New State of the Parties Edition!

The eighth edition of the State of the Parties just came out! It’s a great book with contributions from many of the leading political science researchers in American politics. As with previous editions, there are sections on public opinion, campaign finance and an expanded focus on the nature of the current party system in America and what changes it may be undergoing.

State of the Parties

As with previous editions, I have a chapter on state party platforms. What is different about my chapter this edition is the use of automated techniques to evaluate platform ideology. I used Wordscores to measure state party ideology instead of manual coding. In a future, I will show how the results vary based on the method used for coding.

The main finding in my chapter is that state parties remain highly polarized. I did not find, however, much evidence of a divide within the parties. A lot has been made of the division between Establishment and Trump Republicans and between Establishment and Progressive Democrats. The state party platforms, however, do not reveal much evidence of this divide. It could be that state party platforms just aren’t a good measure of intra-party divisions (although my previous research does capture some meaningful diversity of agenda attention). Dan Hopkins recent book shows that parties are nationalizing and the  state party platforms over the last century show greater homogeneity within each party. I wonder, though, if this nationalization could also show when the parties are becoming internally divided. In other words, if the divisions are being fought at the national level, then factional struggles at the state level should reflect this (as seen in several recent primaries as well as control over state party organizations).

I didn’t find evidence that states won by Clinton or Sanders were ideologically different; ditto for Trump versus states won by Establishment GOP candidates (there were some differences using sentiment analysis). Again, it could be the fact that platforms, because they aren’t written in every state and revised every year, won’t capture these divisions. Still, one of my conclusion was that newly engaged party activists have not sought to institutionalize their ideals into formal party documents as they have in the past. I wonder, however, as the Democratic Party moves away from caucuses, that this indicates past processes of party agenda formation are anachronistic. In an age of social media and online fundraising, the party organization is large and cumbersome mechanism to move when other smaller organizational tools and vehicles are available. As political scientists, we devote a lot of our research to understanding how parties as organizations reflect the goals of politicians, social movements, and activists. I just wonder if, as with many other institutions, parties will become less important in the coming years. Sure, it’s a big leap from a single year of state party platforms to this conclusion. Still, I think its worth thinking about how parties formalize their agendas and what this means about party organizational strength.

Why Do State Parties Have Platform Planks on Foreign Policy?

State party platforms are great for learning about often obscure issues. It probably comes as no surprise that ethanol is a frequent topic for the Iowa state parties, planks on irrigation from the Colorado river show up in the New Mexico platforms and cattle in the Texas platforms.

These hyper-local issues make sense for state parties. Citizens care about these issues and parties have to take positions on these issues in campaigns. Indeed, it wouldn’t make much sense to issue a platform if it was just a carbon-copy of the national platform (although this may be changing).

So, it may come as a surprise that state parties tend to spend a lot of time (or space, which  I guess is a better noun) on foreign policy. This attention to an issue that constitutionally is outside the scope of state responsibility says a lot about the nature of state parties and polarization. This is an example, I think, of “signaling behavior“, in which the state parties are identifying themselves as faithful representatives of the party orthodoxy.

To measure foreign policy attention, I coded all sentences dealing with foreign policy and terrorism for platforms written between 2000 and 2012, but I excluded statements on veterans,   immigration and trade and economic development. These are issues tend to address issues that state policy-makers have more control over.

It turns out that foreign policy makes up a small, but significant part of state party platforms. State parties devote approximately four to six sentences out of every 100 to foreign policy. This may not seem like a lot, but among the other 24 issues I have coded for, this is about the middle in terms of attention. In 2004 and 2008, the relative attention to these issue was higher (slightly less than 10 percent). As seen in the density plot below, in some cases, the percentage of sentences devoted to foreign policy is much greater.

FP Density Coffey

The discussion is not cursory or filled with bland patriotic sentiments. Instead, parties often issue planks with highly detailed policy positions. Republican platforms, for example, often rail against “Agenda 21” or the “Law of the Sea”. The 2012 Texas Republican platform, for example, has an entire plank devoted to Agenda 21:

The Republican Party of Texas should expose all United Nations Agenda 21 treaty policies and its supporting organizations, agreements and contracts. We oppose implementation of the UN Agenda 21 Program which was adopted at the Earth Summit Conference in 1992 purporting to promote a comprehensive program of sustainable development projects, nationally, regionally and locally. We oppose the influence, promotion and implementation of nongovernmental organizations, metropolitan and/or regional planning organizations, Councils of Government, and International Council for Local Environmental initiatives and the use of American (Texas) citizen’s taxes to promote these programs.

The plank is more detailed than many state Republican platforms, but the tone and the detail of the position is not unusual. Similarly, many Democratic platforms are highly specific about what policies should guide the U.S. abroad. The 2012 Iowa Democratic platform endorses the “ratification or full participation” in 16 separate treaties and conventions , including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC).

The word clouds below capture some of the content differences in the agendas of state parties. The clouds are all state party platforms issued between 2010 and 2012; the blue cloud represents the most common words in Democratic platforms and the red cloud is the most common word used in Republican platforms.

Dem Word Cloud Republican Word Cloud

In fact, the parties are also quite polarized on foreign policy issues, but unlike gun control, neither party really “owns” this issue. Instead, across states, there is a fairly even distribution of ideological positioning.

Ideological Positioning

I am often asked why state parties care about these issues. To be honest, I don’t have a definitive answer. I suspect it has something to do with how the platforms are written. As social scientists, we often focus on the “data generating process” to understand social and political phenomena. In this case, the “bag of words” approach to textual analysis might miss the specificity of a narrow set of planks, yet I think these planks can tell us a lot about the structure of state party organizations. That means understanding how platforms are written, seeing the planks as the end product of a process that generated them.

Here is my theory: when activists have a large role to play in state party organizations, the parties will be more ideological than parties that are more professional operations serving elected officials. The “amateur democrats” which James Q. Wilson recognized were becoming a major part of the political process in the 1960s, are engaged in politics precisely for ideological reasons. They genuinely care about issues in which they have no personal stake.

I haven’t really come up with a great way to test this theory, but one (admittedly crude) measure of the influence of activists vs. party professionals is to see if there is a difference between the foreign policy content of states that have caucuses and those with primaries. Caucus states often have a platform process that begins at the precinct level (Minnesota is a good example). There, virtually any attendee can submit a plank for inclusion on the state party platform. The state platform committees work hard to make sure the platform starts at this hyper-local level. In other states, the platform is written by a central committee, often chaired by an elected official.

I am currently looking at state party bylaws and contacting state parties to collect information about how their platforms are written. While political scientists have studied state party platforms, there has not been a lot of systematic data gathering on how platforms are written.

Caucus Primary

Anyway, some evidence can be seen in whether states held a caucus or a primary in the 2012 presidential election.  The evidence is not overwhelming, but there is more content devoted to foreign policy in caucus as opposed to primary states. This may also underestimate the difference; many primary states such as New York and New Jersey do not issue platforms at all, while almost all states that use a caucus have platforms.

In short, party platforms are not always meant as literal statements of the party legislative agenda. They are, in part, team-building exercises. Taking stands on issues on a range of issues communicates to activists that they party is united on core principles. Foreign policy planks, then, seem to be clear examples of signaling behavior to activists.

Do Republicans Own Gun Control Policy?

In this post, I will explore the differences between and within state Republican and Democratic parties on gun control using 2012 state party platforms.  Most scholarly focus on party gun policy positions tends to be on congressional voting patterns or public opinion. State party platforms, however, provide unique insight into party positions. State parties use their platforms craft often detailed positions on a large range of issues, from education and economic issues to foreign policy and social-cultural issues.

Elsewhere, I have explored whether state party positions reflect issue ownership or conflict extension. When an issue is “owned” by a party, the voting public tends to perceive that party as more competent on the issue. Most often, assessments of issue ownership are restricted to valence or consensus issues. Egan (2013) argues that consensus issues can divide parties over priorities, performance and policies, but not the fundamental goal of a growing economy or improving high school graduation rates. Egan argues that “the analytical relevance of the concept of issue ownership is largely limited to understanding the politics of consensus issues” (2013:17). Generally, studies of issue ownership are studies of public opinion. An issue is owned, as Petrocik argues, based on reputation; the public has more confidence that the party prioritizes the issue and will deliver on its promises.

In this post, I will examine how gun control illustrates a pattern of issue ownership, even though it is not a valence issue. What is different in this analysis of issue ownership is that I am focusing on the sources of party issue attention, rather than what is really an outcome variable, the reputation of the parties on an issue in the eyes of the public. This look at issue ownership does not allow me to evaluate performance in implementing these policies, yet I can assess how the parties differently prioritize issues and to what degree they conflict on the policies surrounding the issue.

There are several different outcomes that are possible. First, the parties can conflict on an issue directly, which would be an example of polarization and conflict extension. Second both parties can offer similar ideological views, which is predicted by the Downs and which finds empirical support in the work of Erikson, Wright and McIver (among many studies of state politics). Third, one party may address the issue while the other party does not, which is predicted by research on European party manifestos as a form of issue ownership.

I will show that gun policy largely across states provides evidence of the third case, although in some circumstances. That is, Republicans devote more space to the issue than Democratic state parties and advocate clear ideological views, while Democratic state parties are more equivocal or silent (the first case).

First, a note about state party platforms. In the platforms, state parties expend considerable space to articulate exactly what they believe in detailed terms both in policy specifics and in terms of the moral underpinnings of their beliefs. The platforms represent the formal positions of the state organizations, whether they are put together by the state party central committee or written by activists at the precinct level.   Certainly, state platforms cannot be said to represent the single view of an entire state party. Indeed, part of the value of studying these platforms is that they are windows into not only the core values of the parties, but the conflicts and tensions that exist within and across state parties.  As a result, they are a unique source for understanding the nuances of party issue stances. The platforms can be as long as the national platforms or as short as a few resolutions. Parties, therefore, have considerable freedom to articulate their issue positions. So, they are good place to look to identify the most important policy differences between the parties.

Issue Space

All states devote relatively little space to gun policy. I  have coded platforms into 25 issue categories. Most state party platform content is devoted to economic and budget issues, which take up about 20 percent of platform sentences. Other issues, such as education and the environment take up about 10 to 15 percent, although there is more variance on the amount devoted to these issues.  Gun policy, in contrast,  is the focus of about 1.39 percent of the sentences. In other words, a typical, platform that is 100 sentence long will have about 1-3 statements about gun policy.


Republicans consistently devote more platform space (mean =2.3, SD = 1.5) to gun issues than Democrats (mean = .48, SD= .68). Of the 36 Democratic platforms I analyzed, almost half do not mention gun policy, compared to only two out of  35 Republican platforms do not mention gun policy. As can be seen in the chart below, the difference in issue space is consistent across nearly all states; only the Wyoming Democrats devote more space (as a percentage of total space) to gun policy than Wyoming Republicans.


Republicans consistently devote more platform space (mean =2.3, SD = 1.5) to gun issues than Democrats (mean = .48, SD= .68). Of the 36 Democratic platforms I analyzed, almost half do not mention gun policy, compared to only two out of  35 Republican platforms do not mention gun policy. As can be seen in the chart below, the difference in issue space is consistent across nearly all states; only the Wyoming Democrats devote more space (as a percentage of total space) to gun policy than Wyoming Republicans.


Overall, Republican platform are always more conservative than Democratic platforms on gun policy. In fact, out of 35 Republican platforms, 31 have gun policies that score as more conservative than the overall policy positions in their state platform. For example, the California Republican Party has eight sentences on gun policy, seven of which were coded as -1, one of which was coded -.5. The overall score for these eight sentences is -.91, which is more conservative than the overall platform score of -.51. This pattern is common for the GOP; most state Republican parties put forward clearly conservative positions on gun policy, but more nuanced or moderate positions on other issues.


In terms of specific policy proposals, in 2012 five Democratic platforms specially endorse background checks all nearly all five are the most liberal (CO, IA, MN, TX, WA).  Three Democratic platforms also support a ban on assault weapons (CA, NE, WA), while two others support a ban on concealed carry (NE, WI). In contrast, while two Republican platforms support background checks (CA, IL) most Republican platforms focus primarily on opposition to federal licensing. Seventeen platforms support concealed carry in some form, some form and three state parties oppose assault weapons bans (IA, NH , OK).


On Gun Policy, Two Parties Separated by a Common Language

A typical Democratic platform statement is the 2012 Delaware Democratic plank:

The concept that , by acting responsibly and with respect for differing views on the  weapons issues , we can protect our  constitutional rights and keep our  communities and our children safe.

Democratic platforms tend to equivocate more. That is, the statements tend to express support for gun control, while still acknowledging the right of gun ownership. For example, the Minnesota Democratic platform supports “Reasonable firearm policies that promote public safety and crime prevention without infringing on the rights of hunters and other sports enthusiasts.” The 2012 California Democratic Party plank supports “responsible gun ownership and reasonable gun safety and work with gun owners and sporting associations to promote gun safety education.” When Democrats support controls, they are usually modified, singling out child safely or keeping guns away from criminals.

Word Clouds of Gun Policy Planks in Democratic and Republican State Platforms



Republicans rarely demonstrate nuance in their positions. Words and phrases such as “fundamental”, “guarantee”, “immediate”, and “strict adherence” are common. For example, the Kansas Republicans “condemn frivolous lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, which are transparent attempts to deprive citizens of their rights.” The Iowa Republican platform states: “We demand full restoration of 2nd Amendment rights and call for a state law authorizing law-abiding citizens to carry firearms, open or concealed, without a permit.” The Missouri Republican Party supports the “strict enforcement of existing gun laws but not the creation of new and unnecessary gun control law” and that “there should be mandatory sentences for 49 criminals using a gun in the commission of a crime, or any other weapon or threat used to 50 debase, wound, or kill an innocent victim. We call on governments at all levels to strictly 51 enforce existing gun laws.”

There are important language differences between the parties when it comes to gun policy. As the two word clouds show, there is some overlap, and since Republican platforms devote more space to these issues, their platforms use more words and so the Republican cloud is bigger. As evidence of the Republican “issue ownership” on this issue, Democrats tend to use words more associated with Republican (“right”, “gun”, “ownership”, “keep”) while Republicans use fewer words that appear in Democratic platforms (“check”, “ban”, “safe”, “background”). This difference can be seen more in word clouds of  the top ten words used by each party in their platforms. A different way to see differences in word choice and therefore policy views is by examining the most conservative and liberal platform positions. The table below shows the top words for five most conservative and five most liberal Democratic and Republican platforms.  Some patterns stand out.  None of the top ten words for liberal Democrats were shared by the other three grouping of state parties.  In fact, conservative Democrats and more moderate (relatively) Republicans use very similar words, sharing nearly every word and the only word these parties do not have in common, “own” ranks just outside of the top  ten for both groups. These word choices are significant; Republicans emphasize individuals and rights, while Democrats consciously invoke words like weapon and gun (other words in Democratic platforms not making this list include “ammun”, “manufa”, “childproof”). Republican words not appearing in Democratic platforms include those focusing on individuals “propert”, “famli” “person” infring” and “defend”, words which focus on individual rights).

Top (stemmed) Words on Gun Policy

Liberal Democrats Moderate Democrats Moderate Republicans Conservative Republicans





2. support 2.right 2.firearm
2.check 3.firearm 3.law 3.arm
4.firearm 4.gun 4.arm 4.constitut
4.support 5.arm 4.citizen 5.bear
5.safe 5.bear 4.support 6.amend
6. weapon 5. keep 7.bear 7.state
8.ban 8.citizen 7.firearm 7.support
8. feder 8.law 7.keep 9.individu
8. law   7.state 9.keep
8. purchase     9.lawabid



The table shows that moderate Democratic parties tend to use more “Republican” words compared to liberal Democratic parties. In other words, the lexicon of gun policy for state parties seems to be oriented towards gun rights rather than gun control.


While gun policy represents a clear dividing line between Democrats and Republicans in public opinion surveys, the data here indicate the Democrats are more internally divided than Republicans. The pattern here is of “issue ownership” even though this is a positional and not a valence issue. Democrats are silent or rarely explicitly oppose the dominant party on the issue. This is consistent with some measures of public opinion; a recent Pew Study found that over the last twenty years, support for gun rights has eclipsed support for gun control among the general public. Certainly, it is possible that the tragedy of Sandy Hook in December of 2012, after these platforms were issued may have ltered partisan discourse on gun policy. I am in the process of analyzing 2016 state party platforms and I will post those results later.

The pattern here is one that varies by issue. State parties also address a number of other controversial issues, including immigration, climate change, education, taxes and civil rights. On these issues, the balance of attention and ideological divisions between the parties varies, which I will explore in future posts.




Hi, this is a new blog on state party platforms. I will be posting information about my own research, as well as analysis of state party platforms and occasional analysis of Ohio politics and text analysis of speeches, etc.

There is a lot to be learned from these platforms, but they generally receive little attention. In fact, each year, I read every single published platform. As polarized as American parties are, they have an incredibly diverse set of issue agendas. So, hopefully, this blog can help to explore the different issue positions taken by state parties, as well as the conflicts between and within state parties. In my next post, I will explore party diversity on a hot-button topic: gun control. Daniel Coffey.