Friday, October 28, 2011

Informal Forum (11/13/2011): The National Debt (Again)

How Should We Deal with the National Debt?

(a question so important, we're talking about it twice!)

An Oconee Community Forum Conversation
Brought to you by the Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia
When: Sunday, November 13, 2011 -- 3:00-5:00 p.m.
Where: Oconee Public Library Auditorium, 1080 Experiment Station Rd. Watkinsville, Georgia

According to Congressional Budget Office, the federal government closed out fiscal year 2011 with an estimated deficit of $1.3 trillion--the third straight year that the deficit exceeded a trillion dollars. The current total of all accumulated U.S. budget deficits is $14.8 trillion and accounts for 8.6% of the size of the overall economy. Have you ever wondered how much of that $14 trillion+ debt is on your shoulders now or on the shoulders of your kids in the future? Currently, every American’s share of the national debt and unfunded liabilities like Medicare and Social Security is $184,000 and climbing. If we do nothing to solve this ballooning debt, the federal government will be spending every tax dollar on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt alone in 29 years. That will mean either much higher taxes or far fewer government services for the same tax level in future decades.

But what do we do about it?
Should we cut government programs?
Raise taxes?
What if taming the debt crisis makes the economy worse?

The Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia, a civic engagement program of UGA’s Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies is pleased to host a forum program where Oconee County community members can share and discuss their ideas for solving this tough situation. Led by trained non-partisan moderators, forum participants will weigh the benefits, consequences, and associated tradeoffs of several possible approaches to tackling the national debt. The group will use a new National Issues Forums Institute discussion guide, A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills? as the basis for the discussion. The approaches in the guide represent a broad range of perspectives from across the political spectrum. During the forum, participants may find some areas of agreement, just as they may likely clarify areas where their beliefs and perspectives differ greatly.

The Oconee community forum is part of a national conversation on the debt sponsored by the Kettering Foundation in concert with the National Issues Forums Institute and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. The ideas that participants share in the forum will become part of a national report that will chart American perspectives on fixing the national debt. The sponsors will share this report with lawmakers around the country. Learn more about this national initiative at

This Oconee community forum is free and all are welcome. There will be light refreshments. The forum will take place at the Oconee Public Library auditorium from 3-5p.m. The Oconee Public Library is located at 1080 Experiment Station Rd. Watkinsville, Georgia between the Post Office and the Health Department. Parking is free.

For more information about this program, please contact Jill Severn, Director of the Russell Forum at or 706-542-5766, or visit the Russell Forum Website at

Informal Forum (11/15/2011): A Nation in Debt

The $184,000 Question

What: Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia and University Housing Host Campus Community Forum on the National Debt
When: November 15, 2011 -- 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: Multipurpose Room, Building 1516

If you’ve got federal direct aid, you know how much you owe the government in student loans; and chances are you’ve heard talk about the national debt in the last few years. But have you ever wondered how much of that $14 trillion-and-change debt is on your shoulders? Currently, every American’s share of the national debt and unfunded liabilities like Medicare and Social Security is $184,000 and climbing. If nothing is done, the federal government will be spending every tax dollar on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt alone in 29 years. That will have to mean either much higher taxes or far fewer government services for the same tax level in future decades.

But what do we do about it?
Should we cut government programs?
Raise taxes?
What if taming the debt crisis makes the economy worse?

The Russell Forum for Civic Life in Georgia, a civic engagement program based at the UGA Libraries, and University Housing invite you to attend a campus community forum on the huge and growing national debt. At the forum, you will have a chance to share your thoughts and concerns on this very big and very expensive issue, hear what others have to say, and weigh the benefits, consequences and tradeoffs of some promising options for dealing with it. Trained moderators will help keep the forum conversation focused and encourage lively and civil participation. All perspectives are always welcome at Russell forums!

This campus community forum is part of a national initiative by the Kettering Foundation in concert with the National Issues Forums Institute and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. Your ideas will be part of a national report charting Americans’ perspectives on fixing the national debt. Sponsors will share this report with lawmakers around the country. Learn more at
Questions about this event? Call 706-542-5766 or email

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It's All About the Benjamins

In our previous post on soft money, we discussed in brief the modern history of campaign finance law in the United States, with particular focus on legislation that regulates contributions. With the 2012 presidential election season already setting fundraising records, we consider today the recent history of presidential campaign spending.

While it is difficult to find credible statistics on campaign spending prior to the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (FECA) 1974 amendments, it is no secret to most voters that the cost of presidential campaigns has far outpaced inflation in recent years. Candidates are increasingly judged before the earliest primary election contests by their fundraising ability above their debate skills, knowledge of contemporary issues, or dedication to public service. Readers might still be surprised, however, to learn just how dramatic the cost increases have been (especially since 2000).

Below is a table with statistics courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics. The second column uses dollar figures unadjusted for inflation, while the third converts all sums into 2010 dollars and the third shows percentage increase in presidential campaign spending cycle-to-cycle using those real dollars:

Election Year

Nominal Dollars Spent by Presidential Candidates

Real Dollars Spent by Presidential Candidates

Change from Previous Campaign Cycle


$66.9 million

$253.3 million


$92.3 million

$241 million



$103.6 million

$214.6 million



$210.7 million

$383.3 million



$192.2 million

$294.9 million



$239.9 million

$329.9 million



$343.1 million

$430 million



$717.9 million

$821.6 million



$1,324.7 million

$1,340.5 million


Maybe (in part) as a result of FECA’s newly created public financing and stringent contribution disclosure systems, campaign spending decreased in real terms for Ronald Reagan’s two elections and (perhaps surprisingly) for the three-way 1992 contest between Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot. But the highly negative 1988 campaign between Bush and Michael Dukakis saw a monstrous 79% real-dollar increase in presidential spending above 1984’s level, and a downright eye-popping 91% surge came in 2004 with the rise of advertising by independent “527 groups” free of some of the most burdensome campaign finance regulations imposed on parties and PACs by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as McCain-Feingold.

By 2008, these outside groups had become a critical part of the electoral process, and pundits largely expect their influence to rise in the 2012 campaign. All told, the 2008 presidential race cost some 429% more in real terms than did that in 1976, even though both featured protracted primary contests for one party and fairly high voter interest. But what about fundraising and spending for next year’s presidential election?

Barack Obama’s campaign reached one million donors on October 17 and reported some $60 million cash on hand as of September 30 of this year, a major psychological milestone for a reelection effort fighting the tide of a sluggish economy and widespread voter discontent. Obama’s major Republican opponents are no fundraising slouches either. Mitt Romney’s campaign collected $14 million in the third quarter of 2011, with some $14.65 million cash on hand and, reportedly, a much smaller donor base than one million. Will the 2012 campaign top 2008’s $1.3 billion total tab? And what effects will the Supreme Court’s much-publicized 2010 decision Citizens United v. FEC have on “independent political expenditures” by corporate and labor groups seeking to elect certain candidates and promote associated causes? Check back with us in November 2012.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Soft Money

In campaign finance law, soft money is money donated to political parties rather than directly to candidates for public office. (Note: the latter kind of donation is, fittingly enough, dubbed hard money, and has traditionally faced far more numerous regulations than soft money.) In practice, campaign finance regulations were scarcely ever enforced until about 40 years ago, and since then the legislative history of the subject has, in essence, been one of struggle between increasingly regulatory Congresses and increasingly deregulatory courts.

A quick review of legislation regulating campaign finance…

The Tillman Act of 1907 constituted the first federal campaign finance law. It prohibits corporations from issuing direct contributions to national political campaigns and, interestingly, was recently challenged in federal court as infringing upon corporations’ rights to political speech as articulated in the landmark contemporary decision Citizens United v. FEC (2010).

The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 (FCPA) informed the nation’s longstanding pre-Watergate campaign finance regime. Amended in 1911 and 1925 to strengthen disclosure of all sums spent or donated in excess of $100, it was the first legislation to impose reporting standards and spending limits on federal campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld FCPA’s spending limits in United States v. Classic (1941), but stated that Congress’ power to regulate spending in primary elections applied only in specific cases. The national parties and wealthy donors found skirting FCPA regulations remarkably easy, setting up multiple committees and spending money in sums under $100 at a time to evade disclosure requirements.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) was enacted to repeal and replace the poorly enforced FCPA. In its initial incarnation, FECA merely sought to streamline disclosure requirements. It contained no contribution limits until amended in the post-Watergate transparency frenzy of 1974. Those amendments required candidates to disclose sources and sums of contributions over $200 and nearly all significant campaign expenditures, created the
Federal Election Commission, and established a limited public financing “matching funds” scheme for presidential candidates. FECA also placed strict limits on campaign spending and individual contributions, and prohibited donations from corporations, labor unions, national banks, government contractors, and foreign nationals.

The Supreme Court charted a moderate course with regard to the amended FECA in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), upholding contribution limits, public financing (funded by a voluntary $3 donation on individuals’ annual tax forms), and disclosure standards BUT striking down limits on campaign expenditures, stating that candidates for office retain their own freedom of speech. This arrangement stood mostly unchanged until the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002).

Better known as McCain-Feingold, this legislation was a major revamp of FECA that for the first time imposed stiff regulations on soft money and relaxed contribution limits for candidates being severely outspent by personally wealthy opponents (the so-called “millionaire’s amendment”). McCain-Feingold also prohibited the broadcast of issue advocacy ads naming a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election.

In recent years, the Court has again shaken this recent status quo by overturning McCain-Feingold’s time-triggered issue ad prohibition in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life (2007), its millionaire’s amendment provision in Davis v. FEC (2008), and its limits on corporate and union independent political expenditures – spending on political speech unrelated to direct candidate endorsement, which is still illegal under the Tillman Act – in Citizens United.

President Obama and reformist interest groups like Common Cause have since denounced the Citizens United ruling as an open invitation for corporate money to flood the electoral process, while pro-business organizations and free speech groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have tended to support the Court’s recent tack. In the early 2010s, the issue of campaign finance reform – of balancing anti-corruption priorities and the cause of perceived fairness with the interests of free political participation – thus stands at something of a political crossroads.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nutty Supporters

We have already detailed the primary election procession through which “wild card” former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter clinched the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 1976. But what allowed this under-funded, virtual unknown from the Deep South to place first in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire? A recent accession to the Russell Library’s collections inspired this latest question and post.

Vital to Carter’s early successes were a dedicated group of fellow Georgians who volunteered their time and money to converge on snowy small towns in these two states, launching a truly grassroots hearts-and-minds campaign of personal contact and one-on-one persuasion. These volunteers were known as the Peanut Brigade.

Left: Our newest accession - a genuine Peanut Brigade shirt, ca. 1975. The phrase "Another Nut for Carter" appears above a caricature of the candidate, his body a stylized peanut shell.

Carter’s campaign was particularly concerned about New Hampshire, traditional starting point for successful Democratic presidential efforts. Estes Kefauver’s victory in the state’s 1952 primary forced a sitting President out of the race, as did Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in 1968, while Edwin Muskie’s tearful New Hampshire speech in 1972 likely cost him the nomination. The state was not known for its openness to candidates from the Deep South. Carter set up a New Hampshire presence early on, spending significant time there with family and supporters as early as 1975. Recalling the tremendous efforts of the Peanut Brigade, Carter’s son Chip recalled:

“They went to Iowa and New Hampshire and, you know, everywhere you went you met people who have met people in the Peanut Brigade. And it was a real phenomenal effort and totally different from anything anybody had done before. A lot of people copied it afterwards, and people somewhat copied it then.”

In his book Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics, author Dante J. Scala recounts the tactics of the Brigade. He writes, “…its members were a varied group—professional people, lawyers, doctors, and housewives—and that helped them to get a fair hearing when they knocked on people’s doors.” He further suggests that Carter’s Aunt Sissy, who journeyed to New Hampshire once a month to talk with locals about her favorite nephew, was the candidate’s best secret weapon.

Carter’s top campaign operatives, including future White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, sought to carve out a supporter niche that would move him to the top of an eight-candidate field in the Granite State. They reasoned that with conservative Alabama Governor George Wallace not mounting any serious effort in the state (opting instead to focus on neighboring Massachusetts, where he would pursue the votes of disaffected Boston-area whites opposed to busing as a means of school desegregation), Carter had the party’s moderate-conservative bloc to himself in New Hampshire.

While the candidate sought to shake every hand and kiss every baby in sight, Peanut Brigadiers were organized most pointedly in blue-collar industrial or fishing towns with large numbers of aged New Deal Democrats and socially conservative members of the working class and manufacturing base. Volunteer recruitment and door-to-door canvassing on Carter’s behalf were noticeably more concentrated, therefore, in the southernmost counties of the state whereas liberal favorite Morris Udall focused his efforts on the progressive-minded towns closer to Canada and Vermont. New Hampshire primaries still tend to break along these demographic lines, with Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 both winning the state using a regional focus similar to Carter’s.

Beyond mere strategy, the Peanut Brigade’s work in New Hampshire provides a definitive example of the kind of “retail politics” that campaigns claim to—but rarely do—wage in early primary states. That Carter’s supporters were able to parlay sustained personal outreach into key wins for their candidate should give pause to those cynics who deny the importance of voter contact in favor of pure fundraising prowess in securing an election victory.

Our newest accession will go on display in our brand new galleries at the New Special Collections Building in February 2012! Hope to see you there...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Favorite Son: Part II

In the second installment of our two-part feature, we recount the campaign of the only Georgian ever elected President of the United States: Jimmy Carter. How did Carter successfully jujitsu his deep-fried Dixie image, turning it from a liability into his greatest strength in ’76? Let's see...

Carter, governor of Georgia from 1970-74, emerged from relative obscurity among a fairly splintered Democratic field in 1976 and against a bevy of more experienced and nationally prominent political figures. Competitors ranged from Senators Birch Bayh of Indiana, Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, and Frank Church of Idaho (a late entry) to Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, Alabama Governor and 1968 third-party presidential nominee George Wallace, 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver, and former Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma. The only candidate less established than Carter was 37-year-old California Governor Jerry Brown who, like Udall, took up the mantle of “maverick liberal” from the West as part of his strategy against a large and stylistically diverse field and did not even enter the race until May 1976.

Carter wanted to avoid the regional pigeonholing that had plagued past hopefuls from the Deep South, including Georgia’s own Richard Russell 24 years prior. He was especially wary of seeming like a mild-mannered clone of fellow Southerner Wallace, who had made his name obstructing civil rights laws and promoting segregation in the 1960s. Toward this end, Carter sought the endorsements of prominent black politicians and de-emphasized his center-right ideological record as governor, instead focusing on his image as a “fresh face” with unquestioned ethical credentials.

In the post-Watergate political milieu, this marketing proved effective; Carter startled forecasters by placing second only to “uncommitted” in the Iowa caucuses, with 28 percent of the vote to Bayh’s 13 percent and Harris’s 10 percent. More shockingly, Carter polled the same in New Hampshire, besting Udall’s 23 percent, Bayh at 15, Harris at 11, and Shriver at 8. That a largely untested candidate from Dixie could win in New England stunned the party establishment, and Bayh in particular lost momentum. Carter would win another New England state, Vermont, the next week, though he placed fourth in Massachusetts the same day.

Above: This depicts the "Somebody for President '76 Bandwagon" being driven by a Democratic donkey holding a "Georgia Democratic Forum on Candidates and Issues" sign. Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall are pulling the bandwagon while Milton Shapp, Sargent Shriver, Fred Harris and Birch Bayh are pushing it. Clifford H. (Baldy) Baldowski Editorial Cartoons, Russell Library.

Carter more or less knocked Wallace out of the race after March victories in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina, establishing himself as the main Southern candidate while still beating a nationally popular drumbeat of clean government. By the start of April, Carter’s main threat was Udall, who drew support from constituencies with whom Carter was having trouble “closing the deal”—social liberals in Northern and Western states, many suspicious that Carter was some kind of stalking horse for the party’s old-line Dixiecrat wing. Jackson, an accomplished statesman, was still viable in certain pockets of the Northeast. But Carter managed to best Udall in such reputedly liberal places as Wisconsin, D.C., and Connecticut. By then, two more candidates appealing to the “Anyone but Carter” movement, Church and Brown, entered the race and accrued victories in Nebraska, Maryland, and Nevada, while Carter held firm to his Southern base and edged past Udall in labor-heavy Michigan. By then, Carter’s lead in delegates was all but insurmountable even as Church and Brown showed signs of life out west.

Coming at the tail end of a two-decade period of desegregation and advances in both racial and gender equality, Carter’s victory in claiming the Democratic nomination could be seen as a sign that the dominance of Northern “machine” Democrats had faded. Alternatively, it could have shown that Southerners could win nationwide office in the 1970s by running positive, candidate-focused efforts and overtly eschewing offensive “dog whistle politics.” In any case, Carter unseated President Gerald Ford in a close election with 50 percent to the latter’s 48 percent and a 297-240 electoral college edge. Much as in the Democratic primaries, Carter dominated the South, losing only one state of the old Confederacy (Virginia), but also ran well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, roughly splitting the industrial Northeast and Midwest with Ford (a native of Michigan) and winning such crucial states as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Just as before, he was weakest west of the Rockies, winning only Hawaii.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Favorite Son: Part I

It is generally understood in political circles that the term favorite son refers to a presidential candidate whose electoral appeal is greatly linked to his home-state or regional popularity, or who uses said regional popularity as a springboard for national viability.

Historically, presidential hopefuls from the South have been especially likely to use this strategy, with mixed success—a contemporary example is Bill Clinton, who coupled a second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary with utter dominance in Southern primaries and less overwhelming victories elsewhere on so-called “Super Tuesday” to claim his party’s nomination. This week on the blog we'll consider three candidates from Georgia who have run for President, and how each attempted to launch a credible nationwide effort. Our first case study: Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr.

Right: Georgia delegation and other Russell supporters (including Herman Talmadge and Tic Forrester) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, 1952. Richard B. Russell Collection, Russell Library.

"Now the politicians, particularly those from the large metropolitan areas, are saying that I can’t win the Democratic nomination for President because I am a Southerner. This is sheer nonsense. The people of this country, in these critical times, are not interested in where a man was born. They are interested in getting the best man they can to serve as Chief Executive of this nation.” -- Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr. addressing an audience in Spokane, Washington, June 1952

Russell ran for President in 1952, at a particularly tenuous moment for the Democratic Party. With the Korean War dragging on toward eventual stalemate and President Truman’s approval ratings exceedingly low, Republicans hoped for their first White House victory since 1928, though they faced divisions between a conservative isolationist wing led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio (today famed for sponsoring the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947) and a moderate wing seeking to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower to run. Some Democrats wanted Eisenhower to run on their ticket as well. As it became clear that he would not, the “bosses” who typically brokered party conventions pursued Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II, a liberal known for his compelling oratory, instead. Meanwhile, the announced Democratic field consisted of Russell, Vice President Alben Barkley—whose candidacy was discounted due to his age, 74—Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and former Commerce Secretary Averell Harriman, among more minor players.

Kefauver, seen as an anti-corruption, “tough-on-crime” reformer, was dominating nonbinding primary elections and had even forced Truman out of the race by defeating the incumbent President in New Hampshire. Though popular with voters, Kefauver’s candidacy was a nonstarter with party bosses, who abhorred his investigations into mafia activities within urban machine politics. Much more influential behind the scenes than as a public icon, and with a victory in the largely unnoticed Florida primary behind him, Russell attempted to replace Kefauver as the designated “Southern candidate” in the eyes of party officials. He argued that nominating him could preclude another convention walkout of Southern delegates like that in 1948 which prompted pro-segregation “Dixiecrats” to nominate Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as a third-party alternative to the more racially progressive Truman.

Despite loyalty from Southern officials, Northern delegates considered Russell the “Jim Crow candidate” and therefore unelectable. Though he never denied his stance on segregation during the campaign, always carefully couching the position within a broader constitutional states’ rights position, the brewing storm of the Civil Rights Movement was too much for a candidate from the Deep South. He lost out to Adlai Stephenson for the Democratic nomination, but gracefully accepted defeat and supported the party ticket.

Above: Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn on the podium, Chicago, Illinois, July 1952. Richard B. Russell Collection, Russell Library.

How did things go differently for a southern candidate in 1976? Tune in Tuesday to find out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slinging Mud

Every election cycle, voters, pundits, and candidates decry the practice of mudslinging – negative campaigning that seeks to promote one candidate only by tearing down the other. The term originates from the Latin phrase Fortiter caluniare, aliquid adhaerebit, which translates to “throw plenty of dirt and some of it will stick.” Sometime after the American Civil War, dirt was transformed into mud and the phrase became widely used in newspapers reporting on political campaign activities by the 1870s.

Right: Two avid supporters of political opponents battle it out! Richard B. Russell, Jr. Collection, Russell Library.

The United States has a long and rich history of mudslinging, dating at least as far back as the presidential election of 1796, in which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each fought to succeed the venerable George Washington into the nation’s highest office. The practice continued and intensified during the 19th century, with smear campaigns aimed at candidates’ alleged political dealings (as against John Quincy Adams in 1828), views (Abraham Lincoln in 1860), or personal lives (Grover Cleveland in 1884).

Later presidential campaigns used television as a primary attack mechanism. Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad, though aired only once, generated widespread condemnation for insinuating that a Barry Goldwater Presidency could mean nuclear war. Johnson actually ran other ads making the Goldwater/atomic bomb link more explicit, though pundits have mostly forgotten these. A political action committee (PAC) affiliated with George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1988 funded a now-classic “soft-on-crime” attack ad against Michael Dukakis. The most recent negative presidential ad to make the history books is probably that aired by the anti-John Kerry 527 group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

Mudslinging is not, of course, exclusively a function of campaigns for the White House. Here in Georgia, the U.S. Senate race of 2002 has already gone down in history as one of the nastiest races in modern memory. First-term Democratic Sen. Max Cleland faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie.

A Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, Cleland had lost both legs and an arm near Khe Sanh in 1968. So it was especially controversial when Chambliss’s campaign aired this ad, easily the most talked-about in the nation that cycle, accusing Cleland of lacking “the courage to lead” on President George W. Bush’s homeland security efforts and juxtaposing images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein with Cleland’s face. The final weeks showed the race closing with Cleland leading by six points in an October 16-17 Mason-Dixon poll, by three points in a poll sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during October 25-29, and by two points in Zogby’s final poll, conducted November 3-4.

On Election Day, November 5, Chambliss won by a convincing 6.87% spread, a victory matched by unprecedented GOP success in state offices the same night, including the governorship (Sonny Perdue defeated incumbent Roy Barnes, becoming the first Republican to be elected to the office in Georgia since 1868). While many Democrats attributed the win to Chambliss’s mudslinging, 2002 proved to be the Georgia Republican Party’s long-awaited breakthrough after some 130 years of unbroken Democratic dominance in state politics.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ready to Run?

A politician is said to throw his/her hat into the ring when announcing a run for office. The idiom originates with boxing. As the British website “” puts it, “Any Jack the lad who fancied his chances in a bout would throw in his hat—presumably this was a more reliable way of putting oneself forward than just shouting over the hubbub of the crowd.”

Right: Hat worn (and created) by convention delegate Maxine Goldstein to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Maxine S. Goldstein Papers, Russell Library.

Over the course of American political history, the methods and means of running for office have changed considerably. In the republic’s early decades, it was considered distasteful to openly campaign for an elected post. George Washington is said to have reluctantly accepted others’ nomination of him for the Presidency, and while early candidates such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson most certainly had latent campaign apparatuses and surrogates working behind the scenes, neither man explicitly announced his electoral intentions, simply agreeing to serve when selected at his respective party convention. Starting around the late 1820s, when Andrew Jackson took his case to the voters in pushing his own candidacy and rejecting the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824 by which John Quincy Adams had claimed the White House, candidates began holding publicly announced events resembling modern campaign rallies and fundraisers.

In recent years, the phenomenon has shifted considerably. Due to the proliferation of up-to-the-minute media sources on radio, television, and the internet, and especially thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, candidates increasingly send the popular press signals about their ambitions some months or even years in advance, in essence launching “trial balloons” to test public sentiments about their potential candidacies. In the period before they announce, politicians are expected to and generally must start an exploratory committee and skeleton campaign account, assemble field staff, raise starting funds, hire consultants, pollsters, advertisers, and public relations executives, and debut an online presence.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was said to have broken unwritten rules of the modern “permanent campaign” by announcing his participation in the race on August 13 of this year, exceedingly late when compared to some other hopefuls (such as Mitt Romney, whom some pundits deride for “running for five years straight”). But Perry had already set the stage meticulously in the months before his announcement. Just this past week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin declined to run after months of speculation surrounding their intentions. In today’s environment, it would have been almost unthinkable for credible presidential candidates to assemble campaign teams and begin fundraising as late as the October before primary season, which kicks off with the Iowa caucus this coming January.

It is difficult to imagine scenarios today like that of 1968, when eventual Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey announced his interest on April 27 of an election year and amid an ongoing primary season. Today such timing would likely render a candidate—at least one for the Presidency—irreparably behind his or her opponents in fundraising, field organization, publicity, and grassroots support.

Above: If she ever tossed one of her hats into the ring, it would be hard to beat! Maxine Goldstein, convention delegate extraordinaire, models her outfit for the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Maxine S. Goldstein Papers, Russell Library.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

County Unit System, eh?

In several of our recent "political slang" posts we have referred to the County Unit System that operated in Georgia until the 1960s. But, what is the county unit system? A bit more explanation on that system and its impact on Georgia's politics...

Formalized by the Neill Primary Act in 1917, the county-unit system had operated informally in Georgia since 1898 as the method for primary election of statewide office holders. Employing an Electoral College style, the system bolstered the influence of small, rural counties at the expense of more populous urban areas.

Left: Roy V. Harris, a longtime "kingmaker" was a master of the white-only, rural-dominated state politics held up by the County Unit System. A popular saying among Georgians in the 1940s: "What do you need to be elected Governor of Georgia? $50,000 and Roy Harris." Photograph from Ed Friend Visual Materials Collection , Russell Library.

Each of the 159 counties in the state was classified as urban, town, or rural. Urban counties received six votes each, town counties four, and rural counties two, with a winner-take-all system for the candidate victorious by popular vote within the county. With 410 votes up for grabs statewide, a candidate needed 206 to claim the nomination. The disproportionate distribution of unit votes to population size encouraged heavy campaigning in the 121 rural counties.

Citizens launched unsuccessful constitutional challenges to the system in the 1940s and 1950s, but the courts were reluctant to review apportionment within states. In Baker v. Carr (1962) the Supreme Court found that the county-unit system violated the constitutional principle of “one man, one vote.” A similar case in Georgia, Gray v. Sanders (1962), pushed the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia to issue an injunction against the system just months before the gubernatorial primary. As a result Carl Sanders, a more liberal urban candidate, triumphed in the first statewide popular vote in nearly fifty years.

Traces of the county unit system can be found in many of the collections at the Russell Library. A quick keyword search of the collections database results in several hits, many of which touch on public efforts to get rid of the system in the early 1950s.