What exactly is the role of the DNC and RNC?

 Photo composite of a donkey and elephant alongside a pile of money.
Photo composite of a donkey and elephant alongside a pile of money.
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This week, after months of speculation about — and in some cases denigration of — her tenure as leader of the Republican National Committee, longtime party chair Ronna McDaniel announced she would step down from the role she's held since 2017. In a statement, McDaniel called her time as party chair the "honor and privilege of my life." Some of the "proudest accomplishments" in that time included things like "firing Nancy Pelosi" and "expanding the Party through minority outreach at our community centers." According to McDaniel, Republicans will have an opportunity to select a new party chair after the group's spring training session on March 8.

While her departure is not wholly unexpected, McDaniel's choice to step down as RNC chair has nevertheless refocused public attention on the inner workings of a core institution in American politics: a major political party's national committee. Like its Democratic counterpart the DNC, the Republican National Committee is the main organ of Republican politics in the United States; broadly, it is what makes the Republican Party the Republican Party — likewise for the DNC and the Democrats.

In practice, however, the responsibilities of both parties' national committees can range from high-level agenda-setting to more granular work, such as fundraising and campaign support across multiple electoral levels.

What exactly are they?

The RNC and DNC are actually each just one part of their political party's three-part committee structure, working in tandem with "Hill committees." These exist to focus specifically on the House and Senate — a division that can often blur depending on the election season and the particulars of various races. Essentially, the national committees "look out for their party candidates around the country to support them with things like research, polling, [and] money to run their campaigns," political science professor Joseph Losco explained to Teen Vogue.

On paper, both the RNC and DNC are filed with the Federal Election Commission as "National Committees," each a host of associated groups that are designated for more specific activities, such as fundraising or managing the party's conventions. Both the DNC and RNC are comprised of delegates from each of its subsidiary organizations in states and territories across the country. Each party has its own rules about who and how many, and the process by which it elects delegates — and from those delegates, the upper echelon of party leadership, such as chair and vice chair, secretary, and treasurer.

To be officially designated a national party committee in the eyes of the government, groups have to meet several specific milestones and criteria. Those include things such as having ballot access efforts that "extend beyond the presidential races, with a "sufficient number of party-designated federal candidates on the ballot in a sufficient number of states in different geographic areas"; pushing "voter registration drives on an ongoing basis" rather than for a single election; and "establishing state party committees," among other FEC-specified requisites.

How do they operate?

Both the RNC and DNC have been "traditionally dismissed" as merely being "service providers" that "provide assistance to candidates in the form of campaign funding and expertise but otherwise lack political power," Fordham Political Science professor Boris Heersink said in 2018 study of party brands and political national committees. In part that's true, with each committee helping fund their respective candidates on multiple levels, offering IT support, voter enrollment initiatives, and generally serving as a unifying "infrastructure institution" across the party, as the DNC's Amanda Brown Lierman told Teen Vogue.

The committees are also responsible for establishing their respective party platforms, voted on every four years, to help clarify and synchronize candidate messaging across multiple elections.

Perhaps most notably in terms of public output, each national committee is responsible for their party's similarly acronymed Democratic and Republican National Conventions. At these events, the platforms are officially adopted, and delegates vote on the party's presidential nominee before presenting them to the electorate. Given their origins as a forum for "party bigwigs [to pick] presidential nominees" though, CNN's Zachary Wolf asked ahead of last election's convention season, is there still a "functional purpose" for the modern iteration of the national convention, replete with the pomp and made-for-TV theatrics that have become the norm? Yes, according to BallotReady, the election advocacy and data group behind Snapchat's Run for Office Mini suite. In addition to the obligatory ratification of platform and candidates, the group says conventions "give a platform to rising stars in the party and bolster established party leaders."

Nuts and bolts aside, what's the point?

Beyond simply acting as a campaign "service provider" during election years, National Committees play a "crucial role" in American politics. They "publicize their party's policy positions" in the broader service of creating "national party brands," Heersink said. Those brands, "fundamental to mobilizing voters in elections," are especially crucial "when the party is in the national minority," he added. Moreover, in a separate 2021 study, Heersink found that while "'party branding' is a core national committee goal," the number of New York Times references to those activities "decline for parties that hold the White House" even as coverage of other national committee operations remain steady. This trend suggests that "committees step back their branding role" when theirs is the party in the executive office.

Often that branding is manifested in the party platform, which lays out the priorities and language that ostensibly represents the will of the party at large. But, cautioned Losco, those platforms should be seen more as an aspirational "wish list" rather than an iron-clad diktat. Instead, it's up to individual candidates to decide how closely they want to hew to their party's platform, and "what actually develops after an election may or may not be related to that wish list."

And everyone loves the way things are, right?

Not even close. As the official embodiment of each political party — and one of their major financial pillars — both national committees are subject to regular scrutiny and criticism both from within and outside the organizations. This winter, the conservative National Review slammed the RNC under outgoing chair Ronna McDaniel for not working as a "traditional party committee anymore." Instead of focusing on "electing Republicans up and down the ballot," the National Review said, it has become solely "interested in making Donald Trump feel good," to the detriment of its electoral obligations.

In the left-leaning The Nation, the DNC was hailed as the "most public" of the "constellation" of entities that make up the Democratic party (including the Hill Committees, and accompanying super-PACs) in spite of sitting at the head of a conglomerate with little accountability or transparency in terms of leadership pipelines. Ultimately, the magazine concluded, the question of who is actually in charge of the Democratic party is a "surprisingly difficult" one to answer.