Parties reign, in independent age

Voters increasingly register 'independent,' but two parties buoyed by money and fired-up voters.

At first blush, it might seem like America's two big political parties are under siege - and maybe even lumbering toward extinction.

After all, this is the era of independent voters. It's the era of Jesse Ventura commandeering Minnesota's governorship, of Ross Perot snagging nearly 20 percent of the presidential vote, and of this year's "shadow conventions."

But as the political convention season unfurls this week in Philadelphia, a closer look reveals evidence the two parties are secure - that the atmosphere of partisanship has charged their loyal voters, that high TV ad costs put their fundraising prowess in demand, and that, in all, their brand names have seldom been more mighty.

"In a sense, the major parties are stronger than they've ever been in our lifetime," says John Aldrich, head of Duke University's political science department in Durham, N.C.

The statistic often cited as doomsday news for parties is that roughly one-third of Americans - and up to one-half of younger citizens - say they vote independently. If so many people don't rely on parties, how could the parties be relevant?

The oft-ignored fact is that a big chunk of independent voters don't haul themselves out to the polls to vote, says Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey.

He's found an ever-widening gap between nonvoters and voters in whether they're likely to prefer one party over another. Nonvoters are increasingly independent - and will only head to the polls for a galvanizing figure like Messrs. Perot and Ventura or Sen. John McCain.

But regular voters are just as likely to have a passionate attachment to a party as they were in the 1950s, he says. This makes the parties as important as ever among go-to-the-poll citizens.

Furthermore, such party-attached voters are far more likely to actually vote for their party's nominee - rather than jump ship and vote for someone else. This wasn't true in the turbulent 1960s and '70s, when the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War scrambled party loyalties. But in the relatively calm '80s and '90s, party loyalty soared.

In this climate, he says, parties matter. Meanwhile the oft-trumpeted independent voters become less relevant.

Case in point: At a focus-group session in Philadelphia Sunday sponsored by Yrock.com, pollster Frank Luntz asked a group of 36 "swing" voters this question: "How many of you care passionately about who wins the presidential election?" Six raised their hands.

Asked why he didn't care, Philly resident Mark Berkelbach had this to say: "If Bush doesn't win, it's not like we're putting Bozo the Clown in office." Many in the group chuckled in agreement.

This kind of I-don't-care-who-wins apathy - and the nonvoting that often accompanies it - strengthens the parties. It makes their stalwart voters all the more important, because they form the foundation of a presidential victory.

In this climate, "making sure your base turns out is especially important," Professor Bartels says.

That's why there's increased focus this year on how energized the parties' core voters are.

The fact that presumed Republican nominee George W. Bush has the support of roughly 85 percent of his party's voters bodes well for him. The fact that Vice President Al Gore has less than 75 percent doesn't. In fact, one recent poll showed that one-third of Democrats wished their party would nominate someone other than Mr. Gore.

To be sure, independent voters still matter greatly and may tip the election. But their lack of energy makes party loyalists more key.

The parties are stronger for another reason: money.

Americans typically decide who to vote for based on TV ads and media coverage. Without the party stamp of approval, few candidates can raise the requisite money for ads.

Finally, voters increasingly look to parties as brand names. "Just as someone buys a GM or Ford because it stands for something, so the average working man votes Democrat because the party stands for him," says L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

This, he says, is even more true in an era when people focus on campaigns only at the last minute. Not having followed a race closely, they rely more on party labels.

Yet the parties have vulnerable spots. If Green Party nominee Ralph Nader and likely Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan muster 10 percent of the vote between them, it will be the fourth time in a row minor parties have crossed that threshold - the longest streak in US history.

The shadow conventions here and in Los Angeles highlight a restless slice of the electorate that feels shut out of real decisionmaking.

But even reform advocates admit their job is harder than ever - a sign of how strong the parties really are. Says Ellen Miller of Public Campaign: "There's just an institutional resistance to change with these two parties."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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