The 1992 Campaign Continues to Fascinate

The 1992 campaign took place against the backdrop of the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War—truly historic developments that unfolded across the Atlantic.  However, here in America, domestic issues, particularly the economy, dominated the discussion.  President George H.W. Bush rode to office as Reagan's successor and was seeking a second term.  He enjoyed record job approval ratings following the Persian Gulf War, but the recession of 1990-91 took its toll.  In the Democratic primaries, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton topped the field of hopefuls and, at age 46, offered generational change.  Independent Ross Perot attracted a dedicated grassroots following and added an element of uncertainty with his on-again, off-again candidacy.  The Nov. 3, 1992 election saw the highest turnout since 1968, 55.9% of voting age population.  104.4 million votes were tallied.  Clinton carried 32 states and DC totaling 370 electoral votes to 18 states and 168 electoral votes for Bush, winning the popular vote by a margin of 43.01% to 37.45% for Bush and 18.91% for Perot. 

In Fall 1996, I self-published the Field Guide to the 1992 Presidential Campaign CD-ROM.  Starting with hundreds of images of original campaign communications, texts of key speeches, results, and a wealth of original source material, I sought to provide a framework for understanding presidential campaigns [six questions] and to establish a benchmark: this is how presidential politics were conducted in 1992.  In 2023 I have started reconfiguring some of the content of the Field Guide for the web, refining and editing the text and adding in links.  Much information is readily available on the Internet, and I have sought to integrate that in and to point people to more source material and resources.  1992 marked the first presidential campaign in which I was substantially engaged, including my first trip to New Hampshire and first national convention.  With the benefit of seven more presidential campaigns covered since that campaign I have been able to clean up weaknesses and omissions in the original text, add context and perspective, and provide a more robust picture.

The 1992 campaign continues to fascinate even more than 30 years later.  It saw the defeat of an incumbent president George H.W. Bush, the election of the first baby boomer to the White House Bill Clinton, and the uncertainty and interest generated by the presence of a strong independent candidate Ross Perot.  Clinton himself was a once-in-a-generation politician.  His ability to withstand controversies that would have crippled any other politician's prospects and to emerge from the New Hampshire primary as the "comeback kid" stand as a testament to his skills as a politician and the strength of his message. At the same time Clinton had his flaws and that ultimately led to his impeachment in 1998.

Reflecting back on that campaign of some 30 years ago, several points stand out. 

  • The 1992 campaign took place at a key point in world history: it was the first presidential election after the fall of communism.  Candidates presented their views on a post-Cold War world and possible "peace dividend."  The upcoming 2024 election is likewise occurring at a key point in history, but in a much darker way.  Putin's Russia has started a bloody war in Ukraine, and with partners Iran, North Korea and China seems to be forming an "axis of evil" which candidates will need to address. 
  • Another major parallel between the present and 1992 is the undercurrent of discontent.  In 1992 that manifested itself most obviously in the campaign of independent Ross Perot but also in Clinton's message of change. Heading into 2024, former President Trump and his MAGA movement encompass millions of disaffected voters, but he has a fair chance of becoming the Republican nominee.
  • The media ecosystem has changed radically.  In 1992 the networks and newspapers held sway.  Now media are much more fragmented.  People get their news from a variety of sources ranging from mainstream news organizations to organizations, talk shows or bloggers driven by ideological agendas to social media.  Misinformation has proliferated, and AI could make the problem worse.  Thousands of newspapers have closed, and newsroom staffs have been cut significantly.
  • Likewise the communications environment for campaigns has changed markedly. 1992 did mark the first campaign with online activity, but it was limited to online forums.  Democratic candidate Jerry Brown presaged the web era by constantly giving out his campaign's 800-number.  Now campaigns give out their web addresses and devote substantial resources to developing their social media presence including on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and other platforms. 
If you like—or don't like—what you see here on P1992 or have suggestions on how it can be improved, please feel free to let me know.

- ema 11/2023