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Why the Republican and Democratic platforms are as consequential as they are unwieldy and arcane

Campaign buttons for sale at the Washington state Democratic Convention in Tacoma last month.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

In 1840, the Democratic Party platform, buttressing the run of unpopular incumbent Martin Van Buren, clocked in at fewer than 540 words: a recitation of the powers and limits of government in simple, broad strokes.

Now, party platforms have ballooned to tens of thousands words covering such crucial issues as foreign policy as well as ones that perhaps only the most dedicated party activists could love, like the fate of the endangered prairie chicken and sage grouse.

But beyond the canned rhetoric and pedantic detail that risk rendering them all but ignored even by party leaders, platforms have retained an important place in the American political process. They have served as predictors of how candidates will try to govern once in office. And in the upheaval of 2016, they have emerged as a tool for both presumptive presidential nominees to court and placate skeptical members of their parties’ activist wings.

A platform, said Betsy Franceschini, who helped craft the current Democratic version, “is the spinal cord” of a party.

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The attention the platforms have won in recent weeks has also underscored how much the documents have evolved in purpose and in scope.

“Platforms came from a time when candidates could not have direct contact -- or even TV or radio contact -- with the people,” said Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College in Maine. “So they were basically saying what it was that distinguished them from their opponents.”

Now, in an age of media saturation, platforms function much as a tool for leverage for party insiders seeking certain promises from their presumptive nominees.

The current Democratic version incorporates the wishlist of Bernie Sanders backers, who staked out ground to the left of presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. The document included flavors of the Sanders stump speech, such as calls for a $15 federal minimum wage and setting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

But liberal activists gathered last weekend in Orlando, Fla., did not yank the platform entirely to their side. Sanders allies sought explicit opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal reviled by the left as well as by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. But the document stopped short of a condemnation, avoiding an embarrassing rebuke for the deal’s champion, President Obama, from his own party.

The 2016 platform will be used to judge how well Democrats perform in office,, predicted Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and Sanders supporter.

“People are fully awake and they’re engaged. ... We got our scorecard right here, and it’s called the platform,” she said.

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The GOP platform, hashed out in Cleveland on Monday and Tuesday, has echoes of signature Trump policies, including a call for “negotiated trade agreements that put America first” and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Trump was outflanked on social issues that animate the Republican base. The document is unambiguously antiabortion -- without exceptions for rape, incest or to save the mother’s life -- even though Trump had indicated he supports such exceptions.

“The platform that we’ve produced … does help assuage concerns that conservatives might have — justified or not — about the presumptive nominee,” said Scott Johnson of Georgia, a platform committee member and former supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s candidacy who has come around to Trump.

To be sure, platforms tend to be more aspirational than fail-safe forecasts of what will happen, given the resistance of lawmakers from the opposition party and the influence of unforeseen events.

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The documents are “promises that never take into account political context, and political context is really important,” Maisel said.

Still, they continue to have political implications for candidates, who are often hitched, sometimes unhappily, to its contents.

“Even if a presidential candidate is not lockstep with everything in the platform, their opponent can say, ‘Well, your party said this,’” said Elizabeth Simas, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

In 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush ceded many GOP platform demands to rival Pat Buchanan, who staked out far-right positions on social issues.

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“It clearly hurt him in the general election,” Maisel said of Bush, who would go on to lose that election to Bill Clinton.

That same year, allies of Clinton stripped many liberal positions of the George McGovern era from the Democratic platform, signaling the party’s shift to the center during the 1990s.

Some Republicans expressed concern this week with the increasingly bloated size of their manifesto. What was once a few hundred words grew to 30,000 words in 2012 (26,000 for the Democrats’ version). The word count for this year’s platforms — or their final language — won’t be available until delegates approve the platforms at their nominating conventions in the coming weeks.

GOP delegates pointed to the platform delving into micro-issues such as the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken: two birds considered endangered by the federal government. The GOP platform calls for repealing that status, saying such protection harms oil and gas development and hunting interests.

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Weighing in on too many small issues threatens to divide the party rather than unite it, said Darcie Johnston, a delegate from Virginia.

“It makes us look small — and we’re not,” she said.

But such specificity is needed to satisfy the many interests in each party, said Jonathan Gardner, a Republican from New Mexico.

“It’s not enough just to say, ‘We support freedom.’ Well, who doesn’t support freedom?” Gardner said. “What does that look like? What type of approach are you going to take on certain issues when you actually end up in the position to legislate or sign bills?”

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Mason reported from Cleveland and Megerian from Orlando, Fla.

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