The Triumph of Campaign-centered Politics

By David Menefee-Libey | Go to book overview
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Parties, Elections, and American Democracy

This then is life. Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.

- Walt Whitman, "Starting from Paumanok"

Ross Perot's off-again, on-again presidential campaign in 1992 provided political pundits one last opportunity to spout the waning conventional wisdom of an era. The quirky Texas billionaire could make a credible independent run, they said, because loyalty to the major national parties had declined since the 1960s. Perot gained public support because candidates--Democratic, Republican, and otherwise--now stood at the center of our campaigns and elections. Voters would decide, the pundits proclaimed, on the basis of personality and issues rather than party loyalty-- and Perot could be the next president.

As it turned out, the pundits and their conventional wisdom were wrong. Voters in 1992 made their decisions on the basis of personality, issues, and party. Brushing aside Ross Perot, they elected Bill Clinton president and gave Democrats control of the United States Congress. Two years later, in 1994, millions of new Republican voters frustrated with Clinton's performance turned out and elected a Republican congressional majority for the first time in a generation. Each of these elections offered voters clear partisan alternatives, and voters made partisan choices that mattered. By 1996, the conventional wisdom of party irrelevance had nearly vanished from the world of media commentary.

That waning conventional wisdom had started to disappear from academic writing on elections nearly ten years before. Beginning in the 1960s and with increasing force throughout the 1970s, most political scientists agreed that "the golden age

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