Posted on December 18, 1995 in Washington Watch

The official opening of the 1996 presidential primary elections are a little more than one month away. It is now certain the Bill Clinton will be the Democratic nominee as he seeks reelection in November of 1996. He will be uncontested in the primaries, which is a somewhat surprising development since only one year ago there was widespread speculation that he would face a challenge from within his own party.

For the Republican party, the stakes are extremely high, with nine candidates competing to become their party’s nominee to challenge Bill Clinton’s reelection bid.

These nine Republican candidates have been campaigning for more than one year now, and have already raised more than $100 million in campaign contributions. They have been crisscrossing the country raising money, recruiting supporters, building grassroots organizations, refining their campaigns themes and blueprints for governing, securing endorsements from prominent Republicans, and debating one another television, radio and before local audiences. More recently they have begun to spend millions of dollars on all-important 30 and 60 second television advertisements in an effort to build broad support for their candidacies.

Despite this marathon effort, a recent poll shows that the public has not yet begun to focus on either the campaign or the candidates. Seventy-five percent of Americans could not name two of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination.

To be fair, this state of affairs is not the fault of the candidates. They have been unable to break through into the national media. The top nightly news stories that have commanded national attention over the past six months have been: the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Colin Powell book tour and campaign flirtation, the Rabin assassination, the budget battles and the shutdown of the government, and the Bosnia debate.

With all of these events dominating the news, most Republican candidates couldn’t break through to draw public attention to their campaigns.

While all of the other candidates have suffered, Senator Robert Dole, the Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, has been the only beneficiary of this effective media blackout. He began 1995 as the front-runner in the Republican campaign to challenge Bill Clinton, and he ends the year in much the same position.

This media squeeze caused Dole to slip in the polls. He now trails Clinton by as much as 19% in one recent poll. But in most national polls focusing on the Republican contest, Dole’s still the clear leader, drawing over 40% in most Republican primary polls. No other Republican candidate has exceeded 10%.

Following Dole are Texas Senator Phil Graham and political commentator Pat Buchanan, averaging only between 7% and 9%. Fourth place has been taken by millionaire magazine publisher Steve Forbes who varies between 5% and 6%. Forbes, who only recently entered the race, has achieved this position by spending millions of dollars on television ads and taking advantage of the fact that many Republicans know the name of his popular business magazine, “Forbes.”

Senator Richard Lugar and former Governor Lamar Alexander are next in the polls, followed by Congressman Bob Dornan, former Reagan Administration UN official Alan Keyes and Midwestern Republican businessman Morry Taylor, all of whom rarely break 2%. It is worth noting, however, that in every poll at least 25% of Republican voters say they have not yet decided whom they would support.

As it stands, Dole seems to be the runaway favorite to win the Republican nomination. His standing in the national polls is dominant. He has emerged somewhat weakened from the shadows of Colin Powell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but is still clearly the favorite of the Republican establishment. He has earned the endorsement of most major Republican leaders nationwide. Already 19 of the 30 Republican governors have endorsed Dole’s candidacy, while Graham has secured the endorsement of only two Governors and Alexander only one. Finally, Dole has raised more money and is better known than all of the other candidates in the race.

With the process set to begin in about a month, and with over two-thirds of all states to have completed their delegate selection process within two months (by the end of March), it might appear that Dole could rest assured of victory.

But that is not the case. The nomination is not won by the leader of the national polls, but to the candidate who emerges victorious from a grueling state-by-state election process. And for Dole, there may be some landmines in the process.

The first four states in the cycle to hold their elections are Hawaii, Alaska, Louisiana and Iowa. In each of these states Republican voters will go to caucuses to vote for their favorite candidate. The caucuses are a unique democratic experience. Caucuses are held in numerous locations disbursed throughout the state, in schools or other public buildings. Instead of casting a ballot, voters at the caucuses go into a room and in a meeting publicly declare their support for the candidate of their choice.

Because caucuses are involved, time-consuming and public events, they traditionally draw only a small percentage of the all Republican voters. They are, therefore, also unpredictable: the candidate who wins is the one with the best organization who can get out voters in districts and precincts all across the state to support his campaign.

Because of a dispute between other states and Iowa over which state is to hold the first caucuses in the nation and the unusual significance of Iowa for the national media (Iowa is traditionally first, but this year the other three states have scheduled their events even earlier), most candidates have not signed up to participate in the Hawaii, Alaska and Louisiana events.

If Graham out-organizes the others (he is counting on winning at least Louisiana, which borders his home state of Texas), he may be able to come into Iowa with some momentum and national press coverage, and may inspire more Iowa Republican voters to support his candidacy over that of his nearest rivals (Buchanan and Alexander) to declare a two-man race between himself and Dole.

Dole must produce a big victory in Iowa, where he is often referred to as the state’s “third Senator” because his home state of Kansas borders Iowa and shares many of its concerns. Failure to do so would tarnish his image as the unbeatable frontrunner and probably help his rivals to raise renewed enthusiasm and money for their campaigns.

The first primary state is New Hampshire, where voters engage in a more traditional election of going into booths to cast secret ballots. While Dole is the leader in New Hampshire, Buchanan has scored well in the state and could embarrass Dole with a strong showing. It should be recalled that Buchanan won 39% of the New Hampshire vote in 1992, hurting George Bush’s image as the Republican leader. Alexander and Forbes have also been spending considerable time and money in New Hampshire, hoping to catapult themselves into the media spotlight by shrinking Dole’s margin in the state.

The logic of the process is such that if any of the candidates can perform better than expected while Dole fails to meet expectations, the media will paint Dole as a weakened candidate. This would in turn give hope to the Republican Senator’s most serious challengers (Graham, Forbes, Buchanan and Alexander) that Republican voters in other states will pay more attention to them and build a momentum to carry that they then will be able to carry into the next state’s contests.

In addition to the electoral factors which may affect the race, some external influences may also affect Dole’s chances. Conservatives are furious at the Senator’s leadership in support of President Clinton’s position on Bosnia. And as Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, he faces some difficult weeks of budget negotiations ahead. A strategy of compromise with the White House and Republican moderates which succeeds in the legislative arena may weaken Dole’s standing as a candidate in the Republican primaries and caucuses, where conservative voters usually dominate.

But what will help senator Dole’s chances is the fact that, unlike previous years, the campaign process is highly compressed. In the past, the state-by-state voting was spread out over a six month period, giving candidates who start off slowly a chance to build momentum and turn the race around in later contests. Although the process still lasts until June, this year the bulk of the states will vote before the end of March. This may be too short a time period for the frontrunner to be both challenged and beaten.

Additionally, there is as yet no clear second place candidate in the race for the Republican nomination behind Dole. Even if Dole is weakened, it is unclear which of his four major challengers will gain strength. In all likelihood, all four will gain a little and, in effect, cancel each other out.

The big picture looks benign for the Kansas senator; but when looking at the details, some difficulties begin to appear on his path to becoming the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. It still appears that he can win. But he will have to campaign hard, organize effectively and avoid making any serious mistakes.

The best guess at the end of 1995 is that in November of 1996 Dole will be the Republican who will challenge Bill Clinton’s bid for reelection.

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