Losing to Win: The 1996 Elections and American Politics

By James W. Ceaser; Andrew E. Busch | Go to book overview
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identified the budget deficit as the central issue, Perot proved again his ability to be in the right place at the right time, for he had sought from the outset to make foreign campaign contributions and influence a primary issue in the campaign.) And Clinton's lead over Dole also slipped. Much to Clinton's dismay he finished with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, denying him his elusive search for the approbation of a popular majority.

The more important effect, however, was on the congressional elections. As late as two weeks before Election Day both houses of Congress appeared to be within the Democrats' reach. Aided by the damage from the campaign financing scandal as well as by a late infusion of well-targeted resources, Republicans mounted a comeback and managed to hold on. The scandal not only reduced Clinton's personal popularity and hence the positive effects of any coattails, but it also gave added meaning to congressional Republicans' argument in favor of divided government and against handing Clinton a blank check. Although the difference in absolute numbers of votes between the actual results and a narrow Democratic victory in one or both houses would have been very small, the consequences of a Democratic victory would have been enormous. Nothing less than the fate of the 1994 elections was at stake. Had Democrats captured even one house of Congress to go along with their huge victory in the presidential race, the election results would almost certainly have been interpreted very differently. Instead of everyone marveling over the wonders of divided government and celebrating bipartisanship and the politics of the center, many would have been proclaiming the rejection of 1994. And the Democrats who would have made up the majority in the House would have believed, quite rightly, that they owed their election to Bill Clinton.

The significance of a national election, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, inheres not just in occupying the offices or institutions, but in moral power and authority that attaches to the claim that one's party holds a majority. The last minute denial of that claim to the Democrats and the preservation of a claim to the legitimacy of the majority of 1994 made the closing two weeks of the 1996 campaign one of the most important political moments of the decade. So in a curious way the little campaign that couldn't turned out to be the little campaign that did.


Notes
1.
In fact, because Congress consists of two houses, each with its own majority, a further subset of permutations is possible with a different majority in

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