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Working Paper Series

Political Parties and Policy Demanders in Local Elections


  • Sarah F. Anzia, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Olivia M. Meeks, University of California, Berkeley


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper (May 2016)


The theory of political parties advanced by Cohen et al. (2008) and Bawn et al. (2012) has stimulated a productive debate about the form, activity, and influence of parties in American politics. So far, however, it has mainly sought to explain the role of parties in U.S. national politics. We propose that studying political organizations in local politics—where we cannot take it for granted that parties will always be active—has great potential to advance our understanding of parties, interest groups, and the relationships between them. In this paper, we start by presenting descriptive information on the activity of political parties in over 300 municipal governments across the United States. We find that parties are highly engaged in many of the cities, but we also find that their presence is far from universal. We then set out to explain the variation in party activity across cities, showing that they are more active in cities with partisan elections and in cities with a great deal of interest group activity. Importantly, though, we also find that there are many cities where parties are absent but interest groups are still active. It is possible, then, that the parties we do find to be active in local elections are not acting as umbrella groups steered by coalitions of local policy demanders, but instead are just another type of group trying to influence elections, working alongside but not in coordination with local interest groups. We then use these findings as a jumping off point for an extension and revision of some of the theoretical ideas advanced by Bawn et al., arguing that there are conditions under which policy demanders have incentives to work alone—not within party coalitions.

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Last updated on 07/03/2016