Posted on October 21, 1996 in Washington Watch
With only two weeks remaining until the November 5th Presidential elections, President Clinton retains a substantial 10 point lead over Republican challenger Bob Dole.
Gloom has once again descended on the Republican Party and the Dole campaign has begun to act out in desperation. After two weeks of press leaks suggesting that Dole had decided to raise the issue of Clinton’s character, Dole unloaded a bitter attack on the Clinton White House.
In a series of speeches Dole and his Vice-Presidential running mate Jack Kemp and other campaign supporters pointed to mistakes and scandals that have plagued the President and members of his administration for the past four years.
While these attacks are music to the ears of the Republican faithful, they have not as of yet borne fruit for the Dole campaign for four principle reasons:
First, none of the scandals directly involve the President in any wrongdoing. Secondly, most of these matters have been the subject of years of investigation and long drawn-out Senate and Congressional hearings. In most cases the public has decided that by raising them again, the Republicans are just “playing politics.”
Thirdly, by going on the attack Senator Dole risks losing as much as he might gain. Voters already feel that Dole is too mean and too negative. By directly and repeatedly going after the President, Senator Dole is in danger of reinforcing this negative image of his campaign.
And finally, most voters have already decided how they will vote and seem to be basing their vote on specific issues and their concerns about the direction of the country. In this regard it is interesting to note that while voters give Dole a higher rating for integrity and character than President Clinton, they give the President higher points for leadership on the issues that mean the most to them—education, the economy, health care, environmental concerns, and fighting crime.
As a result, the President has maintained a greater than 10% lead for weeks now and that level has at times increased to over 15%.
What is most troubling to the Dole camp is that the President is not only leading Dole in national polls, but in important states where Republicans have traditionally been victorious. And it is these state by state counts that will ultimately be decisive in determining the outcome of the election.
To understand U.S. presidential politics, it is necessary to understand the inner workings of what is called the “electoral system.”
According to the U.S. Constitution the presidential election will not ultimately be decided by the national popular vote—but by what is called the electoral vote.
Here is the way the system works:
Each of the 50 states is assigned a specific number of electoral votes, or electors. States are given as many electors as their combined number of congressmen and senators. Every state has 2 senators, but the number of congressmen is determined by each state’s population.
Thus, the most populous state, California, which has 52 congressmen and 2 senators is assigned a total of 54 electoral votes. A less populous state, such as Vermont, has only one congressman in addition to its two senators; therefore Vermont has 3 electoral votes.
The popular vote is not counted on the national level. Rather, it is counted on a state-by-state basis. The winner of each state receives all of that state’s electoral votes.
There are a total of 538 electoral votes (435 congressmen, 100 senators plus three electoral votes for the only non-state, the nation’s capital, Washington, DC). In order to win the election, a presidential candidate must win enough states to win at least 270 electoral votes, or one half of the total plus one.
This complex system has produced presidential campaigns which are run not as national efforts, but as individual state campaigns.
The themes and programs put forward by the candidate are national in scope, but the tactics of each campaign are focused on a local state-by-state basis. Different approaches are needed to win votes in each state and region of the country.
From 1968 to 1988 the Republicans had what was considered a “lock” on the electoral vote. Because their message and programs appealed to so many diverse constituencies and regions of the country, Republicans were virtually guaranteed victory in 21 states with a total of 191 electoral votes. They won these states all six times between 1968 and 1988. In five of those six elections, they also won another twelve states with a combined total of 138 electoral votes. Together, these 33 states gave the Republicans an almost certain 329 votes—hence the phrase that the Republicans had a “lock on the White House.”
Democrats, on the other hand, only won Washington, DC all six times.
As a result of their regularly winning these states, even if only by a small margin, Republicans were virtually guaranteed victories by what appear to be large margins in the electoral vote, but not in the popular vote.
In 1968 for example, Richard Nixon, the Republican, beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey by a mere one percent of the popular vote (only 500,000 votes nationally). Nixon’s real victory came in the electoral vote where he won enough states to win by a margin of 301-191. (That year, a southern Governor named George Wallace ran as an independent and won 46 electoral votes by winning a number of southern states.)
And while Ronald Reagan is remembered for his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, in fact he won by only 9 percent of the popular vote. The landslide came in the electoral vote count, which Reagan won 489 to 49.)
Even George Bush’s 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis was less than 8 percent nationally, but he won enough states to give him a 426 to 111 margin in electoral votes.
As a result of this Republican “lock” on almost all of the Western states (including California), the industrial mid-Western states (especially Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio), and most of the Southern states (when a southerner like Carter or Wallace isn’t in the race), Democrats were at a real disadvantage when running national campaigns.
With Republicans all but guaranteed victory in so many states, Democrats had to win all the rest and then win a few of the so-called `Republican states’ just to be competitive.
In 1992 Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, broke that electoral lock. By developing a centrist message that focused on economic issues, Clinton was able to assemble a coalition that won the support of young voters and middle class voters including those who live in states that Republicans had previously claimed as their own. Clinton, for example, won California with 54 electoral votes and Illinois with 22 electoral votes—states which Republicans had won in the past six elections.
In 1996 Clinton promises to surpass his 1992 victory. Not only is he leading handily in California and Illinois, he is also leading Dole in such Republican strongholds as Arizona (8 electoral votes) and Florida (25 electoral votes).
The latest State polls show Clinton with a commanding lead in twenty five states with 307 electoral votes. Dole, on the hand, has a substantial lead in only nine states with only forty four electoral votes. Overall, Clinton leads in thirty five states with 412 electoral votes, with Dole leading in fourteen states with 110 votes.
As a result of this bleak electoral picture, as Dole’s campaign strategists attempt to plan their last few weeks of campaigning they are increasingly hard pressed to decide in which states they should campaign to win the necessary 270 electoral votes.
One major U.S. newspaper described the Dole strategy as attempting to “threading the needle.” With only two weeks to go and limited campaign funds left, Dole has had to decide to put all of his resources in about a dozen states and to ignore the rest of the country. He can not afford to lose any of those dozen states including California (where he currently is trailing Clinton by 15%) Florida (where his is behind by 5%), Virginia, and Texas where he is tied with the President.
Meanwhile, this has freed the Clinton campaign enabling them to shift gears in the last few weeks of the election. Since the Dole campaign will not actually compete in several states, the Clinton campaign can turn their attention to a few key states of their own and to helping Democratic Senate and Congressional candidates in their elections.
The President wants not only to win in November, but to see his Democratic Party return to control in the Senate and Congress. Winning back control of the Senate may be difficult, but winning back the House of Representatives appears to be within the realm of possibility.
This has been a dramatic turn of events for Democrats. In 1994, when the Republicans shocked the nation and seized control of Congress, most analysts gave Clinton up for dead. With his polling figures at an all time low and with an aggressive new Republican leadership in charge in Washington, it was assumed Clinton would lose in 1996 and Republicans would control all branches of government.
A combination of Republican mistakes and an effective White House political campaign have proven that prediction quite wrong.
Republicans will continue to aggressively campaign and hope that their attack tactics and their “eye of the needle” electoral strategy works—but barring a miracle, President Clinton appears to be heading for victory with popularity enough to help his party regain at least some of its former strength.
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