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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots

Author(s): Paul Allen Beck, Russell J. Dalton, Audrey A. Haynes and Robert Huckfeldt
Source: The Journal of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Nov., 1997), pp. 1264-1275
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Southern Political Science
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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots

Paul Allen Beck

Ohio State University

Russell J. Dalton
University of California, Irvine

Audrey A. Haynes
Georgia State University
Robert Huckfeldt
Indiana University

This study investigates differences in grass-roots party activity for the Democratic and Republi-
cation presidential candidates in 1992. Chairs of the party organizations and the presidential campaign
organizations in a national sample of counties reported considerable variation in relative party effort
at the county level in 1992, with the Democrats generally outperforming their GOP rivals. Four
factors were examined as potential sources of these differences: electoral conditions at the state and
county levels, capacities of the local organizations, integration of the local organizations into the
national campaign, and responsiveness of the different local parties to one another. Only the relative
organizational capacities of local party organizations (but not presidential campaign organizations)
and integration of local and national organizations were strongly related to interparty activity differ-
ences, which confirms the importance of the standing local party organizations and the modern
"coordinated campaign" for grass-roots party effort on behalf of presidential candidates.

As much as presidential elections have become national events, party activity

at the grass roots continues to make a contribution to the presidential campaign.
Responsible for the local presidential campaign effort are two separate party en-
tities-the local presidential campaign organization and the local party
organization. The local "presidential" party (Kessel 1984) is centrally directed
by national and state presidential campaign managers, financed from the national
and state levels using federal campaign allocations, and created on a solely ad
hoc basis for the immediate campaign. By contrast, the local party organization
is a creature of the grass roots-typically led by local residents, drawing upon
local talent and (except for occasional infusions of cash from state or national
party committees) local funding, and dedicated to electing an entire party ticket
in the immediate election as well as in the future. Together these two organi-
zations wage the presidential campaign at the local level, and the relative effort
of each party's organizations may be an important source of the variation in the
presidential results from locale to locale (Bibby et al. 1990; Bruce, Clark, and

THE JOURNAL OF POLITICS, Vol. 59, No. 4, November 1997, Pp. 1264-75
C) 1997 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819

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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots 1265

Kessel 1991; Crotty 1986; Epstein 1986, ch. 5; Gibson et al. 1985; Gibson,
Frendreis, and Vertz 1989).
This study examines this grass-roots party effort on behalf of the major-party
presidential candidates during the 1992 campaign.1 It draws upon data collected
by mail and telephone from the leaders of the Democratic and Republican party
and presidential campaign organizations in a national sample of counties, which
are representative of the environments in which voters resided). Earlier analysis
of these data demonstrated considerable variation across locales in the activities
of all four of these organizations (Beck et al. 1993). The focus of this article is
on the circumstances under which the differential effort of the two parties varies
across counties.
The conventional wisdom probably would not have led us to expect much
party activity at the county level on behalf of the presidential candidates in 1992,
but the conventional wisdom was simply wrong. Local party organizations were
surprisingly active on behalf of their presidential candidate during the 1992 pres-
idential campaign. One or both of the Democratic organizations performed each
of twelve basic activities in a majority of the counties. Although Republican
organizations, especially the Bush-Quayle campaign, invested correspondingly
less effort virtually across the board, in no counties was either party entirely
inactive during the campaign. The party differential in a summary index of the
twelve presidential campaign activities (see the Appendix for a description of this
measure) is displayed in Figure 1. It shows that Republicans outperformed Dem-
ocrats in a few counties, but in most the Democrats enjoyed the net activity
advantage, which was considerable in some cases (Beck et al. 1994).

'We attempted to identify the leaders of the local Perot organizations in our sample counties so
that we could contact them for our study; after repeated tiies, these efforts were uinsuccessful, so we
are unable to say anything about the grass-roots Perot effort.
2Information on the local major-partv presidential campaign effort was collected by asking county
presidential and party organization chairs or their equivalents in a stratified sample of 39 counties
nationwide to describe the activities of their organizations on behalf of the presidential candidate.
(Parallel data Nwere included from a fortieth county where a local study had been conducted, but that
did not change any of the results.) Completed reports were received from 158 of the 160 organizations
solicited, including 39 of the 40 counties for the Republicans and all 40 counties for the Democrats,
for a response rate of over 99%. These counties wvere the primary sampling units for a national
telephone survey of 1,318 adults conducted immediately after the 1992 election. They were chosen
by a stratified sampling procedure (wvith replacement) in which the strata were county population
size, mean educational level, and population change from 1980 to 1990. The resulting sample is
representative of the county party environments in which voters resided or, to put it differently, of
American counties weighted by 1990 population size. Not only did the almost-perfect response rate
enable us to avoid the biasing effects of nonresponse from dormant local organizations, but the
sampling procedure produced a diverse set of counties, ranging fiom the nation's largest (Los Angeles
and Orange counties in California) to some of its smallest (Aitkin County, Minnesota; Simpson
County, Mississippi) and located in 25 different states. Most decisively for purposes of representation,
our sample of voters from these counties was 39% for Bush, 44% for Clinton, and 17% for
Perot-easily within sampling error of the official vote totals nationwide.

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1266 Paul Beck, Russell Dalton, Audrey Haynes, and Robert Huckfeldt






In e -t in e -t -t e -L

It It e r I l l IcIiv ties
Democratic Activities Minus Republican Activities



What accounts for this variation in relative party activity at the grass roots?
Theoretically speaking, we should look to four different circumstances. First,
relative party efforts may be related to the electoral standing of the two parties,
in the county but also statewide. Second, the campaign activity differential be-
tween the local parties should be connected to their relative organizational

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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots 1267

capacities. Third, in this age of the "coordinated campaign," local party activity
may be tied to the locals' relationship to the national campaign, with the gap
between the parties reflecting differences in their national campaign strategies
and levels of vertical integration. Finally, the activities of one local party may
come in response to what its competitor is doing. These four factors, which are
described in more detail below, combine to form our model of party differences
in county campaign activity.
Electoral Standing. It stands to reason that electoral conditions, especially the
base of voter support party candidates can normally expect to receive, should be
related to local party effort. Our working hypothesis is that the party enjoying
the local electoral advantage should be more active in the campaign. Not only
are the volunteers and other resources necessary to sustain a party organization
over the long haul easier to find in areas where the party has been successful in
the past, but the multimessage environment of the presidential election (Zaller
1992) provides a powerful incentive for parties to mobilize their support base for
the presidential nominee (Beck 1974). It is natural to expect this relationship at
the county level. Because the states are the constituencies in presidential elections,
the rational party might devote equal attention to local areas of weak and strong
electoral support, so we should look for the relationship at the state level as well.
Or-ganizational Capacityi. It is a cardinal rule of politics that grass-roots cam-
paign activity requires organization. And only to a limited degree can this
organization be imported from the outside. A common assumption of presidential
campaign leaders is that they can organize local areas by sending in their own
team to run the campaign, but the annals of political campaigning contain many
examples in which this assumption is proven invalid. Rather, the greatest advan-
tage for the presidential campaign organization probably accrues from having a
strong local party organization that is willing to lend its all-out support to the
local ticket and/or contribute seasoned local operatives for the presidential effort
(Kessel 1984, 312). Yet, it seems unreasonable to expect the county party organ-
ization to have as much incentive for presidential campaign activity as does the
single-minded presidential organization. The traditional party has alternative
uses-and more claimants-for its scarce resources, and it typically is more
concerned with electing candidates to state and local offices than to the presi-
dency. On the other hand, the boost a successful presidential candidate can give
to the whole party ticket prevents the county party organization from entirely
neglecting the presidential race. Consequently, while differences between party
and presidential organizations are to be anticipated, we should expect the capacity
of each to be an important source of local effort.
National Camnpaign Integrationi. Grass-roots activities are quite naturally
thought to reflect local conditions and local choices. Yet local activities can become
integral parts of a national campaign when they are conducted in accordance with
a coordinated national campaign strategy. The county presidential organizations, of

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1268 Paul Beck, Russell Dalton, Audrey Haynes, and Robert Huckfeldt

course, as "agents" of state and national "principals" on whom they are entirely
dependent for their own positions and resources, are expected to execute the
strategic plan according to dictates from above. The county party organizations,
by contrast, seem more inclined to operate independently of the national cam-
paign organizations and even of the upper levels of their own state organizational
"stratarchy" (Eldersveld 1964). Nonetheless, the extent to which the local party
organizations are autonomous actors in the presidential campaign may be exag-
gerated, at least in recent years. Both national parties, especially the Republican
National Committee, have engaged in extensive party building at the local level
(Epstein 1986, ch. 7; Frantzich, 1986; Wekkin 1985) and, as a consequence, their
local organizations are likely to be more responsive to national party desires, even
if the national committees have been careful not to violate long-standing prin-
ciples of local control (Bibby 1980). As a means of channeling financial resources
to the local party for waging a generic party campaign in presidential years, "soft
money" (Sorauf 1992) has become another conduit for national influence, how-
ever subtle, on local party activities. Even if there is no explicit quid pro quo,
the prospect of receiving money and party-building expertise in the future should
integrate the local parties more with the higher levels of both the party organi-
zation and the presidential campaign. Local presidential campaign activity,
therefore, may be heightened by a stronger link to party organizational forces
beyond the immediate community.
But how is this integration accomplished? The national organizations have two
ways to draw the local parties into a presidential campaign. One way is to maintain
good channels of communication to the local units, keeping in touch with them
regularly on matters of mutual interest and thereby making them a part of what
Schlesinger (1985) would call the presidential campaign "nucleus." The national
presidential campaign can energize the local parties also by supplying them with
the candidate himself. Visits by the presidential candidate are the scarcest of re-
sources, and they are allocated only to the locales that are of the highest priority to
the campaign and where the local parties can make the most effective use of them
(Bartels 1985; West 1983). The party differential in presidential visits, too, should
be positively related to relative levels of local party activity.
Competitive Responsiveness. One of the most familiar observations about party
campaign effort at the local level is that activity by one party stimulates activity
by the other party (Key 1949, 388; Marvick 1980). Even though this "organi-
zational symmetry" hypothesis, strictly speaking, posits a synchronization of
party activity over time, it is worth considering in our cross-sectional 1992 study.
A model predicting relative party activity is not suitable for testing the symmetry
hypothesis, however, because the evidence for synchronization lies in the size of
the activity differentials themselves rather than in their relationship to some
"right-hand-side" variable. Consequently, we will turn to other analyses to test
the symmetry hypothesis.

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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots 1269


It has been hypothesized that relative local presidential campaign activity is

associated with four different features of the counties and their party organiza-
tions. What follows is the operationalization and test of this model.
Measurilng the Explanatory Variables. Each of the factors theoretically expected
to influence the relative grass roots efforts of the different parties can be oper-
ationalized from either the 1992 local chairs survey or aggregate data on the
counties. In each case, higher scores indicate a Democratic advantage. Electoral
conditions are measured by the Democratic percentage of the 1988 presidential
vote in the county (County Vote) and state (State Vote). The parties' relative
organizational capacities are the differences in budget (Party Budget, Presiden-
tial Budget) and staff size (Party Staff, Presidential Stafj) between each o
the two parties' organizations. Integration is operationalized as two variables: the
relative number of visits made to the county by the two presidential candidates
(Presidential Visits) and the regularity of contact with the national party organ-
izations reported by the local organizations (National Contact).
Testing the Model: A Regression Analysis. Table 1 presents the results of an
OLS regression of relative campaign activity, scored as activities performed by
the Democrats minus the number performed by the Republicans, on the inde-
pendent variables identified above (see the Appendix for fuller descriptions of
each variable).3 Overall the model performs very well. The entire equation is
significant at the .002 level (F test) and accounts for 51% of the variation in
relative activity levels and 38% once adjustments for degrees of freedom are
included. Its standard error is 4.28 in a dependent variable that has a range from
-9 to + 14. Moreover, somewhat surprisingly, considering the similarity of some
of the measures, no pair of predictors is so highly intercorrelated that problems
of multicollinearity arise.
Table 1 shows that the relative capacities of the party organizations play an
important role in party activity differentials at the local level. This association is
strongest for the staff size of the regular party organizations (Party Staff); a
party edge of just one paid staffer is associated with an additional 1.2 activities.
Relative budget size (Party Budget), on the other hand, is statistically insignif-
icant as a predictor. The reason why the party organization budget is unimportant
may be that much of it may be spent for activities that do not affect the presi-
dential campaign; under federal election law, local parties can contribute only
generic party-support activities to the presidential campaign, and all of them had

3This analysis assumes that the effects of each factor are linear through the full range of the
variable and additive. While it is tempting to treat the relationships that result fiom this regression
analysis in causal terms, because a temporal ordering exists between at least some of the factors, the
cross-sectional design of this study requires a generally more modest "what goes Nwith what"

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1270 Paul Beck, Russell Dalton, Audrey Haynes, and Robert Huckfeldt



Predictors b Beta t Score Significance of t (one-tailed)

Electoral Conditions
County Vote .020 .029 .21 .419
State Vote -.015 -.007 -.05 .480
Organizational Capacities
Party Budget .001 .050 .32 .374
Party Staff 1.239 .389 2.73 .005
Pr-esidential Budget .001 .154 .88 .172
Pr esidential Staff -.130 -.o102 -.67 .255
National Campaign Integration
National Contact 1.474 .387 2.84 .004
Presidential Visits .541 .252 1.88 .035
Constant 3.632 .154 5.14 .004

R-squaired = .51
Adjusted R-squared = .38
Standard error = 4.28

state or local contests to support as well. Before dismissing party organization

budget differentials entirely, though, it is instructive to note that relative staff
and relative budget are significantly intercorrelated themselves (r = .34) and that
both exhibit significant bivariate relationships with relative activity levels (r =
.34 for the party budget, r = .50 for the party staff). The most appropriate
conclusion is that both contribute to local effort, even if the partitioning of their
common variance in the regression analysis attributes it all to staff.
On the other hand, the relative capacities of the presidential organizations are
clearly not important when it comes to local campaign activities, which must be
a sobering thought for presidential campaign strategists. Most surprising-is how
weakly the presidential campaign budget relates to activity differentials once other
predictors are taken into account. The relative budget sizes of the local presi-
dential organizations should be associated with their activity levels, because
virtually all of these resources are dedicated to the presidential campaigns. This
expectation is reflected in the simple bivariate relationship (r = .28), but, once
other predictors are added, the presidential budget disappears as a significant
predictor. Presidential staff size apparently does not influence local activity dif-
ferentials at all. Not only does it fall way short in the multivariate regression
analysis, but its simple bivariate correlation (r = .05) barely exceeds zero.
Most important of all, based on the results of our analysis, is the extent to
which the local campaign is integrated into the national campaign for president.
Both measures of such integration, the number of presidential visits and the

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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots 1271

frequency of national contacts, are significantly linked to local activity differen-

tials. Local organizations that are in closer contact with their national offices than
are their rivals are relatively more active at the grass roots; a one-point difference
in relative contact contributes an advantage of 1.5 activities. Similarly, a relative
edge in presidential campaign visits to the county also is associated with an
advantage for that party in its local effort; an edge of just one more visit translates
into 3.5 more activities by the favored party. These relationships suggest how
local campaign organizations can become an integral part of the national cam-
paign through better vertical integration and the modern coordinated campaign.
What they leave unclear, though, is the causal direction of this linkage; an ad-
vantage in intraparty contacts or presidential visits may stimulate a party activity
differential just as a party effort edge may lead to more coordination or bring
the president more often to town.
When it comes to the impact of electoral conditions, though, our expectations
were not confirmed. Although the Democrats enjoy a slight activity advantage in
counties where they are electorally stronger than the GOP, this relationship falls
far short of attaining significance in the regression analysis. Moreover, the rela-
tionship for state voting patterns is not only smaller, but it is negative. Even the
simple correlations (r = .28 for county; r = .15 for state) are unimposing and
fail to reach significance at the .05 level. Relative party activity levels appear to
be largely independent of relative electoral standing.
Directly Testing the Interpatjy Symmi-wzetiy Hypothesis. Nor does the competitive
responsiveness or symmetry hypothesis survive direct tests we made of it outside
the regression model. First, and most decisively, only three (presidential organ-
izations' use of yard signs, party organizations' sponsorship of events for
candidates to meet voters, and distribution of slate cards) of the twenty-four
interparty gamma correlations measuring interparty synchronization in the per-
formance of a dozen activities for each type of organization were significant at
the .05 level using a generous one-tailed test. Second, the relationship between
Democratic and Republican total activities (r = .27) falls short of significance,
even at the .05 level. Third, in a multivariate analysis conducted to explain the
activity levels of each separate organization, the activity levels of the other party's
organization never proved significant (Beck et al. 1993). At least in the presiden-
tial campaign, local party organizations do not seem to be responding to the
activities of the opposition.
It should not be surprising, upon reflection, that the symmetry hypothesis
fares so poorly when subjected to empirical testing. The notion of party sym-
metry seems least applicable to the presidential election, where most states are
competitive and the effective constituencies are statewide rather than local. More-
over, symmetry probably operates iteratively across elections rather than within
them, as activities by one party at one time stimulate opposition efforts in sub-
sequent elections. Party organizations can not be built overnight, nor do

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1272 Paul Beck, Russell Dalton, Audrey Haynes, and Robert Huckfeldt

presidential campaigns have sufficient funds to build grass-roots organizations in

every locale. Moreover, campaign activities can not be "produced" at will even
by established organizations in response to what the competition is doing. Rather,
a party's ability to respond to the competition depends more upon the other
factors in our model-especially their preexisting organizational capacity and
their integration into the presidential campaign.


Even in an era of powerful nationalizing forces in presidential campaigns, most

notably the heavy reliance upon network television, there is a vibrant party cam-
paign at the grass roots. The county organizations of the presidential campaigns
and of the party exerted considerable effort on behalf of their presidential can-
didates in 1992. Variation in their relative activity levels between the parties was
substantial in 1992, though, with the Democratic organizations outperforming
their GOP rivals at the county level in most counties. This variation in relative
party effort has been the focus of our analysis.
If grass-roots party activity is important in a campaign, and previous research
demonstrates that it is (Crotty 1971; Cutright and Rossi 1958; Frendreis, Gibson,
and Vertz 1990), then why do parties produce it in such differential amounts?
With parity in federal funding of presidential campaigns and near-parity in party
soft money in 1992, the possibility of highly differential national spending ca-
pabilities between the two campaigns leading to different amounts of local effort
can be dismissed. Indeed, what monetary edge there was that-year was enjoyed
by the GOP, but their greater fund-raising did not translate into greater grass-
roots activity. Nor were county Republican party organizations able to pick up
the slack. But our interest was not in any aggregate party edge; rather, it was in
the reason why relative campaign effort by the two parties varied so considerably
across American counties.
Three factors emerged as important in accounting for this variation in 1992.
Coordination between the local and national party organizations, a viable indi-
cator of how well integrated the local organizations were into the national
presidential campaigns, proved to be the most important factor in party differ-
ences in local campaign effort. Also important was the relative number of
presidential visits to the county. It is not unreasonable to regard both as products
of strategic choices in how to run a presidential campaign and allocate its scarce
campaign resources. To a considerable degree these choices were subject to con-
trol by the party and presidential organizations themselves.
Local circumstances also were important contributors to differential grass-roots
effort in 1992. A party's advantage in grass-roots effort was related to the
presence of preexisting organizational strength in the local party. It was to over-
come the traditional Democratic advantage here that the GOP launched its
extensive local party-building efforts over a decade ago. If these data from the

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Presidential Campaigning at the Grass Roots 1273

1992 contest are any indication, the Republicans have not yet succeeded in erasing
their competitive disadvantage in this respect.
All in all, the results of this study demonstrate not only that the parties were
alive and well at the grass roots in the 1992 general elections, but that their
preexisting strength and their strategic choices about how to run their county
campaigns made a difference in their campaign efforts. To ignore these local
efforts is to miss a significant part of the campaigns for the presidency and to
overlook a critical source of variation in the parties' voter appeals.



Respondents were asked to indicate which of the following activities their

organization performed during the general election campaign to benefit the pres-
idential candidate either indirectly, through the generic party campaign, or
directly: registration drives, transporting of voters to the polls, arranging
presidential or vice-presidential events, organizing other campaign events, mailing
literature, distributing literature door-to-door, encouraging voters by phone to
support party candidates, distributing news releases, soliciting endorsements from
local individuals or groups, distributing signs, distributing slate cards or sample
ballots, and advertising candidates on billboards, TV, newspapers, or radio. An
overall party activity index was created by first summing the number of activities
each organization carried out during the campaign, then combining the scores
for the party and presidential organizations of each party. Two measures resulted,
each ranging from 0 to 24; one for the Democrats, the other for the Republicans.
(Combining the individual activities into an overall activity index, of course,
assumes that the various activities are more or less substitutable as alternative
indicators of a single underlying construct; that they all enjoyed substantial pos-
itive loadings on the first factor in a factor analysis justifies this assumption.)
Finally, the dependent variable used in our analysis, Relative Party Activity,
was the signed difference between separate Democratic and Republican activity
scores; it ranged from -24 to +24, with Democratic advantage denoted by pos-
itive scores.
The independent variables in the model were measured as follows, with Re-
publican figures subtracted from Democratic figures in each case: Party Budget
and Presidential Budget were based on reports of how much money each or-
ganization had in its annual budget for the presidential and party organizations
separately. Party Staff and Presidential Staff were counts of the actual number
of paid regular full and part-time staff of each. The Presidential Visits variable
analogously compared visits reported by the local Republican organizations with
the number reported by the local Democratic organizations. National Contact
was based on whether (= 1; otherwise = 0) at least weekly contacts were reported
by the local party organization with the national party committee and by the

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1274 Paul Beck, Russell Dalton, Audrey Haynes, and Robert Huckfeldt

local candidate organization with the national campaign organization. The vari-
able had a possible range of -4 to +4 and an actual range of -3 to +3. Finally,
County Vote and State Vote were simply the Democratic percentages of the
1988 major-party presidential vote at each level. In the few cases where the
organizational respondent did not know the answer to the question, that organ-
ization's score was set at zero.

MAanuscript sulbmitted 24 January 1996

Final manutscript received 25 Novemnber 1996


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Paul Allen Beck is professor of political science, Ohio State University,

Columbus, OH 43210-1373.
Russell J. Dalton is professor of politics and society, University of California,
Irvine, Irvine, CA 92717.
Audrey A. Haynes is assistant professor of political science, Georgia State
University, Atlanta, GA 30303-3083.
Robert Huckfeldt is professor of political science, Indiana University,
Bloomington, IN 47405.

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