPDB to construct a simple index of party organizational strength based on the number of members and financial resources that each party has relative to the size of its registered national electorate. This two-item index makes sense intuitively, because it is based on two elements—party income and members—that complement each other in important ways when regarded as aspects of organizational resourcing. Money is the most obvious and most flexible type of resource in that it can be exploited for many purposes, including—crucially—the hiring of pay-roll and professional staff, while members are the major source of unpaid voluntary labour. Thus, in effect, both types of labor resource are captured by the two-item party strength index. Moreover, these two items correlate strongly and positively with each other, but are clearly not identical (r = .68). This index reveals significant cross-national differences between parties: The Austrian, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish parties are generally revealed to be those with the strongest party organizations relative to the size of their national electorates, while the Polish and British parties are weakest (see Figure 2). It also shows a marked tendency for the countries with the strongest parties to be the most unequal in organizational terms; that is, the party strength index gaps between the top two parties and between the top and bottom parties in these countries are generally larger than in countries with weaker party organizations overall.

Political Party OrganizationsClick to view larger

Figure 2. Boxplot of party strength index scores by country

Note: The PSI score is a composite index created by adding the standardized z-scores of the members/electorate ratio and income/electorate ratio for each party. The distribution for each of these components therefore has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, so that they share common scales and can be easily added together. These scores do not constitute an absolute measure with a fixed meaning because the process of standardization means that the relative positions of parties are gauged on this index within this particular sample of 112 cases.

While the rank-ordering of parties and countries in this way is intrinsically interesting, it also provides a useful measurement that can be deployed in investigating the impact of organizational strength. For instance, the bivariate correlation between the party strength index score and the percentage of seats that parties have in the lower houses of their national parliaments is significant and positive (r = .502, n = 112), which confirms the intuitive assumption that electoral success depends at least in part upon organizational input. Alternatively, it might be that party subsidies are related to electoral success, so it could be that votes are driving resources rather than vice versa. Either way, however, it seems undeniable that parties’ organizational resources bear significantly on the political support they are able to mobilize.

This is further confirmation that having grassroots organization throughout a country, and the possibility of using the labor-intensive campaign tools that such an organization provides, can provide parties with at least a slight electoral edge. This has been demonstrated repeatedly, including in recent studies of national and local elections in such a diverse range of countries as Brazil (Samuels & Zucco, 2014), Central Europe (Tavits, 2012), the United Kingdom (Denver, Hands, & McAllister, 2004), Flanders (André & Depauw, 2016), and the United States (Gerber & Green, 2000). Of course, organization alone will not win elections in the absence of competent candidates or appealing policies, but it is important enough to warrant giving attention to describing and explaining differences in parties’ organizational resources. It should be noted that organizational mobilization in the context of election campaigns is today not just about bodies on the ground, but is also increasingly about electronic communication. Not surprisingly, therefore, research into the role of social media in election campaigns has been a growth area over the past decade or more (Gibson, Margolis, Resnick, & Ward, 2003; Cardenal, 2013; Vergeer, Hermans, & Sams, 2013). This research has engaged with a number of issues, particularly how advances in technology have affected parties’ mobilizational strategies and improved their capacity to target voters. Among the key discoveries of this line of scholarship are that the shifting technology of websites, email, and social media has vastly reduced the cost of contact with potential voters, donors, and campaign activists. Evaluating accurately the impact of the new technology on turnout and voter support is a complicated challenge for researchers, but there is little doubt that the viral nature of these tools dramatically expands the reach and frequency of voter contacts compared to more traditional methods. Moreover, the technological capacity of parties must now be considered an intrinsic component of party organizational strength (Hatch, 2016), although it is less clear whether or not it serves to merely reinforce existing disparities between major and minor parties (the “normalization hypothesis”; Koc-Michalska, Gibson, & Vedel, 2014) or to close the gap between them (the “equalization hypothesis”; Margolis, Resnick, & Wolfe, 1999).

Party Models and Party Change

Party Models and the Study of Party Politics

Can we identify patterns in the ways that parties choose to organize? The literature on political parties in general and also on party organizations has been strongly influenced by a number of contributions that have sought to do just this, identifying major party types and presenting them as conforming to—and as products of—different phases of socio-political development. From this perspective, the history of party development is best summarized as a history of dominant party types, beginning with the cadre party, followed by the mass party, the catch-all-party, and finally the cartel party. Those who have tried to capture party evolution in this way have always quite explicitly regarded their models as “ideal types”—in other words, as stylized, purified abstractions from empirical reality that serve as “yardsticks” for empirical investigation (Weber, 1980, pp. 9–11). Hence, the appropriate research question in this tradition of scholarship should never be “Is party x a cartel party?” Instead, meaningful research should try to measure the degree to which a given case comes close to an ideal type.

The list of classical ideal types begins with the cadre (or elite) party, which is characterized by a loose organizational structure run by social elites who need little formal organization to accomplish the party functions of campaigning and elite selections. Also, linkage is a given, because under conditions of restricted suffrage those who are active politically largely overlap with the demos of this pre-democratic political system (Duverger, 1964). In Neumann’s terminology, this is a party of “individual representation” with only rudimentary formal organization, and inviting only limited participation by a restricted electorate (Neumann, 1956).

With the advent of universal suffrage, the mass party (or party of mass integration) becomes the dominant model of party organization. Duverger’s famous dictum that there was a “contagion from the Left” (1964, p. xxvii) epitomizes the theoretical foundations of theories that regard political party organizations as the product of the relevant socio-political environment. As large numbers of underprivileged voters need to make their voices heard in the political process, the mass party becomes the most appropriate tool for this (Neumann, 1956). It is characterized by a coherent ideology and a strong organization and is, first and foremost, a tool for the mobilization of collective interest. This means that it maintains exclusive organizational links to relevant mass organizations (e.g., trade unions or religious organizations). The initial ideal of internal democracy eventually gave way to a strong oligarchy that controlled the party machine from the top, as Michels famously remarked in stipulating his “Iron Law of Oligarchy” (Michels, 1989).

As cleavages began to weaken from the 1960s onwards, Otto Kirchheimer (1966) identified the catch-all party as the new modal party type. Characterized by weaker and more plural ties to society, the catch-all party was mainly an elite-dominated campaign organization that de-emphasized the linkage function and the role of party members. Party competition was no longer about how to change the system but about who would run it better. This meant that elections became more competitive: While the mass party concentrated on mobilizing its own camp, voters now became more open to making choices between different parties.

Taking this development to its logical conclusion gave rise to the cartel party, as Katz and Mair first asserted (1995). This new party type was strongly anchored within the institutions of the state while the role of the party membership organization was increasingly marginalized. From their perspective, party democracy became primarily a service provided by the state for society instead of being a political process that leads to the steering of the state through societal forces. Their model bears some resemblance to Angelo Panebianco’s (1988) electoral-professional party, which also emphasized the electoral role of modern political parties.

A closer look at this body of literature shows that these classic authors have focused more efforts on describing allegedly new modal types of parties rather than on trying to capture the complete variability of party organizational types. Consequently, while these ideal types inform a great deal of current and classic discussions about classification and trends in party organization, they do not easily encompass the full range of parties’ organizational patterns. For instance, in parliamentary democracies, the Greens, right-wing populist, and far right parties, to mention the most important ones, are generally characterized by the attempt to challenge not only the moderate policies pursued by these classic party types but also by their attempt to challenge their organizational model (Poguntke, 1987; Kitschelt, 1989; Carter, 2005). Similarly, some parties that start as protest parties have initially adopted radically different organizational structures (Podemos in Spain, and the Five Star Movement in Italy come to mind). These classic ideal-type models of party organization may be even less suited for capturing similarities and differences between parties outside established parliamentary democracies; perhaps for this reason they have so far had very limited resonance in scholarship on parties in presidential democracies. In other words, while much past research on party organization has used the vocabulary of organizational ideal types, some of the interesting research questions lie outside their boundaries (Webb, Poguntke & Scarrow, 2017, Chapter 13). One of the exciting challenges for future research on comparative party organization is to develop and apply concepts and measures that can usefully illuminate both the extent and impact of organizational differences among parties in a wider range of democratic regimes.

Why Parties Change

Clearly, the entire idea of evolving party types implies party change. Given that many parties in Western democracies have their roots in the pre-democratic era, they could not possibly have survived without changing. This raises the question “What kind of change?” This article is not concerned with ideological change but with organizational change even though, at least to a degree, they are interrelated. In other words, a party that is concerned with wide participation is unlikely to opt for an organizational model that gives most of the power to the leadership.

Essentially, there are three different perspectives on party change (Harmel, 2002). The first one has been sketched out in conjunction with the discussion of party types. Parties are seen as organizations that need to adapt to their changing environment in order to maintain their competitiveness or even ensure their survival. As politics and society change, and mass political behavior with them, parties need to adapt their organization to meet these changing demands. To be sure, there may be different kinds of demands at any given time. The “silent revolution” of post-materialism, for example, gave rise to Green parties’ initial strong concern with grassroots democracy (Inglehart, 1977). Yet at least in the 1980s many established parties ignored demands for greater participation because they were not then prevalent among their electorates.

The example of the Green party family can also illustrate the second approach to party change, which emphasizes the role of sudden crises. These lead to abrupt change that threatens major party goals (Harmel & Janda, 1994). After a phase of initial electoral growth, Green parties often experienced crisis and the need to thoroughly change their idealistic mode of party organization and adapt to systemic constraints (Müller-Rommel & Poguntke, 2002). Often but not exclusively, party change is triggered by electoral defeat, but it also requires a shift in the dominant coalition within the party to implement it (Panebianco, 1988).

Finally, parties can be characterized as organizations that go through different phases in their life cycle. From this angle, party change is a natural development. Parties routinely adapt their organizations to the different needs they have when they cross the thresholds from declaration, authorization, representation, and finally relevance (Pedersen, 1982; Panebianco, 1988; Deschouwer, 2008).

The second of these approaches, Harmel and Janda’s (1994) framework based on the impact of external electoral shocks, or changes in the leadership and factional balance of parties, is perhaps the one most directly useful for researchers, given that it is less abstract than the others and lends itself quite readily to operationalization. That said, the life-cycle approach has formed the basis of at least one major recent study, by Bolleyer (2013). One of the central concepts at the heart of this study is party institutionalization. While Bolleyer’s study focuses on the emergence and persistence of new parties in established democracies, the idea of party institutionalization is frequently deployed to study party organizations in newer democracies. Institutionalization refers to “a process by which internal rules and patterns of behaviour become habitual and entrenched” (Bolleyer, 2013, p. 12), and to the establishment of organizational persistence as a key goal of the party’s followers, quite apart from any programmatic or normative objectives (Levitsky, 1998, p. 79). Organizational institutionalization can act as a constraint on leadership, but it is also central to the survival of parties over time—a very real challenge for all new parties, especially in the fluid and unstable political context of a new democracy. For example, Margit Tavits’ (2013) study of parties in the post-communist democracies of East-Central Europe has demonstrated that a party’s electoral survival and legislative cohesiveness is related to its success in institutionalizing by extending its organizational network, and by recruiting members and central office staff.

Research on party organizations in newer democracies has revealed some developments that broadly parallel those in established democracies, such as the shift towards financial state-dependency and professionalization (Webb & White, 2007). However, political elites in new democracies are also often in stronger positions to rebuild the institutions of the state and therefore to influence the rules of the political game. This context is sometimes particularly conducive to the “rent-seeking” exploitation of state resources by these actors, typically through forms of patronage and clientelism (Kopecký, 2006). Where this happens it may not necessarily facilitate genuine party institutionalization, but rather a more opportunistic and short-term means of offsetting the challenge of competitors.

Conclusion: Is There a Link Between Party Organization and Political Behavior?

The answer is multifaceted and not necessarily conclusive. In the heyday of the mass integration party, the strength of the party organization was a major factor accounting for electoral mobilization. Election campaigns were mainly about mobilizing one’s own camp, not about winning over voters from other parties. More recently, and as noted above, party organizational strength and party campaigning do seem to give parties an electoral edge, but the effects are small. Parties continue to provide outlets for meaningful participation for those who choose to get active as party members but the numbers who choose to are small and, on average, declining.

To be sure, more recent developments suggest that the opening up of parties to non-members may indeed boost party-related participation. Obvious examples are the Italian Democrats and the U.K. Labour Party with their leadership elections that were open to non-members. At least as important are the signs that some parties are more actively and successfully encouraging campaign participation by non-members (Webb & Bale, 2017). However, it is too early to say whether these are just conspicuous but very specific cases or whether we are witnessing the first signs of a new development.

Scholars are starting to tackle this type of question using new tools, including more frequent and more cross-nationally coordinated surveys of party members (for instance, see the surveys listed in the MAPP project on party members and activists, see and more data on party rules and how they function in practice (for instance, Cross & Pilet, 2015). Other projects have collected data on the rules that constrain party activities (for instance, on party laws, see; on rules about party finance, see These and other cross-national projects are opening up the frontiers of research on the origins and impact of parties’ organizational differences, making it easier to go beyond description to systematic analysis of how political outcomes are affected by party rules and resources.

One next major step for the sub-field of comparative party studies is to pursue insights generated by studies that deploy these new data sources in other sub-fields, bringing party resources and rules into research areas that have customarily treated parties as “black boxes.” Efforts in this direction are already gaining momentum. For instance, the text above referenced one study that combines data from the venerable party manifestos project with data about parties’ rules on manifesto drafting and ratification (Hennl & Franzmann, 2017); this novel pairing of data sources yields new insights about the relationship between parties’ internal rules and their electoral responsiveness. Similarly, new scholarship has linked PPDB and Comparative Survey of Electoral Systems (CSES) data to examine the connection between party financing and citizens’ sense of external political efficacy (Costa Lobo & Razzuoli, 2017), while other work has used PPDB and parliamentary roll call data to test hypotheses about the impact of party organization on legislative party cohesion (Farrell & Little, 2017). Others have combined CSES data with different data on party organization to study the link between organization and representation (e.g., Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2012). As these examples suggest, researchers are already advancing studies of electoral representation by taking account of party organizational variation. There is ample scope for research to go much further.

Of course, in an era where electoral volatility seems to be on the rise, one of the most pressing questions for established and new parties alike is whether certain organizational choices positively or negatively affect party longevity and popularity. More generally, do party efforts color citizens’ views of democracy writ large? Such effects might be a result of party efforts to cultivate loyalty, project openness, and responsiveness, or to prioritize (or not) party members over other supporters. They also might be the result of party choices about where to seek their financial support. More generally, future scholarly efforts to integrate parties and party rules into studies of election, public policy, and public opinion should provide new insights about the ways that political parties act as intermediaries, shaping what ideas get represented and who participates in politics.


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