The Conservative Electorate of 1992

David K. Nichols

June 16, 2014

…what Perot’s candidacy did was to give the voters who were dissatisfied with their respective parties a chance to protest without taking the revolutionary step of voting for the other side.

Clinton received only 10% of the Republican votes, up a mere 2% from 1988. Almost all of the Republican voters who deserted Bush moved to Perot. This is perhaps the most conclusive sign that Bush lost, rather than Clinton won.

If there is agreement on anything about the 1992 election, it is that the election represented a vote for change. The voters rejected an incumbent president, they voted for a third party candidate in near record numbers, and they elected a candidate whose negatives would have been insurmountable in a more traditional electoral campaign. But I would argue that the change supported by the electorate was modest, and that the behavior of the electorate reflected a conservative as opposed to a radical disposition on the part of most voters. Furthermore, I believe that the party which understands this fact will be in the best position to dominate American politics in the future.

Let us begin by looking at the most obvious example of change—Bush lost. But given the circumstances a Bush defeat represented politics as usual, not some radical change. Everyone knows that unless we are at war, economic well-being is the primary concern of most voters. A President who is in office in the midst of a period of economic decline will be held accountable for that decline. Americans vote retrospectively when they have the chance. They vote on the performance they have seen and they discount promises that are made by either the incumbent or the challenger.

In addition Bush faced one other difficulty. Although there have been long periods when one party has dominated the Presidency, even in the midst of such periods the voters often become restless with the same old faces and the unbroken control of a single party. The five consecutive terms of Roosevelt and Truman are the exception not the rule in American politics. The rule has been that in the midst of a period of one party domination of the Presidency, the people will occasionally opt for a modest change. The Presidencies of Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, and even Carter represented short-term deviations in the midst of a relatively stable period of partisan alignment. None of these Presidents marked a radical change in party alignment, and they each took pains to reassure voters that they were not repudiating all of the policies of the incumbent’s party.

The 1992 election is in fact most reminiscent of another deviating election, the election of 1840. In 1836 Martin Van Buren became the last sitting Vice-President until George Bush to be elected President. Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840 and was defeated. The two major reasons for his defeat were, first, the economy was in recession; and second, many of the former supporters of the Democratic Party complained that he was no Andrew Jackson. Van Buren the insider elitist lost the support of the outsider populist Andrew Jackson had drawn to the party. The Whigs came to power by appealing to the same populist themes that had elevated Jackson to the White House, and they offered relatively modest changes in policy.

Bush was not predestined to follow in Van Buren’s footsteps, but it is important to remember that voters do not want to be taken for granted. Jefferson’s claim that a little revolution is a good thing is too extreme for most Americans. But most Americans agree that throwing the bums out every few years is a good idea.

Nonetheless Bush might still have been able to win in 1992. We often forget how rarely voters change their partisan allegiances. Even in the midst of the Republican successes of the 1968-88 period, more than a third of the electorate maintained its allegiance to the Democratic Party. Even at the height of the New Deal, Republicans could count on a solid third of the electorate. The dominant party had dominated because it has won a significant number of swing voters while maintaining a solid hold on its base. The minority party loses in the battle for swing voters and suffers some defections from the ranks of the faithful. Events or personalities may deliver these swing voters to the minority party in any given election, but a realignment occurs only when you see a persistent pattern of voters support sustained over several elections.

The entrance of a third party candidate confuses the picture. The third party candidate is inevitably more popular with independent voters than with the party faithful. Ross Perot, for example, won 30% of the votes of independents, while attracting only 17% of Republican voters and 13% of Democratic voters.

Perot’s prominence in the race, and his relative success might suggest that this was in fact a revolutionary election. But in many respects Perot was a traditional third party candidate. He received no electoral votes and had no effect on the outcome of races below the Presidential level. Perot mobilized that portion of the electorate that is angry and disillusioned with the two major parties, but what Perot proves is that while that portion of the electorate always exists, it has never constituted a majority force in American politics. Perot’s 19% of the popular vote is higher than LaFolette’s 16.6% in 1924 or Wallaces 13% in 1968, but it is much closer to these earlier third party populists than to the level of support necessary to win an election.

In fact, what Perot’s candidacy did was to give the voters who were dissatisfied with their respective parties a chance to protest without taking the revolutionary step of voting for the other side. For example, if you were an independent or Republican voter who continued to distrust the Democratic Party on taxes, spending, social issues and foreign policy, then you could vote for Perot as a protest against Bush without affirming the policies of the Democrats. What looks like the revolutionary protest vote in theory turns out to be the conservative protest vote in practice.

But what about those people who voted for Clinton? Didn’t Clinton reconfigure the electoral landscape, winning races in traditional Republican strongholds? Weren’t the people voting for a candidate who identified himself as the best agent of change? Didn’t the election represent a rejection of the last twelve years of trickle down economics and social agenda of the ultra conservatives in the Republican Party?

Given the fact that the Democrats won and the Republicans lost, it is obvious that the Democrats did better than usual in this election. But there was no major reconfiguration of the political map. The double Bubba ticket did not do very well in the South, carrying only two states in addition to the home states of the candidates. The margin of victory for Bush in the remaining Southern states did decrease, but the South continued to provide the Republicans with a relatively solid electoral base.

In the nation as a whole what we saw was the Democratic ticket picking up swing voters and swing states that it had lost in the past, rather than any surprising victories by the Democratic ticket in Republican strongholds. If we use the 1984 election as the benchmark election for the Republican realignment we will see just how stable voting patterns are. Clinton carried all 12 of the states where Reagan had received 55% or less of the vote in 1984. Whereas, Bush carried 18 of the 21 states Reagan had carried with 61% of the vote or more in 1984. These states represent the base states for the Democrats and the Republicans in the current alignment.

The remaining 17 states represented the battleground on which Presidential races are decided. Bush carried all 17 of those states in 1988, although he won 9 of those states with 53% of the vote or less. In 1992 Bush lost all 17 of those states to Clinton. The Republicans have no reason to cheer about these statistics, but they should take some heart from the fact that Clinton has not put together some new electoral coalition. The Republican base remains, and the Democrats can win only when they can achieve a virtual sweep in the swing states.

From another perspective you could argue that the Democrats gained very little. It was simply a case of the Republicans losing. Exit polls tell us that the Perot vote cut equally into the Clinton and Bush vote. But there are other signs that Bush suffered more from the Perot candidacy.

For example we continued to hear much about the gender gap in this election, and once again the Democrats did significantly better among women voters (46%) than among men (41%). But the gender gap virtually disappeared for Bush. He received 38% of the vote from men and 37% of the vote from women. So if the conventional wisdom about the gender gap is accurate, the Republicans should be pleased.

Unfortunately for the Republicans the conventional wisdom has missed the point. Remember Republicans have been winning in elections where there was a gender gap, and the reason is that male voters have been reluctant to vote for Democrats. In 1988 Bush carried 50% of the female vote but he carried 57% of the male vote. In 1992 however, Bush dropped to 38% among male voters, and Ross Perot picked up 21% of the male voters. Clinton’s level of support among males remained unchanged, even with Perot in the race.

Even more striking is the vote of those who identify with one of the major parties. In 1988 the Democratic ticket maintained the support of 82% of Democratic voters, the highest level in the last four elections. In 1976, 1980, and the 1984, the Democratic Presidential ticket attracted 77%, 67%, and 74% respectively. But in this same period the Republican tickets dipped below 90% support of Republican voters only in the three way race in 1980, when the ticket still received 86% of the Republican vote. In 1992 Bush carried only 73% of the Republican vote, an 18% decline from 1988. Perot attracted 17% of Republican voters.

This shows a clear erosion of Bush’s Republican base. Had Bush merely maintained his 1988 level of support among Republican voters, he would have beaten Clinton, at least in the popular vote. Those Republican voters did not go to Clinton, however. Clinton received only 10% of the Republican votes, up a mere 2% from 1988. Almost all of the Republican voters who deserted bush moved to Perot. This is perhaps the most conclusive sign that Bush lost, rather than Clinton won.

Clinton did represent change—he wasn’t Bush. But Clinton’s positive message is more difficult to decipher. His complaints about trickle down economics, racial divisiveness, and social intolerance as well as his praise of economic planning are hardly new themes for the Democratic Party. Democrats had lost 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections campaigning on those themes.

Those themes kept the faithful in line, but they did not win the election, even though the current economic problems gave those themes greater resonance with voters. Clinton, himself, did not believe that these traditional Democratic themes were enough. That is why he took such great pains to run as a “new” Democrat. The “new” Democrat is concerned with economic growth as well as fairness; he believes in a strong defense, he is tough on crime, and is even willing to take on Jesse Jackson under the right circumstances. It was difficult to distinguish between Clinton’s Convention speech in 1992 and Bush’s call for a “kindlier and gentler nation” in 1988.

If Clinton could convince voters that he is the person to deliver on Bush’s promise of 1988, he might well have begun a new realignment. But the danger for Clinton is obvious. His base is still in the liberal Democratic constituency of the seventies and eighties, and that base is bound to exert a powerful influence on his policy choices. Jesse Jackson and others were willing to withhold criticism of his neo-Reagan rhetoric during the campaign, believing after all that it was mere rhetoric designed to win the election. But now that the election is over, Clinton will have to make choices that will conflict with either his traditional base or with the values of the Reagan Democrats and Reagan Independents.

The main message for the Republicans according to this analysis is don’t panic. The voters thought that the economy, the deficit, and health care were the three most important issues, and they were willing to give Clinton a chance to deal with the economy and healthcare. But only 36% of the voters thought Clinton would do a good job in dealing with the deficit, the second most important issue among the voters. The next three issues in order of importance were family values, taxes, and abortion. In all three of these issues Bush was preferred over Clinton by a substantial margin. Family values and taxes are no surprise, but given the media coverage it is remarkable that of those voters who identified abortion as an issue they cared about, 55% preferred Bush to 37% for Clinton. Foreign policy was far down on the list, but given the character of the Presidency and the world, it is bound to return to the forefront. And of those voters concerned about foreign policy, 86% supported Bush and only 9% supported Clinton.

Clinton’s victory was in large part a single issue victory, and that issue will either become less important as the economy improves or will turn against Clinton and the Democrats if the economy fails to improve with them in power.

Nonetheless the Republicans need to avoid some potential mistakes if they wish to reassert their supremacy in Presidential politics and begin to make serious gains at the Congressional level and below. First they must maintain a balanced assessment of the Bush Presidency and the Bush campaign. The policies of Bush and the Republican Party are still appealing to a wide range of voters. That is why Bush lost by only four points. But in this case the conventional wisdom is right. Bush and the campaign did a pathetic job of communicating those policies.

The danger, however, is that Bush’s rhetorical failure will be reinterpreted as a policy failure. Here Bush is vulnerable from both the left and the right in the Republican Party. One possibility, though the least likely is that liberal Republicans will decide that social issues are no longer important and that the Republicans should stop talking about family values or they will be relegated to the ash heap of history. I think the numbers cited above show that this is a mistake from an electoral standpoint. If the Republicans cease to talk about the connection between values and economic success, welfare, health, crime and education, than something crucial to the debate in these areas may well be lost.

What is more likely is that the right will complain that Bush’s failure was inextricably related to the fact that he was never a true believer. He trimmed on taxes, on affirmative action, on Hussein, and on the evil empire. George Bush was no Pat Buchanan. But what the right must remember is that Ronald Reagan was no Pat Buchanan either. Reagan was a candidate of inclusion more than exclusion, and he was a candidate who showed that he could govern, not just criticize. Bush did not explain the principle behind his policies. But in general his policies did reflect principles that provide a foundation for majority support among the electorate.

Bush believed in low marginal tax rates, just as Reagan did. But he was also willing to compromise on this issue in order to govern, just as Reagan was. Bush opposed quotas, but he was willing to compromise on a civil rights bill, because he thought it was important that the Republicans show that opposition to quotas did not mean opposition to civil rights. Finally, Bush was willing to pursue principles in foreign policy, but he understood the importance of recognizing the limits of public support and military capability. In all of these things Bush represented the values of most Americans, far more than his critics from either the left or the right.

Bush failed to get that message across. But it would be an even greater failure on the part to the Republican Party to fail to understand that message. To do so would be the first step in turning the current Republican majority in Presidential politics into a permanent minority party.

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