Sabatos Crystal Ball

1992 Presidential Election

UVA Center for Politics January 1st, 2008


President Bush began the election cycle looking unbeatable. Coasting on the apparent success of his leadership during the Gulf War, Bush appeared to have the strength to lead the United States into what he called “the new world order.” For a while, President Bush appeared so strong that many Democrats were reluctant to take him on. Despite high polling numbers, President Bush might have been doomed from the start. Despite three decades in public life, Bush had never conveyed a coherent identity or defining characteristic. By the spring of 1992, Bush’s base had crumbled. The president had decided to “sit” on his high popularity ratings and win reelection by avoiding mistakes, ultimately leading to a bitter anti-incumbent mood dominating the new campaign year. Nationwide, reformers promoted the idea of term limits for elected officials as a way to sweep out career politicians.

The Democratic field grew slowly. By calling himself “a New Democrat,” Clinton hoped to separate himself from some of the rejected Democratic candidates of the past like Mondale and Dukakis. The Democratic victory owes some of its spoils to the “year of the woman.” Female voters had sided with the Democrats since the Republican party dropped its support for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion in 1980, although the Democrats were not able to utilize this advantage in the “gender gap” until the election of 1992.

Ross Perot’s anti-government and folksy appeal appealed to voters of the suburban middle-class, a key component of the Republican electorate. Even after spending $60 million of his own money in an on again, off again campaign, Perot was still left appealing to only a small segment of the nation’s population. With a weak running mate, and erratic behavior, Ross Perot began to drive away supporters, and in hindsight, had little chance to win. However, his campaign left a significant impact sweeping away 19 percent of the vote.

Unusually, with his 370 electoral votes, Clinton only took away 43 percent of the vote compared to Bush’s 38 percent. The anti-Bush mood of the electorate, undoubtedly assisted by Perot, helped generate the highest voter turnout rate since 1960, with 55 percent of the eligible voters participating.