Donald Trump is the Republican Presidential candidate in the U.S., but he is not the head of the Republican Party (Paul Ryan is). And if he loses the election, he will (presumably) go off into the sunset and just become "another" party member. (At least that was the case with Mitt Romney.)

On the other hand, European Parliamentary leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel or the UK's Theresa May appear to be more entrenched in their party's leadership, meaning that they may remain party leaders even if they lose an election.

Is this, in fact, true, and if so, why might that be?

  • Heh, I'm so used to seeing you at History, that I was about to flag this and ask the mods to migrate it to Politics. ;)
    – yannis
    Sep 27, 2016 at 17:40
  • Paul Ryan is not the head of the Republican Party. Reince Priebus has been the Chairman of the Republican National Committee since 2011 (twice re-elected). gop.com/leaders/national Paul Ryan is just louder.
    – jaxter
    Sep 28, 2016 at 17:47

3 Answers 3


he is not the head of the Republican Party (Paul Ryan is)

Ryan is not the head of the Republican Party. He's the top Republican in the House of Representatives. Other than that, he's just one of many Republican leaders. The closest that the Republican Party has to a head is Reince Priebus, but most people outside politics won't really know who he is.

Parliamentary leaders like Merkel or May are members of parliament and of their parties. If their parties lose an election, they remain members of parliament and may remain party leader. Note that this is also true of legislative leaders in the US. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid used to be the leaders of their respective chambers, but their party lost elections in 2010 and 2014 respectively that left their party in the minority. However, both retained their leadership role in their respective chambers for their party.

By contrast, Trump is not currently an elected official. If he loses this election, he will hold no public office. If he wins, he will hold the most powerful elected office for his party. He will effectively be the most powerful member of the party, allowing him to do things like replace Reince Priebus.

In the US, each elected office is discrete. I could vote for a libertarian (Johnson) for President, a Democrat for Senate, and a Republican for the House. It's not a single election but a series of separate elections.

In most parliamentary elections, people vote for a member of parliament and then parliament chooses the Prime Minister. So both are intrinsically linked. Since the party determines who gets to be Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is the person who controls the party. If the party is not in control of the government, that person is still head of the party.

In the US, the legislative leaders of the respective chambers almost never run for President. Too much risk of losing their current position. Presidents more commonly come from the ranks of governors. Obama of course was an exception, although he wasn't a party leader before running for President. The younger Bush was governor of Texas. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. The elder Bush was Vice-President. Reagan was governor of California. Carter was governor of Georgia.

  • The last two Senators (before Obama) to be elected directly to the Presidency were John FitzGerald Kennedy and Warren G. Harding. A pretty rare event.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 27, 2016 at 21:36

There are huge differences between European countries but by and large I think the answer is indeed that (parliamentary) leaders (I am using the term loosely, the person leading a party into the election isn't necessarily the leader of the legislative or of the party's parliamentary group) have greater standing in their political party than American presidential candidates.

And the reason for that is a little bit backwards: It is very difficult to position yourself to be the country's leader or even achieve any significant electoral success without taking control of a party. It's slowly changing (e.g. in France) but there is usually nothing like the US primary process, the only way to be regarded as a viable candidate is to take control of a major party's leadership well in advance. That process isn't necessarily very open or democratic and will at most involve card-carrying party members (if it's not restricted to the party's members of parliament or governing bodies) so you need to have a deep network in the party to succeed.

Without pushing the comparison too far, when you see something even remotely similar to Donald Trump (namely someone who is, in some way, perceived as an outsider and manages to circumvent established party power structures to make a large impact on politics and/or participate in government) then that person usually needs to create her own political party just to stand for election (Pim Fortuyn, Ronald Schill, Geert Wilders, Bepe Grillo…) or to take control of a fledging party which can be used to challenge the other parties (Christoph Blocher). That party can be an empty shell but the leader will, by design, control it entirely.

Incidentally, when you are not voting for a president but for a parliament, the name of the leader (and presumptive prime minister or head of government) might not even be on the ballot (often, he or she must run in only one district, typically a safe one). Interestingly, even when voters ostensibly have to choose between lists or parties, there is sometimes a tendency for elections to become more “personalized” through the attention devoted by the media to the main figure in each party and some commentators have complained about that (e.g. in Germany).


Before we get to the meat of the question, note that this is a feature of most parliamentary systems of government. While most of the countries in Europe are indeed examples of this, plenty of countries elsewhere in the world are as well - such as Canada, Israel, India, Japan and Australia (more here and here).

On the other hand, European Parliamentary leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel or the UK's Theresa May appear to be more entrenched in their party's leadership,

As Relaxed mentions, this is a little bit backwards if we consider how a person becomes Prime Minister. As a minimum, they must have the confidence of the lower (or only) house of parliament, meaning that they should be able win most parliamentary votes.

This means having a majority of MPs who will follow your lead, and political parties are the practical method of achieving this. If one party has a majority, then the leader of that party is most likely to be able to win most votes in parliament, and therefore they are the ideal choice for Prime Minister.

If no party has a majority on its own, then parties may join together to form a coalition government, and decide between themselves who will become Prime Minister.

meaning that they may remain party leaders even if they lose an election.

Yes, because party leader and Prime Minister are separate roles. There are many party leaders, but only one PM at a time; and there is typically no requirement for the PM to be a party leader, though this is hard to achieve in practise.

In the UK, when a governing party loses at a general election, it has become common for the former PM to resign as leader, and sometimes as an MP as well - though again, there is no requirement to do so.

On a technical note, I wouldn't describe the post of Prime Minister (or equivalent, e.g. Chancellor) as a parliamentary leader, except in the sense that party leaders make frequent appearances in parliament. The PM is the head of government, and while they normally obtain that position due to parliamentary arithmetic, it's their party and their government that they lead.

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