The Politics of Repudiation 1992: Edging Toward Upheaval

For a generation the United States has experienced a complex and deepening crisis of its political and economic order. Three pivotal and highly abnormal electios have punctuated this crisis. In 1968, undermined by the Vietnam War and the civil rights revolution, the New Deal order collapsed. A new electoral regime emerged from the ruins, marked by three main features: normal Republican control of the presidency; divided government as the (unprecedented) norm; and a candidate-dominated "permanent campaign," in which a capital-intensive personalism crowded out labor-intensive political parties.

In the 1970s, severe economic crisis replaced Vietnam as a driving issue. Its effects (stagnation and price-inflation coupled with low real interest rates) were reinforced by signs of foreign policy weakness and the emergence of the socio-religious right. The stage was set for Ronald Reagan and right-wing "conviction politics" designed to stop the rot on all fronts. A massive policy realignment ensued as Reagan and his allies launched their brand of political, economic, and social revitalization, confident that their new regime was both viable and durable.

But the 1992 election repudiated that attempted synthesis and its rhetorical, coalitional, and public-policy regime. Its policy consequences will long outlive the political order--particularly public debt exceeding 50 percent of the 1992 gross domestic product. Even Republicans agree that the Reagan-Bush era in American political history is over, mainly because it failed economically. The promises and dreams of the 1980s were liquidated not only by persistent recession but by its association with a massive, structural downsizing of American capitalism. More than any of its postwar predecessors, this recession has raised acute anxiety within the broad American middle class--anxiety not just for their own future but for their children's. Average real family income eroded under George Bush and growth was lower across this presidential term than in any during the past sixty years.

Considering that two entire political worldviews and regime orders associated with them had achieved bankruptcy within the space of a dozen years, we should hardly wonder that public demands for "change" were as loud as they were unclear or confused. Nor is it surprising that the general political atmosphere among the electorate in 1992 was so disturbed and filled with rage against politicians or that for a few weeks in early summer Ross Perot led both major-party candidates in the polls.

To a quite unusual extent, 1992 presents a broad panorama of analytic issues associated with American presidential elections. An incumbent president running for reelection was defeated, but this was no ordinary defeat. Both his conduct in office and his defeat at the polls identify for us just what kind of incumbent George Bush was. Ross Perot, capitalizing on an immense breadth of public discontent with the existing order and its leadership, won the third largest share of the total vote ever secured by a nonmajor-party candidate in American history. Our task here is to attempt to provide a reasonably integrated account of what happened and why in the pivotal election of 1992.


Out of the crisis of the 1960s, a genuine critical realignment crystallized, unlike any in previous history. Its main characteristic was not a shift in voting preferences but the partial dissolution of the traditional linkages between elite and public, mediated by the traditional party system. At the presidential level, the McGovern-Fraser commission reforms led to direct primaries at the center of the nominating process. This formed a major break with the past and seemingly energized grass-roots voting participation. But at almost the same moment, a series of other "reforms" stimulated political action committees and other forms of political entrepreneurship. These combined with the rapid growth of campaign technology--polling, focus groups, targeting, paid ads, and personalist campaigns--to shift the entire system away from voting participation and toward financial participation. In what Sidney Blumenthal was the first to call the "permanent campaign," congressional incumbents made sure that no reform was undertaken that could give their challengers an even break, and the money rolled in.

The decline of party in turn led to a decline in the competitiveness of congressional seats (one sees glimmerings as early as the 1966 congressional elections). Apart from temporary upticks in 1974 and 1982, this trend continued from the late 1960s through 1988, a year when incumbents in House races seeking reelection numbered more than 400 of the 435 members of the House, and their reelection rate hit 98.5 percent. More generally, as a comparison of presidential and senatorial election outcomes also clearly demonstrates, for the first time in American history discrete electoral coalitions--different ones for different offices--emerged. Thus in 1984 Ronald Reagan was the winner in 375 congressional districts, only 182 of which also elected Republican representatives. How did incumbents on the Democratic side do so well? It was easy: All they had to do was run on average 19 percentage points ahead of Walter Mondale in their districts.

This intersected with the chief, governing feature of this sixth electoral era,1 which I call the "interregnum state": the divided government that has lately intrigued political scientists. (See Richard Valelly, "Divided They Govern," TAP Fall 1992.) The critical realignment of the late 1960s led to a normal Republican majority in presidential elections--five out of six elections, twenty of twenty-four years since 1968-69. For six years during this period, a quarter of the time, Republicans also enjoyed a majority in the U.S. Senate, but never in the House. The Madisonian separation of powers and its policy-fragmenting implications were thus reinforced by changed behavior in the electorate; the opposite of what the traditional party system (at its best) was designed to produce. Instead, by 1989 George Bush entered office with fewer partisan supporters in Congress than any of his predecessors across two centuries of American politics.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

The Republican House minority in 1981 was large enough, in conjunction with Republican control of the Senate, to enact the major features of Ronald Reagan's tax-and-budget "revolution." But these forces were not strong enough to permit a complete clinical experiment in squaring the policy circle: cutting taxes, raising defense spending, and cutting enough outlay elsewhere to keep the budget deficit from exploding. This was to have long-term political consequences, not least of which was the Perot candidacy of 1992. On an increasingly exaggerated scale, divided government produced a bizarre mix of collusion, collision, and buck-passing in public policy--the very negation of accountability.

It is no wonder that the first omnibus budget resolution presented to the House in October 1990, after months of tortuous negotiations among top congressional and executive leaders, was voted down in a wave of resentment among ordinary members of Congress who had been cut out of the whole process. It is no wonder that a key factor in the collapse of public support for George Bush in 1992 was his repudiation of his 1988 pledge, "Read my lips: No new taxes." It is no wonder that by 1991, the Kettering Foundation should find extraordinary levels not of apathy but of anger, rage even, against politics and politicians, captured so well in E. J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics. Ordinary Americans, like ordinary members of Congress, strongly resent being dealt out of a political system that affects their lives while being expected to pick up the tab or provide the votes. Nor, given all this, is it any wonder that the voters of all fourteen states that had term-limits proposals on their ballots in November 1992 approved them. This may be (as I believe) a bad idea whose time is rapidly coming. But it represents an enduring truth of American politics--that for every action that closes off the elite world within the Beltway from the voters outside, there is likely sooner or later to be an equal and opposite reaction arising from said voters.

Significantly, while surveys throughout the 1980s indicated popular support for divided government, polls in 1992 showed a swing in attitude: most Americans now preferred candidates of the same party win the presidency and control Congress too. In the foreseeable structure of electoral politics, this party can only be the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether its new team can govern effectively, but for the moment the electorate is giving it the chance. Thus there is an implicit "race" underway between the willingness of the voters to entrust government to the Democrats and the current passion for term limits. The latter is the latest upsurge of a basic idea-set going back to the Progressive era at the turn of the century: that mechanically imposed, immaculately conceived structural solutions can work to cure the ills of American democracy. The former places real contestation at the heart of politics through parties that are vital and coherent enough to address the problems of the country. We shall see, across Bill Clinton's term and later, how this race will be decided in our own time.

From 1961 through 1981, the country endured five aborted presidencies in a row, four of which were repudiations (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter): a sequence also without historical precedent. Now it has repudiated yet another. There do appear to be rare occasions in American political history when a consensus develops that we simply cannot go on like this any longer, that the impasse in our collective affairs has become insupportable. Some such consensus crystallized between the extraordinarily revealing Pennsylvania Senate election of November 1991 and the spring of 1992, and it was to be fatal to George Bush's bid for reelection. Nor was this a narrow loss: measured in sheer quantitative terms, George Bush's loss of 15.9 percent of the total vote between his first election and his second was exceeded only three times in all of American history: In 1932, when Herbert Hoover's share of the total vote declined 18.6 percent from 1928; in 1800, when John Adams experienced a decline of 20.4 percent from 1796; and in 1912, when (with Theodore Roosevelt stealing more than half of the Republican electorate) William Howard Taft suffered an erosion of 28.4 percent of the total vote from his 1908 level. Whatever else 1992 may have been, it was a classic case of a landslide vote of no confidence in an incumbent president and the regime he led. Of twenty-nine incumbents seeking reelection or election to a full term across two centuries of American history, in terms of this measure of interelection swing, George Bush in 1992 ranked twenty-sixth, no mean feat that.

Thus in less than a generation, two whole ways of doing our political business, interest-group liberalism and now Reaganite capitalism redux, have been swept into the discard. We should not wonder at the deep sense of rage, bafflement, and confusion that marked the electoral season of 1992 from New Hampshire in March to November's final outcome. Can a system experience personal and structural repudiations of this magnitude, and within very few years, before the system itself is placed at risk? Some such question lies at the heart of the remarkable election of 1992.


If Jimmy Carter had many of the attributes of a historical accident (as I think he did), George Bush seems almost a historical inevitability. He is a near-classic exemplar of a category of presidents extending across political history--the failed understudy.

In twenty-four of the fifty-two presidential elections held since 1789, incumbents originally elected to a full term have run to succeed themselves. Of these, fifteen won, while nine lost their bids for another term. Five of these losers, along with a narrow winner (Madison in 1812), form a distinct subset. Each was chosen to carry on the policies of a recently successful and policy-innovative regime, under conditions where the previous leaders of this regime are unavailable for an additional term themselves. George Bush is the first of them in sixty years. These six "understudy" or "conservator" candidates are: John Adams (Federalist, 1797-1801), succeeding George Washington; James Madison (Democratic-Republican, 1809-1817), succeeding Thomas Jefferson; Martin Van Buren (Democrat, 1837-1841), succeeding Andrew Jackson; William Howard Taft (Republican, 1909-1913), succeeding Theodore Roosevelt; Herbert Hoover (Republican, 1929-1933), succeeding Calvin Coolidge; and George Bush succeeding Ronald Reagan.

What else do these men have in common? For one thing, all faced crises that grew directly out of the policies of their predecessors and their regimes, which buffeted the understudies' term of office. Second, each of them (with perhaps the admitted exception of Hoover) succeeded presidents who were regarded as heroic, charismatic or successful in their own time: acts that were indeed hard to follow, sorcerers whose apprentice successors would have had to be truly remarkable to fill the voids left behind. But, third, each of them was selected precisely to give "four more years" of the same, not to engage in even timely innovations on any large scale. George Bush, for example, was selected (and elected) precisely because he was expected to preserve the Reagan legacy in as nearly pure and undefiled a form as possible. People chosen as understudies, one may assume, are chosen precisely because they are not innovators, and the "vision thing" seems much less of a problem when the point of the exercise is conservation of the political gains and commitments secured during the immediate past.

Fourth, each of them came to office replete with exceptional resumes. Adams, Washington's vice president, had been a key intellectual and actor before the establishment of the constitutional order in 1787. Madison had been Jefferson's secretary of state, as had Van Buren (in addition to the latter's additional services as vice president). A superb insider politician who was a true innovator in building party organization to channel the new mass electorate, Van Buren had extensive partisan experience as well. Taft had been selected initially to be governor-general of the newly acquired Philippines, a job he loved, and subsequently became Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war. His is the classic case of being hand-picked by his predecessor to succeed him. Hoover, with impressive credentials in organizing relief efforts in Belgium and Russia, served Harding and Coolidge faithfully as secretary of commerce--an important job in the age of corporatism. George Bush had perhaps the most glittering resume of all: not only Ronald Reagan's vice president for eight years, but before that Republican national chairman and (under Gerald Ford) director of the CIA.

The resumes underscore the integral and basic relationship between the understudy and the regime he comes to represent. These men were anything but political outsiders. But they also tended to share a fifth characteristic: As insiders they not only lacked the common touch but were often perceived at the time--sometimes even by themselves (Madison and Taft, for example)--as lacking elemental qualities needed for effective presidential leadership. Each in his own way was conspicuously vulnerable to attack as elitist, out of touch with the public, and indifferent to the plight of ordinary Americans--a charge that was reinforced in most cases by their rigidity and inadaptability.

The sixth and final attribute of these understudies follows: All but Madison lost their bids for reelection. (He was saved by the unique structural characteristics of the so-called "first party system" and the hegemonic position of the Jeffersonian Republican Party in it.) But, Van Buren apart, these were no ordinary losses. Their share of the total vote from their first to their second races collapsed by a mean 16.9 percent. This contrasts with a decline of 6.8 percent for the five other incumbents losing their seats, and an increase averaging just under 4 percent for the eighteen incumbents (excluding Madison) who were re-elected. All five of the bottom-swing presidents (those with the largest losses from their first to their second election) were third-term understudies. The only other presidents who came close were Gerald Ford in 1976 (-12.7 percent from Nixon's total in 1972), who had never been elected nationwide even as vice president, and Jimmy Carter in 1980 (-9.1 percent, as compared with Bush's -15.9 percent in 1992)

The 1992 Republican campaign was true to context. Exceptionally clear warning had been given to Bush and his campaign staff by Harris Wofford's trouncing of Richard Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania Senate race one year earlier (as Adams and the Federalist elite had been put on clear notice by the same state's 1799 gubernatorial election). Nothing worthwhile was done in response, thought many Republicans who were keenly aware of what was going on. The party convention at Houston, with its dramatic and off-putting stress on family values and the agenda of the socio-religious right, put its worst foot forward just as did the 1964 Goldwater convention and the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern. But these had been out-party assemblies; here, in 1992, an in-party was providing a symbolically similar, off-putting show, something the Republicans had previously avoided even in the pits of 1932.

Thereafter, anything-but-the-economy --chiefly stressing doubts about Bill Clinton's character and trustworthiness--became the overriding theme of George Bush's message to the voters. After all, something similar had worked in 1988, hadn't it? But in 1992, voters weren't buying, and remarkably, in the second presidential debate a small number of them in the room forced the thematics back onto substantive economic issues. It was in this debate, when Bush kept looking at his watch and stumbled when asked how he personally had been affected by the recession, that his defects as a candidate were brought home --literally--to tens of millions of viewers; he was "out of touch" and he "just didn't get it." In the end, he broke another kind of historic record. Receiving just 37.5 percent of the total 1992 vote, he ranked twenty-eighth of the twenty-nine incumbents running for a full term across two centuries. Only Taft in 1912, with less than half of his party still behind him, and a former President as the third party candidate, did worse (23.2 percent). Even Hoover in 1932 managed to hold on to 39.6 percent of those voting in that election.


After the dazzling success of Operation Desert Storm, which pushed Bush's approval rating to 90 percent, the presumed heavy hitters on the Democratic side found one reason or another not to present themselves for consideration, and by very early 1992 a group of secondary candidates had emerged. One of these was the "obscure" governor of a small and backward state, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Now is hardly the time for any kind of extensive review of the entire campaign, which in any case has already been covered remarkably well by the print media in the public domain. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, Clinton--like the Energizer bunny in the TV ads--just kept on going and going and going. Demolishing his opponents within the party, his successful tactical choice for the general-election campaign was to take the high road and focus on what his campaign manager, James Carville, had tacked up in the campaign office: "The economy, stupid." He had given abundant evidence that he was very smart, capable of absorbing vast amounts of information and making some sense of it, gifted (perhaps at times too gifted) with words, and perhaps one of the really great natural hands-on politicians of our day. All this was not enough to still persistent public doubts about him (hence one reason for the size of Ross Perot's vote), or to give the public a clear sense of who the "real" Bill Clinton was. But it was more than enough to win, especially in the context we have been describing.

Bill Clinton's rise does represent a real break with the Democratic Party's past, but the nuances of that break have yet to be defined. When Ross Perot bowed out of the race on July 16, citing as a reason a "revitalized Democratic party," he was pointing to a situation in which a candidate less liberal than the party as a whole (and, except perhaps for Jimmy Carter, than its previous nominees) had been selected as its standard-bearer. It was no coincidence that Clinton had been a leading figure in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an intraparty group whose aim was to move the party and its choice of nominee toward the center of the American political spectrum. With old-style interest-group liberalism dead beyond retrieval as a dominant part of any winning presidential coalition, and with its coffin double-sealed by debt, deficit, and basic economic-reproduction problems left behind as a prime legacy of the Reagan-Bush era, the specific 1992 conjuncture was especially favorable for producing a nominee who could win a presidential election, even though a Democrat. As usual in such cases, the man and the moment met: Clinton carried the suburbs, won pluralities in all family-income groups under $75,000 per year, won the support of far more than half of the Democrats who had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 (69 percent to 31 percent for Bush on a two-party basis), held Bush to a tie among white voters as a whole, and otherwise enjoyed an exceptionally broad plurality sweep over the incumbent everywhere except the South and isolated pockets elsewhere.

Yet the apparent rightward shift is more complex than that advertised by the DLC. For Clinton believes in activist government, is married to a feminist, and began his tenure as president-elect by reaffirming his support for gays serving in the military. Although he made the necessary inroads into the middle class, he did it without writing off blacks, gays, feminists, greens, or trade unionists--the dreaded "liberal fundamentalists" in the dismissive phrase of DLC demonologists William Galston and Elaine Ciulla Kamarck. Indeed, his support among traditional liberals was about normal, or even better.

The most enduring reality of modern American electoral politics--at least where economic issues are concerned--is that the Democrats have been the pro-state party and the Republicans the anti-state party. Clinton and his coalition of supporters will have as a prime objective the reclamation of this heritage, while overcoming their image as the party of bureaucracy. Despite the Democratic Leadership Council's embrace of Clinton and its own resolute centrism, government once again is to be seen as capable of making positive, indeed essential, contributions to a twenty-first century American economy in a thoroughly competitive and interdependent world.

What such a vision has going for it, in truth, is not the clarity of its program (yet) but simply the force of circumstances, la forza del destino. To remain competitive in the longer run with our economic rivals and to revitalize the domestic economy and thereby the well-being of the country's inhabitants and their progeny, some such development of a new role for the state will be a major part of the price. It could just happen that, with success along these lines, the older Republican state-as-(necessary?)-evil ideology will become as passe as the once-sacred doctrines of isolation became in the 1940s and 1950s. But to succeed, Clinton will have to take on sacred programmatic cows, which could make him enemies in Congress. If he doesn't redefine a convincing, affirmative role for government, he will not be doing his job of building the harmonistic political economy that is central to this new effort to find a way out of crisis and decline.

Clinton of course takes office as a minority president, elected by just 42.9 percent of those who went to the polls. Leaving aside the special case of John Quincy Adams in the free-for-all of 1824, fifteen of our fifty-two presidential elections have produced minority winners. Clinton's support ranks third from the bottom in this category: only Woodrow Wilson in 1912 (41.8 percent) and Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (39.8 percent) were elected with a narrower base of support.

On the positive side, it is noteworthy that in terms of an elected minority president's percentage lead over the runner-up, Clinton finishes a robust fourth out of these fifteen cases (5.5 percent); and if percentages of the electoral vote are used as a criterion, Clinton (at 68.8 percent) comes in a strong second only to Wilson in 1912 (81.9 percent). Moreover, Wilson (at least in his first term) and Lincoln, below him in the share of the vote, had personal qualities and political contexts favorable to active and highly successful presidencies. Even Nixon, just above him at 43.4 percent, was both a reasonably strong and reasonably successful president until ruination set in with the disclosure of the Watergate affair early in his second term.

However, Clinton, with a considerably smaller working majority in Congress than they enjoyed, would seem to have far less room for maneuver than Wilson or Lincoln. The budget deficit will also hem in his programmatic running room, as will his tightrope act between the old and new Democrats. Clinton has a clear constitutional mandate. Any more extensive mandate will have to be fought for and won.


Whenever major third entrants appear in presidential elections, they reflect a breakdown of the system's legitimacy: the greater the share secured by such candidates, the greater the breakdown. This has happened ten times in American political history, with twelve cases of significant insurgency (1860 and 1912 produced two significant-insurgency candidacies). With 18.9 percent of the total vote, Ross Perot finished a strong third among these twelve. Moreover, the other two cases involved major fragments of organized major parties--Millard Fillmore and the Whig-Americans of 1856 (21.5 percent) and Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive wing of the Republican Party in 1912 (27.4 percent). Perot's showing is by far the most impressive ever achieved by that other category of third movements, the pure-outsider or "protest" surge.

The data in the New York Times' early postelection survey makes it clear that, with few exceptions, Perot's support cut remarkably evenly across the whole spectrum. Perot was strongest among partisan independents, young men, liberal Republicans (a chemical trace in a sample these days!), and a few other categories, and weakest among blacks, Jews, the elderly, and a number of white Democratic voting groups. Regionally there were important differentials. Perot was strongest in New England--his best state was Maine, where fully 30.1 percent voted for him and he edged out Bush for second place--and in the Plains states and Mountain West. He was weakest in the greater South, except for the burgeoning states of Texas and Florida. Yet the general impression is that his appeal cut broadly across most voter categories without (unlike George Wallace in 1968) being concentrated very heavily in any. At the very end, the USA Today/CNN Gallup poll reported that when Perot voters were asked how they would have voted if Perot were not in the race, the response was 38 percent for Clinton, 36 percent for Bush, and 6 percent for "others"; 15 percent would not have come to the polls and another 5 percent gave no response. So Perot did not change the outcome. Had he not run, the only notable effect would have been to reduce the turnout from about 56 percent to 54 percent. As there is a distinct historic pro-Republican cast to those groups and areas most penetrated by Perot, this may be one more bit of evidence for our general case that Bush suffered a vote of no confidence in 1992--though in this hypothetical exercise no landslide would have been involved.

Perot represents something quite new in American politics: the enrage billionaire Lone Ranger who demonstrated a near-perfect appreciation and use of television to build his following and sell his message. This message concentrated concretely on that part of the poisonous legacy of the past dozen years that produced the deficit and a hugely swollen national debt. But in more general terms, his claim was that the political system as such was broken. In a real sense, he virtually acted out the script that E.J. Dionne and others had been writing for some time: it was necessary to transcend the politics of deadlock and finger-pointing, it was necessary to find some immaculate way of producing correct policy without traditional politics getting in the way.

The extraordinary breadth of his support across the land reflects at least two facts of contemporary political life in the U.S. The first of these is the power of "infomercials" and last-minute TV blitzkrieg backed by unlimited reserves of money to reach and appeal to "common sense." The second is the uncanny fit between Perot's general political symbolism and the pervasive public sense that Washington insiders and powerful interest groups had stolen the political system from the people.

This candidacy is a warning. It reflects some sort of dialectical acceleration in the decay of traditional parties and channels of authentic mass political action, a decay that I and others have discussed with growing alarm for the past twenty years. Vast numbers of Americans are now poised on the brink of taking a great leap into the unknown as they seek a savior from endless crises and an equally endless squeeze on their living standards. More than nineteen million did so in 1992. We have noted that the Democratic-led version of interest-group liberalism went bankrupt in 1968, and conclusively in 1980, and that Reaganism led by the Republicans has achieved bankruptcy in its turn. If the new state-centered redevelopment synthesis of the Clinton years should fail in its turn, what then? Virtually nothing readily imaginable would remain in the repertoire; we would have played out all our options. At that point, one more heave could do the job: The first completely self-financed candidate in American history, Ross Perot becomes president after winning the 1996 election. At that point (if it ever arrives), we will enter an entirely new phase of our political history. In the wake of 1992, we are measurably closer to it.


The 1992 election was a repudiation, but not a radical realignment. Elections are won as a rule by shifts at the margins. Bill Clinton's 53.4 percent of the two-party vote is impressive under the circumstances, but it was no popular-vote landslide. And there have been considerably larger two-party swings in our recent past than the 7 percent pro-Democratic swing that occurred nationally from 1988 to 1992. The basic long-term demographic patterns within which this election was decided go back a generation; the overhang from the past is impressively powerful. Notwithstanding the collapse of both Carter and Bush, more than three-quarters of the variance in the 1992 distribution of votes can be explained by the aggregate voter-group preferences in 1976; in terms of basic voting alignments, not much has changed in sixteen years. When we ask which groups line up which way, the short answer is that given by Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca: Round up the usual suspects. Groups (very often overlapping, of course) that gave Clinton more than 60 percent of the two-party vote include, in order, blacks (88 percent), Jews (87 percent), voters in the lowest family-income bracket, less than $15,000 per year (72 percent), Hispanics (71 percent), members of union households (70 percent), the unemployed (70 percent), voters in the lowest education level, less than completed high school (66 percent), first-time voters (62 percent), and unmarried voters (60 percent). At the other end of the distribution are those groups in which Bush prevailed over Clinton. These include, in order, white voters (49 percent Democratic), those with a completed college education (49 percent), voters in the medium-high family-income bracket, $50,000-$74,999 (49 percent), voters in the South (49 percent), white men (47 percent), voters in the top income bracket, $75,000 and over (43 percent), white Protestants (42 percent), and white born-again Christians (27 percent). There are very few surprises in either list. The survey also makes clear that partisanship coupled with ideology forms a far more powerful long-term continuity factor than demographics.

Even without regard for the moment to the Perot presence in the race, the differentials in the 1988-1992 swing across voter groups make it clear that Bill Clinton's strategy of focusing on the economy and targeting his main appeal to the white middle class was brilliantly successful. This election was above all a revolt of the moderates, a point which the relative strengths and weaknesses of Perot's candidacy in the electorate simply underscores. Demographic and political groups with a two-party Democratic swing of 10 percent or more include Jews (+22); first-term voters (+14); moderate partisan independents (+12); members of union households (+12); voters with complete college educations (+12); voters aged 18-29 (+11); voters with some college education (+11); white men (+11); partisan independents, as a whole (+10); and moderates, as a whole (+10). Groups showing the least Democratic swing include liberal Republicans (-2); blacks (0); Hispanics (+1); liberals (+1); liberal Democrats (+2); conservative Republicans (+2); conservatives as a whole (+3); Republicans as a whole (+3); voters with complete high-school educations (+5); and voters with second lowest family incomes, $15,000-$29,999 (+5). And, according to a USA Today survey, Clinton carried suburban voters over Bush. Among Democrats voting for Reagan in 1984, their 1992 choice was Clinton, 55 percent; Bush, 25 percent; and Perot, 20 percent--a two-party Democratic lead of 38 points. Careful readers examining the Democratic percentages in the most-Republican groups discussed earlier will probably be less impressed by the expected (their relative ranking) than by the fact that Bush's lead over Clinton was generally very thin indeed.

With Perot in the race, net voter support for both major-party candidates declined from the two-party 1988 contest, but Bush's decline was more than five times as large as was that on the Democratic side (-16 percent versus -3 percent). George Bush lost 29 percent of his 1988 voting base, one of the largest single-election declines of its sort ever seen. This relative collapse covers a very wide and remarkably heterogenous list of voter groups, being notably limited only among blacks (-8 percent) and Hispanics (-17 percent). And as Perot represented one considerable part of the public's overall judgment that George Bush had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, so his last-minute mini-surge reflected another basic reality of 1992: Bill Clinton had not completely closed his sale of himself as the agent of change from the rejected status quo of 1992.

Nonetheless, the highest strategic marks should be given to Governor Clinton, his master tactician James Carville, and other key actors in his campaign. To win, Clinton had to develop an appeal to "middle America" that recent Democratic nominees have lacked. He was successful in this, and in distancing himself from tight relationships with core interest-group liberal constituencies, yet without disavowing them--a deft balancing act. Ross Perot helped by drawing from segments of the electorate that might otherwise have drifted back to George Bush. The strategy was deplored by some urban liberals, but it may have been the only way through the maze to success in 1992. Despite his huge 1988-1992 losses, George Bush might very well have won this election confronted by a less dynamic opponent pursuing a more traditional Democratic campaign strategy. The key to success lay in capitalizing effectively on the revolt of the moderates, the preponderant majority of whom had voted for Reagan and Bush over the past three elections. Even in 1992, this could not have been done by just any Democratic nominee.


Before the actual returns came in, the question hovered in the air as to whether this election was another 1932. It wasn't, because the old partisan voting linkages just aren't there any more and new ones have not been cemented. Republicans gained nine seats in the House contests and broke even in the Senate races. By contrast, the Republicans lost eighty-two incumbent congressmen in 1932. In 1860-61, Lincoln's position as a national minority president was much improved when more than seventy Southern representatives and twenty-one senators left the union with their states. With FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln, overwhelming legislative majorities accompanied the new administration into office. This is not the case this year. If 1992 was a landslide rejection of an incumbent Republican president, his party was scarcely affected.

This can be read in a variety of ways, of course. Republicans were chagrined that a "golden," post-reapportionment, post-scandal opportunity had been lost to make far greater gains than this. There were more open seats in the House (91) than at any time since the First World War. Considering the levels of public rage against incumbents the polls had monitored all year, a real slaughter of sitting Democrats seemed perfectly possible. Turnovers of as many as 150 House seats were contemplated. The payoff on election day, however, was surprisingly modest. Thirteen Democratic incumbents were ousted, as were six Republicans, while another three Democrats and a Republican lost to their opponents where apportionment forced them to run against each other. As for the open seats, Democrats won them by a 57-34 margin and partisan switches in this category canceled each other out. The Republicans' great expectations were once again dashed; but they were hardly irrational.

Following the civil rights act of 1982, Republicans pursued a very often successful "aggregation" strategy of drawing districts designed to elect blacks or Latinos and thus draw off votes on which many white Democrats had relied for their election. Many of the competitive seats narrowly won by Democrats in 1992 probably represent "land mines" for the future. Thus the 176 Republicans in the next Congress represent a situation that, from Clinton's point of view, could have been worse, and may very well become so across the 1990s.

The congressional election was notable on a number of dimensions. The number of House seats where there was no major-party opposition plummeted to 29, the lowest number (and proportion) since 1900. The number and proportion of competitive contests rose to the highest level in incumbent-held seats in nearly thirty years. Perhaps most notable of all was the strong pro-Republican vote shift in the South. This produced a situation where, for the first time in American history, the Democratic share of the congressional two-party vote was lower in the South (51.9 percent) than it was outside it (52.9 percent). This region's secular realignment toward the Republicans, speeded up in 1984 and 1988, is still under way; it has now fully rejoined the Union, and then some.

Still, despite seeming change, the overall impression is one of remarkable continuity. This is the more remarkable when one considers the "everything-up-for-grabs" atmosphere that was reported in the polls and reflected in a good deal of pre-election analysis. And if I have not spent any great time discussing the Senate contests, it is because the continuity level is greater still. In the end, only four incumbents lost their seats (Fowler, D-Ga.; Kasten, R-Wis.; Sanford, D-N.C.; and Seymour, R-Calif., the latter an appointee). The candidate domination that is a central theme of the sixth electoral era's "permanent campaign" remains alive and in fine health in 1992. This is one very strong reason for believing that while this election ended the Reagan-Bush era, it made no more than an occasional dent on the relationship between candidates and voters that so mark this particular era in American history. To the extent that this is so, the electoral regime set up in and after the critical realignment of the late 1960s has not yet run its course or been replaced by something basically different.

Interest group liberalism, in the sense first used by the political scientist Theodore Lowi in 1969 as an alliance between constituent groups and a benevolent state, has faltered because the state no longer effectively serves the demands of the groups and the groups no longer provide consistently reliable electoral support for the (Democratic) governing coalition. Yet at the same time, as the electoral continuities demonstrate, most of the groups are still there (only organized labor is notably weaker); indeed, the old interest groups have been joined by several new fervently active groups--feminists, gays, Hispanics, greens, disabled people, among others. And most still look, however skeptically, to the Democrats.

However, the state today is far less able than before the year 1968 either to provide tangible benefits or to broker satisfactory compromises--hence the frustration and the interregnum. Interest group liberalism as a viable regime order may be dead, but as the 1990 election data show, the Democratic Party still depends heavily on a coalition of liberal interest groups, traditional and new. Indeed, leaving aside the white South, the Clinton coalition of 1992 looks remarkably like the Roosevelt coalition of 1940. What remains to be seen is whether Clinton can cement their allegiance, while simultaneously defining a transcendent national interest, to create a seventh durable electoral era and governing consensus.


In this essay, I have sought to locate the broad picture of this election and its setting in "political time" across American history. This picture may suggest rather darker colors than the occasion warrants. After all, it had become clear to American voters early in 1992, as it was clear to me and many others, that nothing constructive could be expected to happen if George Bush were reelected. This might not matter at a point where drift could continue a while longer; it mattered vitally in 1992. Clinton's election, with all the constraints duly noted, means that something more constructive is a possibility -- and none too soon. For it is now a close to universal belief among Americans that time is not on our side.

As Abraham Lincoln famously observed in 1862, "The occasion is piled high with difficulty. We must think anew and act anew. We must disenthral ourselves, and then we shall save our country." Economists, policy specialists, and countless others have been hard at work spelling out our own piled-high difficulties and how they might be constructively addressed. Clearly, a new start must center on disenthralling ourselves about government's place in the political economy. This implies a government that can "work" and especially one that is widely seen to "work," and this in turn will involve myriad, highly disagreeable, changes in the behavior of Washington's politicians. Ross Perot's candidacy and the size of his vote are a clear warning; so more generally was the extremely disturbed state of public opinion throughout 1992. An exceptional burden is thus added to the inventory of burdens that poured down on Bill Clinton on November 3. For Clinton may well be the system's last chance. One suspects that he has already considered this possibility. And he may just be skillful and lucky enough to succeed in the task of reconstruction that now begins, by involving--as he must--both Washington politicians and the public in developing their own personal stake in his success.

You may also like