Faculty Spotlight

Daniel Galvin

Of Presidents and Parties

Dan Galvin
Daniel Galvin

When are U.S. presidents most partisan? Are they more concerned with advancing policies or building their parties? Why are some political parties better at adapting to change than others? These are just a few of the questions that IPR political scientist Daniel Galvin contemplates in examining how the presidency and parties have changed over time and what this means for the American political process.

Recently, the American Political Science Association’s section on Political Organizations and Parties presented Galvin with its Emerging Scholar Award, given to a scholar whose “career to date demonstrates unusual promise.”

Galvin’s academic career got off to a fast start with the publication of his first book, Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush (Princeton University Press, 2010), soon after receiving his PhD from Yale University.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Galvin has found such success in his scholarship is that he seeks to answer questions that either no one has thought to ask—or that no one has been able to answer.

Modern President-Party Relationships

In Presidential Party Building, which one reviewer called “the finest empirical study yet of presidential-party relations in the latter half of the 20th century,” Galvin challenges the conventional view of the relationship between presidents and their parties.

Scholars and pundits long took it for granted that presidents would not build their parties. As primarily self-interested actors, presidents were presumed to see their parties as either a distraction, an obstacle, or a resource to exploit.

Skeptical, Galvin turned to the archives to test whether this was true. He unearthed a wide variety of sources, including personal notes, internal White House memos, letters, strategy papers, tape recordings from the Oval Office, and party documents.

What he discovered was that while all modern presidents did use their parties instrumentally, Republican presidents since Eisenhower did much more. They worked assiduously to build the GOP, expand its reach, and enhance its electoral competitiveness.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidents since Kennedy—and “apparently including Obama as well,” Galvin says—refused to invest in their party. Democrats used their party to promote the White House’s policy aims, but did little to leave behind a more robust, durable party organization. As this partisan pattern repeated itself over the decades, the two parties traveled down different trajectories. “The Democrats simply fell behind the Republicans, organizationally, especially in the 1980s and 1990s,” Galvin said. “Remarkably, the pattern has continued: after his reelection in 2012, Obama decided to fold his impressive campaign organization into ‘Organizing for Action,’ a 501(c)(3) organization that siphons resources away from the party proper.”

Party Adaptation in the Postindustrial Era

Galvin’s broader interest in how parties change is evident in his latest book project, Rust Belt Democrats: Party Legacies and Adaptive Capacities in Postindustrial America. In it, Galvin examines the factors that have facilitated or frustrated party adaptation in the region hardest hit by globalization and deindustrialization.

Since the early 1980s, Republicans have been on the rise in Rust Belt states, Galvin said. This has given Democrats a strong incentive to adapt—to rethink their traditional policy agendas, reassess their organizational alliances, and target new constituencies.

But how have Rust Belt Democrats tried to navigate this period of economic and political upheaval? Have they moved to the right as leading political science theories would predict—and as centrist “third-way” Democrats long implored? Or have their close ties to organized labor acted as a “drag” on their adaptive capacities? Despite the pivotal role of this region in national politics and its unique ability to shed light on scholarly theories of party adaptation, we simply do not know, Galvin said.

He intends to find out. Not least, he said, because the policy stakes are so high.

“As recent events have shown, when Republicans win majority control of state governments, many of the Democrats’ most cherished social and economic programs are jeopardized, and their most important allies—labor unions—are attacked at their foundations,” Galvin said. “Without a clearer picture of how Rust Belt Democrats coped with these pressures in the past, there is precious little we can say about events unfolding before us—or about their ability to remain competitive in the future.”

Through scores of primary interviews, detailed archival research, and a range of other data, Galvin’s research has already turned up some fascinating findings.

“Some of the most prominent theoretical expectations regarding the dynamics of party change do not hold in this setting,” Galvin continued.

While it is true that many Democrats felt compelled to move to the center and adapt to changing conditions, their capacity to do so was powerfully mediated by preexisting organizational arrangements, longstanding political relationships, and inherited normative traditions. Those party legacies were often a source of frustration for party leaders, Galvin noted, but they were not merely hindrances. They also provided raw materials that creative actors could turn to the party’s advantage.

The initial research for the book was presented at a recent IPR colloquium, where Galvin looked specifically at the relationship between the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Existing research on the subject suggests that strong ties between political parties and industrial labor unions lead to the party’s electoral decline by inhibiting adaptation.

Yet Galvin found that the strong ties between the UAW and MDP did not have this effect. Indeed, deep party-union integration might have actually encouraged union officials to internalize the party’s strategic considerations and support adaptation.

Not content with only scholarship, Galvin is also a dedicated teacher, having been recognized with several teaching awards for his undergraduate classes on the presidency and American government.

Daniel Galvin is assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow.

Selected References

Galvin, D. 2013. Resilience in the Rust Belt: Michigan Democrats and the UAW. IPR working paper (WP-13-04).

Galvin, D. 2012. The transformation of political institutions: Investments in institutional resources and gradual change in the national party committees. Studies in American Political Development. 26(1): 50–70.

Galvin, D. Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Princeton University Press (2010).