Federal Elections Turn to Permanent Campaigning

It's no coincidence that Karl Rove (search ), who has orchestrated the strategy behind President Bush's winning campaigns since Bush ran for governor of Texas in 1994, now has a senior White House position orchestrating policy.

Political analysts and insiders say Rove's ascendance in the White House is a natural outgrowth of what has become the "permanent campaign," in which the day after an election victory becomes the first day of the next campaign cycle.

"Basically, there is no separation between campaigning and governing, " said Kathryn Tenpas, a senior fellow with the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University (search) in St. Louis.

The concept of a permanent campaign didn't start with President Bush; it began with Richard Nixon (search), who was the first president to hire a pollster for the sole purpose of gauging White House policy, Tenpas said.

"Ever since Nixon, you have had an inexorable trend where presidents rely on public opinion polls and political consultants" and political outreach in order to get ready for the next election, Tenpas said.

Each policy effort is a mini-campaign, part of the overall strategy, she added.

The intertwining of policy-making and political campaigning led to what was famously dubbed the "war room" in the White House of the 1990s, the place where senior officials hammered out tactics for political battles and gauged support for President Bill Clinton's initiatives.

And while Clinton was famous for making dozens of trips to swing states to bolster support for his domestic policies, Bush has ratcheted it up a notch, Tenpas said.

In his first year, Bush spent 36 percent of his domestic travel time in the 16 states with the closest vote totals in the 2000 election. In the second year, he spent 45 percent of his time in these states, in year three, 39 percent.

Rob Ritchie, head of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said one byproduct of the permanent campaign is the "shrinking battlefield," where less and less of the American public gets paid any attention at all by candidates and office holders.

"It's a permanent campaign, but they are zeroing in on fewer places," Ritchie said. "The race is all about Iowa and New Hampshire" — home to the first party caucuses and primaries of the presidential election and both key swing states.

That said, it should have been no surprise last month to see possible 2008 presidential hopefuls like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, New York Gov. George Pataki, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, among others, scrambling before cameras and local interest groups during the National Governors Association annual meeting in Iowa.

Elsewhere, a group unaffiliated with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton called "Hillary Now!" began running television ads in August in New Hampshire encouraging her to run for president in 2008. Clinton still faces a 2006 re-election contest for her Senate seat.

Even with the four-year horizons, the permanent campaign is not just for the presidency. It has spilled over into all federal elections as well as to competitive races at the state and local levels, say political analysts.

Incumbents in safe districts also don’t get off easily. If not campaigning for themselves, they are expected to generate resources and work legislation that will help gain or maintain the majority, and boost support for colleagues in vulnerable positions.

"There's never a break," said Stu Rothenberg, who runs the Rothenberg Political Report, a tip sheet for current election campaigns. "We start one cycle the day after the last election. The talk is always strategic — even a couple weeks after the election, you're hearing the parties talk about how they are going to strategically position themselves."

John Fortier, a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that some freshman members often hold their first fundraisers even before they are sworn in — mostly to show not only that they are new players on Capitol Hill but that they are on the permanent campaign.

"The campaign is integrated more into day-to-day life," he said.

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said a cottage industry of full-time campaign consultants, pollsters, managers and media operatives have flourished from the permanent campaign and in many ways keep it going.

"It's more damaging to the body politic overall, and it's unhealthy to a democracy to have special interest groups, '527' groups and hired guns — the consultants whose livelihoods literally depend on their own special interests — to continually wage all-out war, non-stop," he said.

"There are literally thousands of people who have jobs right now as campaign consultants," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Naturally they want steady work. They have an incentive to extend the campaign process."

But Craig Bergman, a Republican consultant for the Robert Morris Group, one of the new "full service" campaign management firms, said it's not his industry driving the endless election cycle; it's a matter of supply and demand.

"The market force is meeting demand and it has nothing to do with consultants engineering it," said Bergman, who has been a full-time consultant since 1999.

"People are much more politically interested, more politically aware and they want to have more detailed insights, and more substance and the consultants are trying to deliver that for their candidate so they can win," Bergman said.

The advent of the competitive 24-hour cable news industry and Internet reporting has also fueled the current state of affairs, campaign experts say. Seeking drama, controversy and adversarial narratives, the media loves the permanent campaign.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of Web logs has both served and rattled campaigns, as individual opinion makers, researchers and even fund-raisers take the permanent campaign online.

In South Dakota, for example, supporters of ousted Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle are using the blogs to wage war on his 2004 nemesis, Republican Sen. John Thune.

"I think politics is going to get nastier and going to get personal," Bergman predicted, adding that at the same time more people are paying attention to how issues are affecting them.

Madonna, on the other hand, said he doesn't see much of a bright side.

"I think [the permanent campaign] is bad for democracy — it ratchets up the wrong kind of partisanship … [it] feeds into the sense that politics has become so venal."