Originally created 04/09/00

Party lines blurred by candidates



ATLANTA -- Perhaps only political junkies will read this story, and that might be among the reasons why traditional party-building activities such as canvassing, conventions and calling lists are giving way to money, media and message.

Television is the main way to reach voters today, political insiders say, but they're reluctant to be quoted in the newspaper saying it for fear of offending contributors who think they're playing a role directing the party. Now, professional staffs run the parties, not volunteers, and candidates are pretty much on their own to recruit volunteers, raise money and develop a platform to run on.

Although Georgia Republicans will meet Saturday and the state's Democrats will meet April 22 in district caucuses to elect delegates to the national conventions, many observers consider the exercise pointless. Both Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Democrat Vice President Al Gore won their parties' nomination months ago, halfway through the primary season.

Party allegiance is losing its power to sway a growing number of voters, and, as a result, the party apparatus is becoming less relevant both to the public and to candidates.

"The political party has become just another interest group," said Keith Billingsley, political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Political parties are restricted by legal contribution limits from giving campaigns enough money to fund most of a run for office, so candidates are left on their own to raise the majority of the money they need. As a result, successful politicians don't owe their election to the party and, therefore, have less reason to follow party discipline.

With reduced influence on politicians, parties lost their ability to screen local and national candidates before their names appeared on the ballot. The public does the screening during primaries, although they don't have the personal knowledge of candidates the way party leaders used to.

"What's the best way to select candidates? Actually, smoke-filled rooms were the best way," Mr. Billingsley said.

Much of their energy is devoted to fund raising, but parties still go through the motions of some party-building activities, such as meetings and candidate recruitment.

The Georgia Republican Party will hold its state convention in Savannah on May 20-21 to elect more delegates to the national convention. However, Democrats here don't have state conventions, partly because the governor picks the chairman of the party rather than allowing the membership to, as the GOP does.

"Democrats don't have to be organized. The Democrats have controlled the Statehouse and the Legislature for so many years," said Eric Tanenblatt, state chairman of the Bush campaign. "The reason we are a two-party state now is because the Republicans built their organization."

But candidates created their own organizations, too, rather than relying on party apparatus.

Mr. Bush has volunteers in all 159 counties throughout the state, more than his own party. Mr. Tanenblatt said that organization paid off in the March presidential primary here when no television advertising was aired and neither Mr. Bush nor Sen. John McCain did any real campaigning. Mr. Bush won his largest margin here of any primary where the senator challenged him, and Mr. Tanenblatt credits volunteers.

Mr. Gore's camp also has its own volunteer network to supplement the fall television campaign.

"You really can't have one without the other," said Caroline Adelman, Mr. Gore's Georgia press secretary, a post she held in President Clintons two campaigns. "Having people across the state organizing events, helping tell you what is important in their areas, getting people to rallies are all important."

Three factors led to the decline in party power, according to Mr. Billingsley. The Vietnam War tarnished government's image and disillusioned many party activists. At the same time, people had less time for recreation -- politics is a recreational outlet for some -- and they had other outlets, meaning stump speeches were no longer the only live entertainment to come to town. On top of all that, parties stopped delivering spoils such as jobs, favors and pork-barrel goodies; the individual politicians do instead.

Television has allowed politicians to be free agents, better regarded than their parties. Swing voters are drawn to the candidates for who they are, how they come across and what they stand for rather than for their party identification.

So with both Georgia parties close to parity in their voter base of about 40 percent, political advisers know winning depends on capturing those independent voters. Parties can't do anything to deliver voters who shun party politics. Television can reach them, however, and that's why money, media and message matter more than party building.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.

Public input

The two major parties in Georgia have a busy schedule to give their members and those interested joining plenty of chances to get involved in this year's election:

April 15: Republican district caucuses

April 22: Democratic district caucuses

April 24-28: Qualifying to run for office

May 20-21: Georgia Republican Convention in Savannah

June 19: Last day to register to vote to be eligible for the primary

July 18: General primary

July 31-Aug. 3: National Republican Convention in Philadelphia

Aug. 14-17: National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles

Oct. 10: Last day to register to vote to be eligible for the election

Nov. 7: Election