Interest Groups in the United States

Tactics of Interest Groups in the United States

How Interest Groups Operate and Why

Tactics used by interest groups include lobbying (either direct or indirect), litigation, advocacy advertisements, and campaign contributions and other election activities. Some groups may engage in public protests or similar activities to try to raise public and official awareness of their concerns; these tactics are also carried out by social movements, which are broader actions to assert rights, protest conditions, or call for change.

Interest groups use different methods to pursue their goals. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a business interest group. The organization communicates best practices, creates a sense of community, and looks to benefit its members. It also holds member businesses accountable for their actions, handling any complaints received by the chamber staffers. An important part of its purpose, however, is political, examining laws that affect businesses, such as taxation, licensing, safety rules, health concerns for workers, tariffs on source materials, and international trade. Like other interest groups, the Chamber of Commerce has professional lobbyists. They carry out direct lobbying, or lobbying that involves direct contact with legislators or staff of a regulatory agency. Also called inside lobbying, direct lobbying is not only carried out to influence legislation. After legislation is passed, regulatory agencies work to formulate rules spelling out how the law is to be implemented. Direct lobbying involves meeting with these regulators to try to shape the rule-making activity. Some groups use indirect lobbying, which is lobbying that raises support at the grassroots level. Also called outside lobbying and grassroots lobbying, this activity involves getting their members to notify their representatives about what they think of legislation that affects them and the group.

Many groups also use litigation, bringing lawsuits or assisting private individuals to bring lawsuits so they can challenge laws that the group opposes. In the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP effectively used litigation as a tactic for challenging segregation laws in university and professional school education. Building on those victories, it persuaded several African American families in Topeka, Kansas, to try to enroll their children in a nearby neighborhood school. When the school system refused to admit them because the schools were meant for whites only, the families brought a lawsuit, which was litigated by NAACP lawyers. This suit won a major victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that determined separate but equal public schools actually were not equal and that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. This landmark ruling issued by a unanimous court paved the way for the integration of public schools. While litigation can be effective, it can also be expensive and take a long time to get a resolution.

Advocacy advertising is used extensively to advise the public of issues that affect different groups. Magazines, radios, TV, and the Internet all carry messages put out by various interest groups, and in modern times groups have begun using social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to publicize their goals and concerns. Some advocacy issues are presented in public service announcements. Not all advertising promotes the interest group. For example, American Heart Association ads suggesting viewers lose weight and exercise do not promote the group itself, focusing instead on promoting its goals.

Interest groups are often active in political campaigns and elections. Groups make contributions to campaigns of candidates that they think—or know from past voting history—support the group's preferred policies. They may form or contribute to an existing political action committee (PAC), an organization established by an interest group to raise money for and provide financial support to political candidates or parties. They also can spend on advertisements supporting those candidates. Industry and professional groups vary greatly in how much they contribute to campaigns, and they also show some differences in terms of contributions to Democratic and Republican candidates. While contributions from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries; the health care industry; and miscellaneous business groups are relatively even between the two parties, there are clear preferences in the energy and natural resources industry and agribusiness toward Republicans and from labor groups, lawyers and lobbyists, and the communications and electronic industries toward Democrats.

Interest Group Contributions to Candidates in 2016

Interest Sector Amount to Candidates or Parties Percentage of Total Given to Democrats Percentage of Total Given to Republicans
Finance/insurance/real estate $606,013, 276 45.9% 53.8%
Ideology/single-issue groups $374,832,691 62.7% 37.1%
Miscellaneous business $345,355,620 45.6% 54.0%
Lawyers and lobbyists $242,295,489 70.7% 29.0%
Communications/electronics $208,742,250 70.6% 29.0%
Health $204,295,038 51.8% 47.9%
Energy/natural resources $114,590,761 22.9% 77.0%
Construction $87,348,986 31.1% 68.6%
Agribusiness $85,088,267 26.4% 73.1%
Transportation $75,053,758 20.4% 69.4%
Labor $67,341,173 87.9% 12.0%
Defense $28,130,572 30.4% 69.4%

Source: Based on data from

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a 2010 Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional the part of a campaign law that limited the amount corporations and labor unions could spend to promote the election of particular candidates for federal office because those limits violated the right to free speech. While many interest groups have benefited from this ruling, there has been strong opposition to it. Critics believe the ruling gave corporations and trade associations too much influence over government because their ability to generate money to contribute to political causes far outweighs that of unions. Many groups use other supportive campaign tactics, such as contacting their members (and nonmembers) to encourage them to vote.

Some interest groups are part of a broader social movement, a type of group action undertaken to assert rights, protest social or political conditions, or advocate change. In the 1960s particularly, because of a lack of representation in Congress, civil rights organizations relied heavily on civil disobedience and nonviolent protests. Large marches, such as the 1963 March on Washington, attracted widespread media coverage. Groups also advocated boycotts and sit-ins to protest what they considered unjust laws. Some of these were large marches; others were as simple as sitting in a "whites only" section of a restaurant. Such activities attracted attention from both the public at large and legislators. Social media has become a major resource for groups to voice protests or initiate more direct action, such as a boycott of a company.

Impact of Interest Groups

Certain interest groups, particularly those representing business interests, have significant influence over government decision-making, but the extent of a group's influence depends on its membership size, financial resources, and access to policy makers.

No elected official can know the needs of everyone in a town or state, let alone the whole country. They do not have the time to look into the science, economics, or cultural impact of every law or action that is proposed. As a result, legislators at every level rely on input from interest groups. Without the interest groups in the civil rights movement, segregation would not have ended. The air would not be as clean as it is without the efforts of environmental interest groups.

When interest groups compete, those with more members, more money, or closer relationships with policy makers will tend to have more influence. Size and resources make it possible for some groups to do more advertising, make more political contributions, and have a larger impact than other smaller groups. In some cases, politicians, the bureaucrats that staff the regulatory agencies, and interest groups have worked together for years. This can lead to the formation of what is known as an iron triangle, the policy-making relationship of congressional committees, the bureaucracy, and interest groups that allows interest groups to influence the regulations that affect them.
Iron triangles are alliances among congressional committees, bureaucrats, and interest groups.
When the relationship becomes too close, the oversight of government regulatory agencies may weaken. The result can be regulatory capture, a situation where a regulatory agency becomes controlled by, or at least dominated by, the people or industries it is supposed to be regulating rather than working in the public interest. Other groups keep an eye on this kind of result and can act to try to rectify the situation. Public interest groups might publicize information to highlight the problem. Other corporations can step up their own lobbying, or bring a lawsuit, if they perceive regulators are being too easy on a competitor. Other interest groups can mount boycotts, publicity campaigns, or their own lawsuits to try to highlight and put an end to what they think is too lax regulation.