At a stage in the presidential campaign that typically consists
largely of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, fundraisers, and policy
rollouts, Democratic hopefuls are spending growing amounts of time
rubbing elbows not with voters on the trail but with each other at
This week's event with union members in Chicago was the latest in
a proliferation of candidate forums hosted by key Democratic
constituencies from African-Americans to gays and lesbians to
abortion-rights activists. The forums are increasingly shaping the
schedule and rhythm of the campaign: Next week alone, candidates
could wind up attending as many as five more.
To some extent, the ballooning number of forums reflects -
perhaps perpetuates - the field's competitiveness.
Given there are nine Demo-crats in the race, and no outright
front-runner, candidates can't afford to skip any opportunity to woo
supporters, even as they struggle to stand out among a crowded
lineup of contenders.
But it also highlights the growing power of interest groups in
electoral politics. As political parties grow weaker under new
campaign-finance laws, and as activist organizations draw new
strength from the Internet, interest groups are playing a more
important role in the political process, offering candidates a
potentially critical form of organizational support, and an
efficient means of getting their message out to particular
"Interest groups have become more important over time," says
Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University.
"Candidates are getting a lot of bang for their buck by going to
these groups and talking to them and hopefully winning some
Capitalizing on competition
Both parties rely on interest groups to motivate and turn out
base supporters in elections. But analysts agree these organizations
have come to play a larger role with Democrats, particularly as the
Christian Coalition - formerly one of the GOP's most prominent
factions - has declined in strength in recent years.
The dynamic may be further exacerbated for Democrats this year
because they are facing a competitive primary battle, whereas
President Bush is unopposed for the nomination. Although most
Democratic groups are likely to wait for the general election to
throw their strength behind a candidate, some may exercise their
clout in the primary battle. If the AFL-CIO endorses Rep. Richard
Gephardt, for example, it could provide a significant boost to his
candidacy and alter the shape of the race.
Moreover, even organizations that don't endorse a primary
candidate may use the competitiveness of the field to demand
attention - and promises - from all the Democratic contenders. When
Congressman Gephardt, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and Sen. Joseph
Lieberman recently skipped an NAACP forum, the group's president
Kweisi Mfume publicly excoriated them, forcing all three to make a
hasty trip to the conference the next day to apologize. …