Twenty-one years ago today, on November 3, 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush and went on to become the nation’s 42nd President. This is what the history books say, and perhaps you remember the 1992 campaign; but it was a very interesting and remarkable Presidential contest, unlike any that had come before, and perhaps unlike any that will ever come after it.
The 1992 Presidential election presented a number of “lasts” in American history. It was the last time in the 20th century that an incumbent President was defeated by a challenger–that had happened in 1912, 1932, 1976, and 1980, and it hasn’t happened since 1992. It was the last Presidential election in which a third- or non-party candidate received a significant share of the vote; in fact, Ross Perot’s 18.9% of the vote was the highest a third- or non-party candidate ever received in the entire 20th century, with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 who was something of a special case. It was also the last election in which traditional media, meaning TV, newspapers and radio, played the key role; in all elections since, digital media and the Internet have had an increasingly important share.
Thinking back on 1992, it’s interesting to note that most political analysts at the beginning of the election cycle thought the Democrats rather starry-eyed to believe that they could win. The conventional wisdom was that the elder George Bush was simply unbeatable because of his popularity after winning the First Persian Gulf War in early 1991. (No one could even image that there might be a second Persian Gulf War, or even a second George Bush). Bush’s victory in 1988 was seen basically as an election to Reagan’s third term, and people still loved Reagan. Furthermore, the field of Democratic challengers in late 1991 and early 1992 seemed weak–Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, Douglas Wilder, and a small-state governor with big hair that no one had ever heard of, Bill Clinton.
The media seized upon this moment–President G.H.W. Bush checking his watch during the last debate–as a metaphor for his presidency: time running out.
Bush’s problem, however, was the economy. Republicans were somewhat frustrated that the afterglow of the Gulf War triumph didn’t distract people from the misery of rising unemployment figures, layoffs, foreclosures and the increasing closures–usually relocations overseas–of formerly strong manufacturing job centers. The word “globalism” wasn’t used much in 1992, but that was what was happening, and Bush, who had never been very strong on economic policy, seemed both adrift and aloof. Further to his disadvantage, he was in charge of a Republican Party that had been strongly divided since Reagan’s second term, between the kind of old guard, moderate “country club” Republicans that Bush and his family exemplified, and the ultra-conservative, ideologically-driven culture warriors that would ultimately win the party’s battle for its soul in the later 1990s. Bush was challenged on the right by former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan and racist demagogue David Duke, both of whom sapped support away from Bush especially among conservatives who were furious at him for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990.
The Democrats, on the other hand, came out of their moribund twilight of the 80s energized and well-united. The old LBJ/Jimmy Carter style liberals of the 1960s and 1970s had been shown the door–the 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis was their last gasp–and Democratic party leaders realized they needed more energetic and centrist leadership in order to win. Bill Clinton fit the bill perfectly. An ambitious climber with a knack for retail politics, Clinton was in many ways the Democrats’ Reagan, and he captured the imagination of the moderate middle of the country much the way Reagan had done in 1980. Clinton’s comparative youth also helped. George Bush was the last World War II veteran to sit in the Oval Office, and half a century after Pearl Harbor and Midway the values of that era looked a little outmoded for a world rapidly being defined by computers, cell phones and global economic markets. Clinton was simply better suited for the time.
Texas businessman H. Ross Perot ran again for President in 1996, but enjoyed only a bare shadow of the support he’d had four years earlier.
The role Ross Perot played in the 1992 campaign remains controversial. He popped up like a gadfly in the middle of the campaign, gaining support especially in the late summer and making something of a splash at the one of the two televised debates to which he was invited–the only third- or non-party candidate who has ever appeared with both major party candidates on the same stage at a debate. Some believe Perot was a “spoiler” who drew support away from Bush, thus tipping the election to Clinton; a careful analysis of polling data shows, however, that Perot’s support came pretty much equally from both liberals and conservatives, and Bush would have had to have won a disproportionate share of Perot’s voters in order to have a chance at winning. Still, what’s amazing is that Perot got nearly 19% of the popular vote, but not a single electoral vote. The “winner take all” tradition of the Electoral College mathematically disfavors third parties, and there’s no truer demonstration of that than 1992.
Some were surprised by the results. Barbara Bush famously wrote in her memoirs that she simply couldn’t believe people wouldn’t get into the voting booth on November 3 and vote for her husband. There seems to be much evidence that Bush himself knew he would lose, at least toward the end (unlike Mitt Romney in 2012 who was utterly flabbergasted). The election of 1992 was definitely groundbreaking, and represented a true transition in America: the old ways, political and economic, of the twentieth century beginning to give way to the new, faster-paced and some would say more uncertain era in which we live now.