CHICAGO — CONTRARY to popular opinion, Americans have not given up on politics.
Here in Illinois, US Senate candidate Carol Moseley Braun (D) has so many volunteers it takes four campaign people just to track them all.
Pennsylvanians (and people from nearby New Jersey and Delaware) are flocking to Democrat Lynn Yeakel's Senate campaign. It "has tripled or quadrupled since the primary," says press secretary Catherine Ormerod of the number of calls from volunteers.
Democratic presidential hopeful Jerry Brown is running an almost all-volunteer effort in today's West Virginia primary.
"What we're involved in is a revolution," explains Jay Holcomb, who left his job in Tennessee to coordinate (without pay) Mr. Brown's West Virginia effort.
Apathetic? Don't tell that to sisters Nina Vetter and Dorothy Dickey of Oceanside, Calif.
During a driving tour through the South two months ago, they stopped in Louisiana to watch a TV interview with Ross Perot.
Impressed with Mr. Perot's possible presidential bid, they drove their RV back to Tyler, Texas, to help. They spent 12 days manning the new Perot headquarters there.
"I really think he's going to do something," says Ms. Vetter, now back in California. "We will continue to work for him until he gets elected in November."
Americans do care about national and local issues, political observers say. The problem is that they feel disconnected from the process. Losing connections
"We have lost the kind of mediating institutions that used to connect people to politics," says Harry Boyte, director of Project Public Life, a national initiative for civil and political education at the University of Minnesota.
National parties, unions, local political machines, and other institutions have faded into the background. "When people lose those connections, they feel on the outside," Mr. Boyte says. "Politics becomes something you watch rather than something you do."
Adds Wilbur Rich, a political science professor at Wellesley College: "Most of the so-called regular party candidates are very much part of the slick, well-organized, management-consultant campaign.... People have very few outlets to participate in these campaigns."
Ms. Braun's campaign here in Illinois is clearly different.
"I had written Carol a letter in January and just offered my help and never got any response," says Julie Wlach of Chicago. "Then I read in the paper that things weren't very well-organized."
So Ms. Wlach called again and was put to work setting up a computer database of volunteers. Now, 200 volunteer hours later, she is still busy at the campaign's Macintosh computer, which sits on a box in a small office.
Behind her at a large desk sits Barbara Samuels, a self-employed fashion consultant.
"I could be out there making tons of money telling people what colors will be in fashion next year," she says. Instead, she's here, coordinating the campaign's roughly 3,000 volunteers.
In front of her is Hannah Cohen, a retired high-school English teacher, who is organizing volunteers' addresses by ward and precinct.
"The bottom line of this campaign," she says, "is going to be the foot soldiers, the direct marketing approach, the personal contact."
Often a campaign, which starts out with lots of volunteers, loses them as political professionals move in.
"There's often this kind of disenchantment that happens when a campaign takes off," says David Menefee-Libey, a professor of government at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "The activist gets kind of spurned."
One big reason is organization, he adds. "It's very hard to manage a large organization of people that you're not paying." Activists staying on
What makes these particular campaigns different is that the activists are staying on.
In West Virginia, for example, Mr. Brown's campaign recently called volunteer Chris Azzaro at 5:20 p.m., telling him to organize a rally for the candidate at 2:30 the following afternoon.
Mr. Azzaro called 27 radio stations, three television stations, and two newspapers to alert them.
He convinced the Young Democrats organization at West Virginia University to host Brown on campus.
Then he spent the night at a 24-hour restaurant, making up and copying 1,500 Brown handbills, which he and a friend handed out the following morning. (The campaign had no literature to give him.) The turnout: 1,700 - pretty good for 21 hours notice.
"I'm surprised how loose-knit this campaign is," Azzaro admits. But "I really feel that I am making a contribution."
Will this brand of activist campaign replace the highly professional ones of today? Political observers are sharply divided.
Richard Boyd, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., is skeptical.
"You simply can't replay the same campaign style over and over again without people becoming cynical about it," he says.
"One can imagine that if [Perot] develops the right kind of issue package ... a broad citizen-based style would be a novelty and be a force of interest in politics. It might happen once or twice. Then we would go back to something else that would be novel." Getting voters involved
H. Eric Schockman, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, disagrees.
"We've out-slicked ourselves. Somehow we're feeding pablum to the voters. They're not stupid. They don't know who they're voting for so they don't vote.... We now see ... a post-technological revolution in campaigns where you go back to what we know works."
To get back the disenfranchised, candidates increasingly will make them part of the campaign, adds Boyte of Project Public Life.
"There's something powerful about feeling that you are part of your country," he says. "There's a real hunger for that."