EMMETT H. BUELL JR.
This is an account of how the Republican, Democratic, and Reform parties chose their respective presidential nominees in 1996. As memories of the last nominating cycle fade, we tend to forget how slim the odds of a second Clinton term once seemed or how much H. Ross Perot frightened both major parties. Ever adaptable, President Clinton reinvented himself after disaster struck his party in the 1994 midterm elections and he eventually swept to renomination unopposed. No event astonished election analysts less than Perot claiming the nomination of a party of his own making.
Most of what follows is about the Republicans who experienced the only seriously contested nomination of the three. I argue that the Republican choice was highly likely if not wholly predictable owing to what the nominating process has become. Presumably a front-runner can still selfdestruct in such a system, but, if 1996 is any guide, process-related advantages will cancel out short-term factors like candidate style or weak message. Much depends on who else is running, of course, but that, too, is increasingly determined by the process. In 1996, unprecedented “frontloading” of the primary calendar, combined with the associated lack of viable rivals, extraordinary media exposure, and related leads in the polls and fund-raising set Dole up as the inevitable nominee.
Put simply, the increased resort of state parties to front-loading has changed the dynamics of presidential nominating politics in both of the major parties. The proliferation of February and March primaries now impels aspirants to start campaigning years in advance of the first votes to select convention delegates. Long familiar to pundits as the “invisible primary,” this lengthy run-up to the first caucuses and primaries truly has become the most critical phase of the whole process. 1 This is the time when presidential hopefuls must raise huge sums, recruit activist supporters,