In 1992 incumbent president George H. W. Bush, despite enjoying relatively strong approval ratings as high as 89 percent right after the Gulf war, was deprived of a second term in large part thanks to one man, but it wasn't Bill Clinton or H. Ross Perot. Although Perot's independent effort did its damage, analysis of Perot voters shows that the damage he did affected Bush and Clinton in proportions not sufficiently out of balance to have made the difference for Clinton:
Perot's voters voted overwhelmingly for Democratic Governor candidates, and only marginally in favor of the Republican candidates for the House and Senate. Perot's voters favored Republican Senate candidates by 2.28%, and Republican House candidates by 2.69%. Because Perot's voters were only 1/5th of the total, that translates into about another 500,000 votes or 0.5% for Bush if they had voted in a two way presidential race the same way they voted for the Senate and House. That is about 1/7th of the margin by which Bush lost.As for Clinton, he was mostly remembered for his rambling speech at the DNC convention four years earlier, a marathon address which was cheered when it was over mostly because it was finally over. Otherwise, he was relatively unknown on the national stage before primary season began. He quickly gained notoriety, however, and not in a good way, when allegations of his affairs began to surface in the press. There were also rumors of draft-dodging and marijuana use floating around about Clinton, and the Bush team decided to push hard on the character issue. But Clinton's moral failings were scarcely a minor blip on voters' radar screens. According to exit polling, something else was foremost on the minds of the electorate. 75% had said that the economy was Fairly Bad or Very Bad. After having pledged, "Read my lips, no new taxes," in a 1988 campaign speech, Bush later became concerned with the rising federal deficit and agreed to a budget compromise with Congress to raise taxes in the mistaken belief that higher taxes would reduce the deficit. The Clinton campaign flooded the airwaves with a series of ads which showed Bush repeatedly asking the American people to read his lips, while Clinton was on the campaign trail slamming the incumbent for raising taxes. Ironically, the net effect was to make the same voters who seemed uninterested in character issues begin to question Bush's honesty.
If Perot cost Bush the election, the proof must lie somewhere else. On a statistical basis, it's essentially impossible to make a case for Perot costing Bush the 1992 presidential election. The election results show that Perot took many voters from Clinton among his supporters who demonstrated a low interest in politics by voting only for President and Governor, while taking marginally from Bush among those who demonstrated more commitment by casting ballots for Congress.
So who was the man who denied George H.W. Bush a second term? It was Clinton strategist James Carville, who never doubted for a minute that the recession and its impact on the electorate were the keys to a Clinton victory. To insure that everyone in the Clinton War Room -- including both Clinton and Carville himself -- was on the same book and page, the aide had hand-written a list on a white board and hung it on the wall. It read:
1. Change vs. more of the sameNearly two decades later, 70 percent of voters now say the country is on the wrong track, and 57 percent disapprove of the way Obama has handled the economy. The lesson here practically writes itself. We're no fans of Carville. Our memories of him scurrying from network interview to network interview during the 2008 RNC convention with a blown-up photo of the modest structure that is Wasilla City Hall babbling on about how "dat don't look like no gubmint building. Dat look like a bait stand in south Luzianna" still rankles. We don't agree with much of what he has to say most of the time, but in the run up to the 1992 election, Carville was right as rain after a long Texas drought about the economy and how to exploit the issue.
2. The economy, stupid
3. Don't forget healthcare
It's the economy again, stupid. It's not about where Barack Obama was born, and it's not about any social issue, at least in the minds of the voters. They aren't just concerned about the economy, they're very worried about it. So economic issues -- whether it's the price of gasoline and other goods and services, the federal deficit, looming inflation, the budget, the debt ceiling, the housing market, and what Vice President Biden referred to as a "three letter word - j-o-b-s" -- are the keys to making sure Obama's further presidential ambitions will suffer the same fate as those of Bush41 twenty years ago. Just reminding voters of these issues won't be enough, of course. The successful GOP candidate will have to present real solutions to these fiscal problems, solutions which voters believe will work.
If and when Sarah Palin gets into the 2012 race for president, James Carville's short list of three items should be plastered all over the walls at her election headquarters.
1. Change vs. more of the same
Carville's first point can be very effectively driven home by taking a page out of Ronald Reagan's playbook. The governor should ask voters in every stump speech, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Most aren't, so they will pay attention when she explains how she can make things better.
2. The economy, stupid
She can pound away at Obama as the bus driver who's got the economy headed over a cliff. She already knows from the 2008 election that voters don't care who he used to hang out with, where he was born, or how much of a deranged Marxist his former pastor is. They're all valid points to conservatives, but the larger electorate tuned out and didn't listen last time, just as they weren't interested in Clinton's character in 1992, and they're not likely to want to hear such talk now. But if she talks about the pain at the pump, when filling up the family ride takes the lion's share of a $100 dollar bill, it will hit home. So will talk of higher prices and smaller servings at the grocery store and the the family's favorite restaurants. Abortion is an issue close to the governor's heart, and justifiably so. But talking about how domestic drilling makes us more energy secure and has the side benefit of creating jobs will resonate with the voters, while condemning Planned Parenthood will only make their eyes glaze over. To be able to appoint justices who will strike down Roe. v Wade, she will have to first get elected, and managing the debate over the economy successfully will go a long way toward helping her to do that.
3. Don't forget healthcare
This one takes on a whole new meaning now that ObamaCare has been rammed through. The results of a poll released April 18 show that this is still an unpopular measure, with 52 percent of Americans in favor of its repeal. But the issue is strongly tied to the economy, and treating it not just as a matter of government intrusion, but as an economic issue as well will hit home with voters if they understand how ObamaCare will affect their lives and those of their family members. For many Americans, their aging parents will be ill served by ObamaCare, while their children will have to pay for it.
Staying focused on the economy will require no small measure of campaign discipline of Gov. Palin and her team, but the rewards will be great. She will need some well-defined plans which she can present as white papers on energy, health care, debt and the deficit, the budget, jobs and much more. But we don't doubt that she is capable of doing this and building a team of problem-solvers to help her.