Here’s Why You Never Bothered Reading Your Party Platform

It's really, really, really, really, really long

This time, the Donald is only partly to blame. — REUTERS
Mar 14, 2016 at 9:32 AM ET

What does your political party actually want to do? You’ll probably need a long, hyper-focused afternoon in the library and lots of coffee to figure it out, if you’re relying on their written mission statements. A Vocativ analysis of party platforms shows that unlike the State of the Union and stump speeches, which typically come in at an eighth or tenth-grade level, party platforms are high-falutin’ statements written at a college-graduate comprehension level.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties formally issue party platforms, high-level statements of intent that hearken back to documents like Martin Luther’s 99 theses—in which they lay out their vision for America in long form. They supposedly forms a solid backbone of the parties’ philosophies for the duration of a presidency, unlike individual candidates’ positions, which seem to “evolve” on the trail to fit shifting public moods, phases of the moon, and the scheduling priorities of Fox News.

If you’ve never read a party platform, imagine the most overblown manifesto a political candidate has ever shoved in your mailbox, then multiply that by 1,000. We took every party platform since 1840 and ran them through a grade level test. The result: We found that the median grade level of every party platform since 1990 is 14.9 for Democrats and 14.8 for Republicans, That makes it likely you’ll need to have spent time in college to understand what either of them are spluttering on about, according to the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level test.

A median grade of 14.9 means Democratic party platforms are really, really difficult to read, and the GOP’s 14.8 fares much the same. The most mind-bending of all was the Democratic National Committee’s rambling disaster of a party platform in 1988, which was several thousand words long, with an average of almost 65 words per sentence and an improbable grade level of 30.8. Even the median grade level of 14.9 falls somewhere between the New York Times Book Review and the Harvard Business Review in terms of reading difficulty, based on a scale published by the late Rudolf Flesch, co-creator of the algorithm.

It makes sense that party platforms are hard to read. The platform tries to fit a whole lot in—it’s basically a White House wish list, with every single donor-funded bell and whistle attached—but candidates are not obliged to abide by it if elected, and some don’t even read it (we’re looking at you, Bob Dole). And even though they are the result of a lengthy process of subcommittee hearings and drafting sessions, party platforms have been accused of failing to align with what most Republicans really think. Both parties typically adopt it at their national convention during election years, where they also choose their nominee.

Vocativ’s analysis does reveal that party platforms have gotten easier to read, albeit slightly—in 1900, the Democrat’s platform had an impenetrable grade level of 18.6, and the Republican’s was a tough-as-nails 16. But in 2012, both were still inaccessible to the 70 percent of Americans aged 27 or under who do not have a Bachelor’s degree. Releasing such complicated manifestos is one of the establishment parties’ biggest downfalls, because ultimately, it’s much easier to see what Donald Trump is ranting about on Twitter than it is to wander through 5,000 words of run-on sentences which painstakingly explain every little thing your party really wants.