Republican Party Research Paper

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The Republican Party is one of the two major political parties in the United States that have dominated American politics since the mid-1850s. The Republican party (also known as the Grand Old Party— GOP) emerged amid the sectional conflicts of the pre-Civil War era. Throughout most of its lifetime the party’s electoral strength was centered in northern and western states. It was not until the 1960s with the realignment of southern whites toward the Republicans that the party was able to compete effectively in all sections of the country. The Republicans are the right of center party of American politics. It has a broad, multiclass base of support, which tends to be strongest among white, middle, and upper middleclass citizens. Since the 1980s its activist base has become increasingly conservative. Republican national level organizations have become well financed and professionalized and as a result intraparty influence has shifted toward the national organization.

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1. Historical Development

The Republican Party emerged amid the conflicts of the 1850s as the Democratic and Whig Parties were unable to reconcile differences within their ranks over the slavery issue and the growing economic and cultural differences between the North and South. The immediate reason for the emergence of the Republican Party was passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory. This action by Congress touched off antislavery protest meetings that led to the creation of the party in 1854. In its first election, the Republicans had unusual success winning approximately 40 seats in the House of Representatives (Jones 1965, Moos 1956). In 1856, the Republicans established themselves as the principal opposition party to the then dominant Democrats when the Republican presidential nominee ran a strong second in the popular vote. Abraham Lincoln, formerly a Whig, became the first Republican president after the election of 1860 as the Democratic and Whig parties splintered along a North–South axis. In the Civil War that followed Lincoln’s election, the Republicans were the party of national unity and freedom for slaves.

Despite occasional losses, the Republicans were dominant in national politics from the 1860s until the 1930s. It was, however, a sectionally based party of the North and West as the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction made it noncompetitive in southern states. The extent of Republican electoral domination during this period is demonstrated by its control of the presidency for 56 of the 72 years between 1860 and 1932. Despite Democratic control of congressional seats in the South, the Republicans also tended to dominate the Congress—controlling the House in 23 sessions and the Senate in 31 sessions out of a total of 36 (Jones 1965).

The Great Depression of the 1930s ended Republican dominance as the party was blamed for economic hard times and the Democrats achieved electoral hegemony. The GOP’s only presidential victories between 1932 and 1964 came in 1952 and 1956 when it nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower, a World War II hero, whose appeal was above party.

2. The Republican Party In The Post-New Deal Era

After a disastrous defeat in 1964, Republican fortunes improved although the party continued to have fewer party identifiers among the voters than the Democrats. Benefiting from deep schisms among Democrats over the Vietnam war, civil rights, and social policy, the GOP regained the presidency with Richard Nixon’s 1968 election and 1972 reelection. Evidence of the party’s continuing minority status can be found in the fact that in these elections it still was unable to win control of Congress and most state governments.

The resurgence of the Republicans after 1964 was based upon fundamental electoral changes as politics became less party-centered and more candidate centered. There were also significant electoral realignments (Aldrich 1995). Particularly significant was the movement of southern whites toward the Republicans and away from the Democrats. Beck (1999) estimates that white southerners constituted 30 percent of the GOP’s base electorate in 1996. With a base of support in southern and western states, the Republicans won three presidential elections in the 1980s and in the 1994 midterm congressional elections gained control of both houses of the Congress for the first time in 40 years.

The transformation of the Republicans from a party which for most of its history drew its electoral support almost exclusively from northern and western states into one with a southern base is demonstrated by the fact that after the 1994 election, the Republicans held a majority of the seats in the House and Senate from the South. Southerners constituted the largest regional group among both House and Senate Republicans. At the same time, Republican representation from the Northeast, once a bastion of party support, declined substantially so that northeasterners were the smallest regional group among House Republicans in the 1990s.

In addition to the shift in the partisanship of white southerners, other changes in the composition of the Republican party’s electoral base have occurred since 1968. Whereas women traditionally outnumbered men, by the 1990s they comprised a minority in the party and as a result the party became less sensitive to the concerns of moderate and liberal females. There was also a change in the religious composition of the party. Support among mainline and nonfundamentalist Protestants has eroded steadily since the mid-1960s when they comprised 60 percent of Republican identifiers to slightly more than one-third of party loyalists in 1996. These shifts in the demographic characteristics of Republican identifiers have been accompanied by an ideological change as the party’s loyalists have become increasingly conservative. Beck’s (1999) analysis revealed that whereas a majority of Republican identifiers were self-declared conservatives in 1980, two-thirds carried that designation in 1996.

Changes in the composition of the Republican electorate and the heightened conservative ideological commitment of Republican loyalists have had significant implications for the party. Conservative ideological interests have achieved greater influence within the party organization, among elected officials, most notably in the House of Representatives, and over nominations. There is also substantial internal division within the party between committed conservative ideologues, who tend to dominate the many party organizations as well as the House Republicans, and the more pragmatic and moderate Republicans exemplified by the party’s governors.

3. Republican Party Organization

The party organization is a layered structure of national, state, and local units rather than a hierarchy controlled from the top down. The Republicans’ organizational resources, however, involve more than its formal, legally constituted units. There are the thousands of personal campaign organizations created by Republican candidates, an array of partisan campaign consultants and allied interest groups which provide assistance in voter mobilization, money, staff, technical assistance, and media advertising (Bibby 1999).

3.1 The Republican National Committee

The Rules of the Republican Party, which are adopted at each quadrennial national convention, call for the creation of a Republican National Committee (RNC) which is charged with responsibility for the ‘general management of the party, subject to direction from the national convention.’ This authorization makes the RNC the official governing body of the party between conventions. Since its creation in 1856, the RNC has evolved from an organization in which functions were sketchily differentiated and performed by party notables every 4 years into a continuous operation with a large professional staff and budget (Cotter and Bibby 1980).

The RNC resisted reform efforts in the 1970s and has maintained a confederate organizational mode in which each state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and Virgin Islands have equal representation through a national committeeman and woman and a state chairman. RNC members are selected through procedures mandated by state law and state party rules. Since the full RNC meets only twice a year, responsibility for operations of the committee rests primarily with the national chairman and senior staff. When the party controls the presidency, the national chairman is normally designated by the President and works in close conjunction with the White House staff.

Since the 1960s, the RNC has developed the capacity to raise massive amounts of money to support party activities and candidates. Thus, in the 1999–2000 election cycle, the RNC raised $205.3 million, plus $156.2 million in ‘soft money’ (money raised outside the restrictions of the Federal Election Campaign Act).

With this level of financial resources, the RNC has achieved a degree of autonomy that could not have been imagined in the 1940s and 1950s when it was dependent upon contributions from state affiliates. Through an extensive program of financial and technical assistance to state and local parties, it has gained intraparty leverage because RNC aid is given with requirements attached that the state units must meet. Through this process, Republican state organizations have been professionalized and gained enhanced candidate-support capabilities, but they have also become increasingly dependent upon the RNC for the resources essential for organizational maintenance and effective performance in state level campaigns.

The RNC has also used its financial resources to gain an unprecedented level of intraparty integration in implementing national campaign strategies. For example, in the 1999–2000 election cycle the RNC transferred $93.0 million in ‘soft money’ to state and local party organizations for spending on general party overhead, voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives, and state and local campaigns. The RNC allocated these funds among the state parties in a manner designed to implement a national strategy geared to winning critical states in the presidential race and maximizing the party’s seats in the House and Senate. Through its programs of technical assistance and fund transfers the national party organization has been able to nationalize campaigns and integrate national and state party campaign strategy to an unprecedented extent (Bibby 1999).

3.2 The Senatorial And Congressional Campaign Committees

In addition to the RNC, the national organization of the party includes two autonomous units which focus their activities upon electing members of the House and Senate. Like the RNC, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) have evolved into well-funded organizations with professional staffs. These campaign committees are headed respectively by an incumbent representative and senator. They engage in programs of candidate recruitment, fund raising, technical assistance to candidates, and media advertising. They also channel and mobilize nonparty money to candidates from political action committees, wealthy individuals, and incumbent members of the House and Senate. Support is doled out to candidates on the basis of electoral criteria—the competitiveness of the constituency—not on the basis of candidate ideology or party loyalty.

Since 1996, the congressional and senatorial committees have placed increasingly heavy emphasis on ‘issue advocacy’ advertising in support of their candidates. These are media advertisements funded with ‘soft money’ that do not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, but which effectively convey either favorable or unfavorable images of candidates. The campaign committees also engage in independent expenditures which do involve express advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates. Through the use of these techniques the campaign committees have expanded their influence over the national political agenda, helped shape the issue agendas of individual House and Senate campaigns, and attacked their candidates’ opponents (Herrnson and Dwyre 1999).

3.3 State Parties

State level party units have also gone through a process of institutional strengthening since the 1960s. Republican state organizations tend to be stronger than their Democratic counterparts in their ability to engage in party building and candidate support activities (Cotter et al. 1984). As is true at the national level, there is a division of labor among state level organizations. Republican state central committees concentrate on state-wide races, voter mobilization, and party building, while legislative campaign committees focus their resources upon electing Republican state legislators.

4. The Republican Party Network Of Issue-Oriented Activists

American parties are increasingly networks of issue-based participatory activists. The sources for this trend can be found in a series of complex and interacting forces: the development of a postindustrial society in which noneconomic social cultural issues have gained heightened saliency; sociological and economic changes that have created higher levels of educational attainment, reduced blue collar employment, and increased number of white collar workers; a decline in the availability of patronage as an incentive to participate in politics. Issue oriented activists have also been aided by changes in the rules governing presidential nominations that have diminished the role of elected officials and party leaders.

In the Republican Party these changes have had the effect of significantly shifting the locus of power toward ideologically conservative activists. In the highly participatory politics of Republican presidential nominations, candidates normally find it essential to stress their conservative bona fides if they are to have any hope of winning the nomination in a process dominated by presidential primaries and participatory party caucuses. Activists taking a leading role in these events as well as national convention delegates have been shown to be substantially to the right of the party’s rank and file voters (Mayer 1996). Similarly, Bruce et al. (1991) found in a study of county level campaign workers that ideological ‘true believers’ outnumbered ‘vote maximizers’ by a ratio of 4.3:1 among Republicans.

Issue-based groups have gained an increasingly entrenched position within the Republican Party. The Christian Right, for example, has become an increasingly influential and sometimes dominant force within some state party organizations. The increasing involvement of groups and individuals whose motivation is not maximizing the vote but a commitment to policy and ideological concerns has created a problem for the Republican Party. With a conservative activist base that is needed for its campaign support and often to win party nominations, candidates often find themselves catering to the GOP’s most conservative elements. However, such actions tend to alienate the more moderate elements of the party and voters without strong partisan commitments—the voters that are needed to win general elections. The party’s future depends in large part on how this intraparty problem is resolved.


  1. Aldrich J H 1995 Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Party Politics in America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  2. Beck P 1999 The changing American party coalitions. In: Green J C, Shea D M (eds.) The State of Parties: The Changing Role of Contemporary American Parties, 3rd edn. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  3. Bibby J F 1999 Party networks: National–state integration, allied groups, and issue activists. In: Green J C, Shea D M (eds.) The State of Parties: The Changing Role of Contemporary American Parties, 3rd edn. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  4. Bruce J M , Clark J A, Kessel J H 1991 Advocacy politics in presidential parties. American Political Science Review 85: 1089–110
  5. Cotter C P, Bibby J F 1980 Institutional development of parties and the thesis of party decline. Political Science Quarterly 95(Spring): 1–28
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  7. Herrnson P S, Dwyre D 1999 Party issue advocacy in congressional election campaigns. In: Green J C, Shea D M (eds.) The State of Parties: The Changing Role of Contemporary American Parties. J Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  8. Jones C O 1965 The Republican Party in American Politics. Macmillan, New York
  9. Mayer W G (ed.) 1996 In Pursuit of the White House: How we Choose our Presidential Nominees. Chatham House, Chatham, NJ
  10. Moos M 1956 The Republicans: A History of their Party. Random House, New York


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