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The U.S. uses a weak party system: candidates can run under a party's name with little or no support or recognition from that party.

In an organizational sense, how does a local political party relate to a campaign? Do they share staff? Is there typically a liaison position between the two?

  • Also worth noting that most local government political offices below the county level are non-partisan. The lion's share of municipal, school board, township and special district races do not have candidates with party IDs and do not involve partisan primaries. – ohwilleke May 9 '18 at 18:10
  • @ohwilleke I'm not sure how relevant that is. In my experience, even non-partisan elections can involve sometimes significant amount of party support. The "non-partisan" part often just means that the ballot doesn't list party affiliation. – indigochild May 9 '18 at 19:30
  • FWIW, in decades of active political party involvement in Ohio, Michigan, New York and Colorado I've never seen a political party provide any support to a non-partisan candidate (not counting candidates nominated in partisan judicial race primaries whose affiliation doesn't appear on general election ballots which Ohio once did and may still do). Once, I saw a slate of school board candidates that included prominent political party officials, but even then there wasn't institutional support from the political party whose name they did not run under. – ohwilleke May 9 '18 at 22:57
  • More directly related to clarifying your question: Do you actually mean "local" or do you mean "state and local"? For example, do you mean state representatives or statewide political offices? – ohwilleke May 9 '18 at 22:59
  • @ohwilleke - I'm thinking of local political parties (not state or federal parties), but I'm purposefully not specifying any level of campaign. A local party organization could liaise with local, county, state, or federal campaigns. – indigochild May 10 '18 at 20:31
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In my experience in one campaign, there was no sharing of staff. Sharing staff can be complicated in the US, as it may be considered a campaign contribution.

There was some sharing of resources. The campaign used some of the local (county) party organization's resources. For example, we used their fax machine at one point and sent postal mail under their account (with their discount). Records had to be kept of how much of their resources we used. I'm guessing that was a campaign finance thing, but I didn't fill out that paperwork. I would mark down things like 'faxed 5 pages to 123-555-1234 for congressional campaign' but not fill out campaign forms.

We did not have a formal liaison position on either side. There was a formal position in the local party to liaison with all candidates (not us specifically). So there was a specific person who we could call. He would normally just call for the campaign manager, although he might talk to anyone. He was located in our district. He may not have had as close a relationship to other campaigns that weren't within walking distance.

We were a small campaign for a federal House of Representatives position. We had perhaps seven people who were paid at some level, mostly part-time. At our height, we had three people with desks, not including the candidate (who had a desk at his day job rather than in our campaign office).

I visited the local office for the presidential candidate that year and it was larger than our office. Of course, it may also have covered a larger area.

The national party's congressional finance arm ran a poll for us. My understanding is that they were considering whether to push more resources towards the campaign.

A Political Action Committee gave us an in-kind contribution by sending some of our campaign material to those of the members of their organization who were located in our area.

The local organization shared donor lists with us.

Other candidates shared campaign events with us. The expectation was that the larger candidate (president is larger than Senator than Representative than state senator than state representative; other positions like governor, mayor, county commissioner, school director, and municipal commissioner fit differently depending on circumstances) would appear in support of the smaller candidate. So when we appeared with a Senator, we got the contributions. When we appeared with a state representative, the state representative got the contributions.

This was a while ago, so things could have changed since that time. In particular, it was before the Citizens United decision. And of course that campaign might not have been representative. But it was compliant. Its behavior was shaped by the campaign finance rules and tradition.

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  • +1. I posted a bounty to encourage more experience based answers, not because of any deficiency with your answer. – indigochild May 10 '18 at 16:06
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The answer to your question will vary widely based on where you are and what kind of campaign it is. However, there are some important considerations that will apply in most cases.

First, the level of coordination you hint at in your question (sharing staff, etc.) may not be permitted. You should be certain you understand campaign finance law in your state, and FEC rules if it's a campaign for federal office. Specifically, it's very likely you can't absorb local party resources without counting them as donations (perhaps in-kind donations), and those donations will be subject to limitations. This problem can be avoided by paying (fair market value!) the local party for these resources.

Next, whether you coordinate with a local party will be governed at least in part by the degree to which it's organized. Where I've worked, counties are among the most important levels of party organization - and some county parties are very well organized while other county parties barely exist. You need to identify what unit of the party you should coordinate with, if you're going to at all, and then figure out how well organized it is. If it's poorly organized it probably won't be helpful to you - though if you share broad goals perhaps your campaign could help to organize it better, around your campaign this year, but continuing into the future.

So suppose your local party is well organized, both sides want to coordinate, and you figure out any campaign finance issues. What might the relationship look like?

Are you the nominee yet? Some states have had their primaries and some haven't; if your primary hasn't happened yet, you may or may not have opposition. If you're pre-primary and you have opposition, it might be very awkward to have any official or extensive relationship with the local party. For the most part, party organizations don't see themselves as arbiters of primaries, but as supporting structures for winning the general election. So, if you approach the party before the primary and they give you the cold shoulder, win the primary and try again.

Once you're the nominee, a campaign's relationship with a well-organized party might be very helpful to both sides. The campaign could rent space, which can usually accommodate whatever arrangement the campaign wants (good for you) and provides rental income for the party (good for the party). You could rent a room, half the office, or just the right to have a meeting occasionally. (The party may not have a permanent space of this nature - see above, how well organized in the local party?) Party staff or volunteers could take messages for the campaign, they could store yard signs, they could provide a venue for media availability, etc. etc.

Perhaps most importantly, by being the nexus of local campaign coordination, the party can help different campaigns connect and coordinate among themselves. Your volunteers might not mind talking to people about another campaign or two; another campaign's volunteers might not mind dropping lit for you, setting up your signs, mentioning you on calls, etc. In my experience this is difficult to establish, but beneficial to all sides when it works out.

I want to say something about the state party. Any well-organized local party will be a subsidiary part of the state party, and the state party might be much, MUCH more helpful to your campaign. Again, this depends a lot on what you're running for. It also depends on how professionalized your state party is - this varies a lot across states, but most have pretty professional organizations at the state level. The state party might hold a unique position in state law, one that might allow it to help your campaign financially - sometimes very significantly. This is probably only important if you're running for state legislature or above.

Finally, you say

candidates can run under a party's name with little or no support or recognition from that party.

...sort of. It depends on how you conceive of the party. Consider closed primary states; one doesn't need to be a member of the party in order to vote in the primary, but one DOES have to be registered as that party to vote. Does that make each voter part of the party? I'm tempted to say yes, but it's a contestable position obviously. In open primary states it's even harder to say that, but when you vote in a primary you're participating in an analogue to a convention, just with many fewer requirements. That said, you can't participate in more than one party's primary, certainly in the same election. Anyway, I don't think the American party system is as weak as you make it out to be.

[This is based on maybe a decade of campaign experience, mostly in the Midwest, and several years of graduate study in political science.]

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In an organizational sense, how does a local political party relate to a campaign? Do they share staff? Is there typically a liaison position between the two?

Normally, even in partisan races, the county political party and the candidate (e.g. a county commissioner candidate), are two separate entities and have separate sets of books and separate staff. Someone in an existing county party office (typically a county chairperson) would typically be the chief liaison between the two on the local party side, with a campaign manager or candidate as the chief liaison on the candidate side.

The local party would typically share voter databases, contribution databases and volunteer databases and would (post-primary) endorse the winner of the primary as part of a party line slate in as many pieces of literature as the local party can afford (rarely more than one or two) in a coordinated literature drop also dropping individual candidate pieces at the same time through the precinct committee person network. Sometimes a ballot issue or two would also be included in the endorsement. Referrals, for example, to friendly printers offering discount rates or to election lawyers would also be common.

But, very little money would change hands and paid staff from the local party would ordinarily not be devoted to the candidate's campaign. Sometimes candidates would pay some sort of dues to the local party to support it if it was hard up for cash as the candidates usually have more money than the local party.

Defunct campaigns with cash on hand (e.g. if eliminated in a primary or after losing a general election race) often give their remaining funds to the local party organization. But, neither state nor local parties give money to campaigns that are insolvent to bail out their debts.

State political parties would typically have no involvement other than producing a single statewide party slate to list on a website and perhaps one piece of literature, except in very critical local races and as part of a general, statewide GOTV (get out the vote) effort shared by the state and local parties and all the major campaigns with the resources to do so.

Other campaigns (e.g. for higher offices) might offer endorsements and maybe even a token campaign donations along with it from the endorsing candidate, but little more.

Most local races, however, for municipal office, special districts, school boards, and township offices are formally non-partisan. In those races, the local party would typically have little or no formal coordination or sharing of resources whatsoever, even though people who volunteer for the local party might also, in their individual capacities, also choose to volunteer for a particular non-partisan candidate.

(Again, this is mostly based on personal experience, for example, as a treasurer for a county commissioner candidate and a campaign worker in a non-partisan municipal campaign.)

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