Context: The Playing Field

As important as the qualities of the candidates and the rules of the nominating process are in shaping voters' choices and decisions, one should not lose sight of another major factor affecting the outcome of an election--the historical context in which it occurs.  In 1992, the end of the Cold War tilted the playing field away from George Bush, even as perceptions about the state of the economy helped Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

During the 1988 campaign, then Vice President Bush made much of the record stretch of economic growth that had occurred in the Reagan-Bush years.  His speeches invariably contained references to "the longest peacetime expansion in modern history."  By 1992, however, lackluster economic performance throughout much of the preceding three years severely hampered Bush's re-election bid.

The idea that "people vote their pocketbooks" has even been formulated into a mathematical model by Ray Fair, a professor at Yale University.  He has developed an equation that "explains votes for president [in the general election] on the basis of economic conditions at the time of the election."  Fair writes, "The two economic variables that seem most important are the growth rate of real per capita GNP in the six-month period prior to the election and the rate of inflation in the two-year period prior to the election."  The equation did not do very well in 1992, and Fair continues to fine tune it.[1] 

More broadly, if people are satisfied with the direction the country is going, they are not likely to turn out the incumbent.  Alan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell argue in The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency that overall performance in office, measured by 13 criteria they have identified, determines election outcomes.[2]

Foreign affairs and defense policy--a Bush strength--were of minimal import in the 1996 campaign.  Had communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union not collapsed during the Bush tenure, the dynamics of the campaign might have been very different.  As it was, the figurative bear of the Reagan's famous 1984 campaign ad (>) appeared to have left the woods, if it had ever been there.  The wave of patriotism surrounding Desert Storm, which many observers had thought would lead to an inevitable Bush victory, subsided to the distant background in most people's minds by November 1992.

Incumbency does carry with it many advantages.  The incumbent president benefits not only from the symbolic trappings of the office (for example Air Force One and "Hail to the Chief") but also from the ability to dispense tangible benefits.  In early September, for example, President Bush went to a farm in South Dakota and announced a subsidy for wheat exports and travelled to a General Dynamics plant in Texas to announce the sale of 150 F-16s to Taiwan.  These actions, along with his decision to rebuild the hurricane-damaged Homestead Air Force base in Florida, caused Detroit News reporter James Gannon to label Bush "a flying fountain of federal aid." 

Such largesse has its limits, however.  In 1992, after twelve years of Republican control of the White House, many observers felt the vigor of the Bush administration had flagged; the pendulum was swinging in the direction of change.  The House banking scandal, the Clarence Thomas hearings and the term limits movement were among the ingredients fostering a climate of dissatisfaction and desire to "throw the rascals out" which boosted the Perot campaign. 

The 1992 campaign could also be seen as a generational contest.  The Clinton-Gore ticket presented voters with the question of whether they were ready for a generation of leadership that had not experienced World War II.

Another factor affecting the political terrain is the standing of the parties.  Heading into 1992 the Democratic party's prospects were seen as bleak; for example Peter Brown penned a book Minority Party in which he argued that Democrats could not win the White House because many white voters felt frustrated and betrayed by the party.[3]  For some people a reluctance to turn over control of both the White House and Congress to the same party may influence voting decisions.  From a logistical point of view, if one of the parties controls a large number of governorships, big city town halls and other offices around the country, its presidential candidate may be able to effectively tie in with the local political machinery.

Finally, there is always the element of chance.  The best-laid plans, the most careful positioning, and the soundest campaign organization can all be knocked awry by an unexpected event.  A campaign cannot plan for the L.A. riots or Hurricane Andrew, although it can move to take advantage of them.

The challenge for campaign organizations, then, is to understand the political terrain or context in which they are operating.  Despite Lichtman and DeCell's thesis, it seems likely that a well-run campaign can make some difference in the outcome of an election.  A good campaign organization sets the agenda and the terms of debate.  The 1992 contest was not about foreign policy--Bush's terrain--but revolved around the domestic economy, as in, "It's the economy, stupid."  Ability to mobilize voters can affect results as can low voter interest and low turnout.  Exactly how much of an effect a campaign can have is a much-debated point, but most observers agree that Bush's campaign was poorly managed, while Clinton's team avoided the mistakes of past Democratic efforts.

1. Ray C. Fair.  "The Effect of Economic Events on Votes for President: 1992 Update."  New Haven: Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics at Yale University.  October 1994.

2. Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell.  1990.  The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency.  Lanham, MD: Madison Books.

3. Peter Brown.  1991.   Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond.  Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway.