Posted on August 03, 1992 in Washington Watch
Two weeks after the Democratic Convention, Presidential candidate Bill Clinton is still riding a wave of popularity.
The explosion of support for Clinton that developed during the week of the convention has continued to grow, widening his margin over President Bush to almost 30% in some polls.
Most pollsters feel that the wild fluctuations in presidential preference are an indication of deep alienation and volatility in the voting public. Clinton’s support is, therefore, what pollsters call `soft’. One of his advisors termed the sudden spurt a “soufflÃ©” and warned that the lead could deflate as quickly as it inflated.
While the presidential preference figures are soft, the areas where polling data seem to be showing solid trends are bad news for the president and his reelection hopes. President Bush’s approval ratings have declined steadily over the past twelve months to their current low of 29%. There is a strong erosion of public confidence in the president’s performance and a growing perception that the country is on the wrong track. Only two modern-era presidents experienced public approval ratings as low as Bush’s at a similar point in their Administrations: Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Both lost their bids for reelection.
Clinton’s campaign operatives have not been lulled into complacency by his sudden vault into the lead. Determined to solidify their newly won “soft” support, the Clinton campaign moved immediately from the convention to a cleverly orchestrated bus tour through the Eastern and Midwestern United States. It was no coincidence that the five states the bus tour visited are critical for a November victory.
As the Clinton bus caravan wheeled its way across the industrial heartland, campaign media specialists and a few Hollywood producers designed “sets” for stops along the route. At each setting Clinton, Gore and their wives appeared before a pre-arranged crowd, deliver a “message” and provide photo opportunities to the national and local news media.
The “right” messages and visual images went out: Clinton and Gore in blue jeans playing football at a truck stop in Pennsylvania (emphasizing their youth and Kennedy-esque qualities); Clinton and Gore sitting on bales of hay listening intently to farmers in the middle of an Ohio cornfield (showing their “down-to-earth caring” for those affected by the economic downturn); Hillary Clinton always at her husband’s side, patting her husband’s back and holding his arm (reinforcing her newly remade image as a “kinder and gentler wife”); and Clinton surrounded by police officers while talking about getting tough on crime.
The press seemed all too receptive to the Clinton campaign’s “spin”, whereas Bush campaign efforts to do such set-ups have frequently been foiled by a press which “exposed” the staged nature of the events. The Clinton caravan received a free ride from a media reporting the events, by and large, as the campaign intended them to be reported.
So as the Clinton campaign shaped a daily message and provided the lead story on each night’s television news, the Bush campaign continued to appear stymied and defensive. In fact, the only stories from the Bush campaign these past two weeks have been about disarray and discontent: Baker leaving the State Department to “save” a “sinking” campaign; a prolonged public debate over whether or not to replace Dan Quayle; and a growing chorus of discontent among Republicans asking `what’s wrong with the President?’
As Bush showed in 1988, winning at presidential politics requires a candidate to take control of the media debate, define issues and define one’s opponent. He has not been able, thus far, to do any of these things in 1992. This year it is Clinton who is in control of the debate and the public definition of the issues. As a result, the Bush effort appears weak and defensive.
The following observations can be made about the current weaknesses plaguing the Bush campaign.
1) The economy is not rebounding as Bush had hoped it would. Even if some indicators show limited improvements, it will not be enough to put to rest public fear about the nation’s economic future.
In a real sense George Bush has been set up by the press, by the constant bashing he took at the hands of his Democratic and Republican challengers during the primaries, and by false expectations he created when he projected that real change could and would take place in the economy before the end of the year.
2) The Bush campaign is suffering from a lack of creative and forceful leadership. When the campaign team was announced late last year, most Republicans knew it was a weak team lacking the toughness of the 1988 Atwater and Baker effort. Many Republicans leaders are now publicly complaining that the President’s campaign organization is out of control and lacks real focus.
The President himself is making a determined effort. His speeches are passionate and show a real desire to raise issues and win—but he is lacking the support necessary to carry through and shape the campaign. The job of winning a Presidential election is too big for any one man to carry alone. It is a test of the candidates’ leadership skills to surround themselves with the kind of team that can win.
3) The Quayle factor presents a continuing and serious handicap to the President’s reelection effort.
While Quayle does have strong conservative credentials that help the President with some groups, and while he also has an impressive team of specialists who have helped Quayle seize a few moments of glory in this election year, he continues to make bad mistakes which set the campaign back. Quayle has essentially become institutionalized as a bad political joke, and the lack of public confidence in his leadership coupled with the growing debate over his qualifications to be President, make him no asset to the 1992 reelection effort.
4) Although Clinton is not the strongest candidate the Democrats could have fielded, he has assembled an extraordinarily competent team which is determined not to repeat the mistakes Democrats have made in previous campaigns. In fact, in many instances the Clinton campaign team has taken pages from the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Republican strategy books and used them to their own advantage.
Like Reagan, Clinton has allowed his team to shape not only his message but his image. He is attempting early in the campaign to deal with his weaknesses by fully exposing them, with the hope that they will be neutralized as the campaign rolls on.
5) Finally, and perhaps most seriously, the Republican coalition is beginning to show signs of cracking.
One of the strongest effects of a sustained slide in the polls is not just the public perception of weakness that accompanies it, but the perception within your own camp of a leadership vacuum. As a result, a number of key Republicans have begun to publicly jockey for leadership in anticipation of the 1996 campaign.
Instead of coming together to support a weakened President, the Republican team at times appears to be breaking up. On the other hand, Democrats are experiencing the exact opposite dynamic. With Clinton riding high in the polls, his critics within the party have been silenced and forced to come together behind the nominee.
Reasons for the fissures in the Republican coalition are many. The traditional social conservatives have never trusted George Bush and are still angry with him for breaking the “no new taxes” pledge he made in 1988. Galvanized by Pat Buchanan’s challenge, they have continued to keep their distance from the Bush campaign while some of their more vocal spokespersons have made the implausible suggestion that a Bush defeat in 1992 would enhance the chances of a real conservative emerging victorious in 1996.
The neo-conservatives are also upset with George Bush. The three basic principles that had united neo-conservatives were hostility to the Soviet union, support for Israel and support for the Reagan economic program. Neo-conservatives do not share the social agenda of traditional conservatives, since many were Democrats at one time. Hence, because of the demise of the Soviet Union, their anger at Bush’s treatment of Israel and disappointment with his economic program, many of these neo-conservatives are abandoning the Bush effort. This group has been most vocal in its criticism of Bush, with columnists like George Will, William Safire and Abe Rosenthal either calling on Bush to step down and/or throwing their support to Bill Clinton.
This is not, however, the end of the story of the 1992 election campaign. Despite his slide in the polls and a growing frustration among Republican leaders and rank-and-file supporters, George Bush maintains that the campaign has not yet begun. Bush is saying that the polls in July don’t count but the ballots in November do, and he is promising a hard-fought battle which, he predicts, will close the gap by Labor Day.
The President will get a boost from his Convention in Houston. Whether it will be enough to even the score with Clinton remains to be seen. He is nevertheless aware of his problems and is working to correct the course of his campaign. What he will reconfigure is clear:
Â· tightening up his campaign leadership;
Â· taking dramatic initiatives which will restore confidence in his ability to run the country and control the public debate over the direction of the country for the next four years;
Â· identifying key issues that define his leadership and show Bill Clinton’s weaknesses.
Should he succeed in closing the gap in the short term, Bush will be able to stem or at least slow down the public hemorrhaging within his ranks and maybe even reopen some of the fissures that have long plagued the Democratic coalition.
It can happen, but in late summer 1992, the road to Bush’s reelection seems to be long, tortuous and all uphill.
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