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Why is it that US Presidential candidates do not issue formal written manifestos of their intentions if elected - as British political parties are required by custom to do?

Manifestos are important in Britain. Inexplicitly and loosely worded as they tend to be they nonetheless provide some level of formal announcement of what a government in office holds a mandate to do, and perhaps more importantly, not do.

They also require the party concerned to be formally specific about their intentions. The Conservative manifesto of 2015 ran to 85 pages.

It seems that presidential candidates, like Trump, have been able to get away with quite vague expressions, e.g. about a future relationship with Russia, or building of a Great Wall of Mexico. Had he been required to state his policies in writing, it might have been rather more difficult for him to avoid his utterances when in office.

And one can learn a lot from what parties put in and do not put in their manifestos. For example, following the huge fanfare that the Conservatives have recently been making about the restoration of grammar schools, we now discover that their intended manifesto commitment will be to establishing just 20 such schools. i.e. they are only talking about 0.6% of the number of Secondary Schools in the country!

marked as duplicate by indigochild, Martin Tournoij, SJuan76, user4012, phoog Apr 21 '17 at 13:50

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  • For whatever it's worth, it isn't just presidents. I've run for public office myself, and I'm absolutely astounded by the fact that candidates for so many offices, from local school board to the White House are virtually invisible. As for WHY, I think it's simply because they can get away with it. It just goes hand in hand with the corruption that's rampant in American politics. – David Blomstrom Apr 21 '17 at 12:17
  • Question is asking "why not?, not "do they?" It's not a duplicate of the marked question. It might be too opinion-based, but it's not duplicate. – PoloHoleSet Apr 21 '17 at 13:57
  • "It seems that presidential candidates, like Trump, have been able to get away with quite vague expressions" - you've answered your own question. That's exactly why. – PoloHoleSet Apr 21 '17 at 13:57
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Parties in the United States do publish manifestos, known as their "party platform" during their respective national conventions.

A party platform is described on Wikipedia as:

A political party platform or platform is a formal set of principal goals which are supported by a political party or individual candidate, in order to appeal to the general public, for the ultimate purpose of garnering the general public's support and votes about complicated topics or issues.

[ ... ]

A party platform is sometimes referred to as a manifesto or a political platform.

(emphasis mine)

The Republican Party's platform for 2016 can be found here as a PDF file while the Democratic Party's can be found here.

It's just that not many people actually read them as seen in this article published by The Atlantic:

Once the main public statement of the party’s positions and a centerpiece of its presidential campaign, the platform’s significance has faded. The status of the platform reached such a low point that in 2012, at the GOP convention in Tampa, then-House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview: “Have you ever met anybody who read the party platform?”

[ ... ]

The significance of the platform, however, started to wane once candidates began to campaign openly for both the nomination and the election. Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the shift when he called for presidential candidates and presidents to rise above and transform the parties.

(emphasis mine)

  • Superficially it does look very much like a UK party manifesto. But I suppose the difference is that opposing politicians, media interviewers etc. will often refer back to a manifesto as in "Mrs May, you said in your manifesto that you would do xyz. We haven't heard much about that since the election". I am just wondering if Donald Trump would ever have read that document - one suspects it might not have been within his normal attention span. Anyway, thank you very much for this answer. At the moment it is in pole position for getting the tick of correctness! – WS2 Apr 22 '17 at 6:53
  • @WS2 You're welcome! The major difference's that Presidential candidates in the US mainly get their message through campaigning and the party platform's for the whole party including down-ballot candidates. – Panda Apr 22 '17 at 12:01
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Why is it that US Presidential candidates do not issue formal written manifestos of their intentions if elected - as British political parties are required by custom to do?

  1. The United States parties do.

  2. A political candidate is not a party. While the US president is the single most powerful figure in US politics, the president is not the only figure.

  3. The president has more separate effect than any individual legislator.

The upshot of this is that a presidential candidate's views matter more than any other candidate's. So people listen to what the presidential candidates have to say over what their official platforms say. And it's understood that presidential candidates don't feel bound by the party platforms (even though they help write them). Which makes the party platform less important.

Donald Trump was notable though for the vagueness of his answers. There was continuous comment about this throughout the campaign. Outside his big issues, he avoided anything like details. And even in his big issues, details were a bit fuzzy. He wants a "big, beautiful wall" rather than a brick, concrete, or metal wall. He traded on his wealth as proof of his ability. This isn't a natural characteristic of the US system, most presidential candidates attempt to meet a higher standard of detail. It's unclear if this will become the new normal.

It's also worth thinking about one of the big differences between the US system and parliamentary systems like used in the United Kingdom. In parliamentary systems, people can't vote for a prime minister. And a prime minister doesn't necessarily last through the whole period. David Cameron resigned, and Margaret Thatcher was voted out. I don't have an example of a prime minister whose coalition collapsed and was replaced by a prime minister of a different party, but it can happen. As such, the party position is more important than the prime minister's.

In many parliamentary systems, the party also controls membership. So it is rare for politicians to abandon the prime minister on an individual basis. The party platform (or manifesto) is more important in that case because it is enforceable. In the US system, politicians are encouraged to break from party orthodoxy. It establishes that they view their voters as more important than their party ties.

There are still some mechanisms for controlling party members, but they are weaker. A politician who can't get a plum committee assignment or leadership position can switch to a different office. Representatives can become Senators or governors. A Senator can become a governor or president. A governor can become a Senator or president. As Donald Trump proved, party support is not necessary to win a nomination much less an election. And while executives need legislatures to accomplish things, they aren't reliant on them for their positions.

  • "I don't have an example of a prime minister whose coalition collapsed and was replaced by a prime minister of a different party, but it can happen." I doubt that's ever happened. Coalition governments are incredibly rare in the UK and the collapse of one would almost certainly lead to a general election. Not least because a coalition necessarily has more than half the MPs so a coalition involving different parties would require a party to "change sides". – David Richerby Oct 21 '18 at 10:37
  • Also, I'm not sure this really answers the question. The question is, why don't presidential candidates produce manifestos and your answer is that parties do and candidates aren't parties. That's like asking a vegetarian why they don't eat meat and being told, "Well, Fred eats meat but I'm not Fred." Why don't presidential candidates produce manifestos as well as the parties? After all, the party platform isn't finalized until the candidate has been chosen. – David Richerby Oct 21 '18 at 10:42

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