Elections: The Politics of the Permanent Campaign: Presidential Travel and the Electoral College, 1977-2004

By Doherty, Brendan J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Elections: The Politics of the Permanent Campaign: Presidential Travel and the Electoral College, 1977-2004


Doherty, Brendan J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Bill Clinton made headlines on December 8, 2000, when, with a mere six weeks remaining in his second presidential term, he set foot on Nebraskan soil for the first time in his presidency. With this trip, he had at long last visited all of the fifty states that he had led for the previous eight years. Contemporaneous accounts attributed his apparent neglect of Nebraska to raw political calculations; as a state with few electoral votes that Clinton failed to carry in both 1992 and 1996, it offered little rationale for presidential attention (Eggen 2000; Lacey 2000).

The trip was notable for the destination's status as a long-neglected state, but it was otherwise a fairly typical presidential journey. Clinton held three events that day, beginning with a morning speech on foreign policy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in the center of the state. He then flew to eastern Nebraska, where in the early afternoon he spoke to the community at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue before attending a fundraiser for the Nebraska Democratic party in nearby Omaha (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States 2000).

Clinton's eleventh-hour visit to Nebraska raises an important question: how do electoral incentives relate to presidential attention? In recent years, a good amount of scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on what has been dubbed a permanent campaign for the presidency. According to this view of presidential governance, "the line between campaigning and governing has all but disappeared, with campaigning increasingly dominant" (Ornstein and Mann 2000, vii), and the techniques and strategies of presidential campaigning are applied throughout the course of a president's term.

Viewing presidential actions through the lens of the permanent campaign leads one to ascribe cynical, election-related motivations to much of what presidents do. From this point of view, Clinton's neglect of Nebraska was no accident, but rather the result of strategic political choices. It is certainly no surprise to say that presidents take actions that are political in nature. But to what extent can we say a permanent campaign for the presidency does or does not exist? How do we empirically and systematically assess the permanent campaign? What patterns of presidential actions would we expect to see if a permanent campaign did exist? If, following the logic that David Mayhew (1974) applies to members of Congress, we assume that presidents are single-minded seekers of reelection, strategic presidents, as rational actors, would be expected to favor key states in ways that reflect the institutional incentives of the Electoral College in order to maximize their chances of reelection. (1) In this article, I undertake an empirical assessment of a key element of the permanent campaign by examining the dynamics of presidential travel from 1977 through 2004 to evaluate systematically presidential attention to key electoral states.

Central Questions

I seek to address three central questions. First, to what extent is there a permanent campaign for the presidency? Ornstein and Mann (2000) argue that little remains of the line between campaigning and governing. Yet much political science work operates under an opposing assumption that presidential governance is substantively different from campaigning. One typical example is Samuel Kernell, who, in his study of presidents "going public," justifies studying speeches over a president's first three years but not the fourth by asserting, "To eliminate public activities inspired by concerns of reelection rather than governing, only the first three years have been tabulated" (1997, 113). Can we legitimately assume that presidential activities in the first three years of a president's term are inspired by governing but not reelection? The logic of the permanent campaign would say that the answer is no.

Second, which states benefit in practice from the Electoral College? …

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