In the Doledrums: The Interregnum
from March to September
By mid- March 1996, Bob Dole had effectively captured the Republican nomination. Yet the Republican convention was not scheduled to begin until mid-August. Because of a combination of primary front-loading, which ended the nominating race earlier than usual, and the Summer Olympics, which pushed the GOP convention back by a month, Dole and the Republicans faced an unprecedented five-month interregnum. Never before had a presumptive nominee had so much time to build up his strength—or lose momentum and sink out of the limelight. At this point Clinton held a significant but not overwhelming lead of eight to ten points. Throughout the five months, the Dole campaign seemed to be running in place. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, made excellent use of the time to consolidate and lengthen his lead.
This period was crucial, as the spring has traditionally been a time when incumbent Presidents either slip into trouble or consolidate their position in preparation for the fall campaign. Of postwar Presidents prior to 1996, all four who had built approval ratings over 50 percent in April before the election wound up winning; three of the four who had lower approval ratings lost (the exception was Harry S Truman). 1 The institutional context after 1994 was the most decisive factor leading to Clinton's resurgence, but his performance during the interregnum was also important. Indeed, the profile the President built at this time—compared to the floundering of Bob Dole—counted for more toward Clinton's victory than anything he did in the post-Labor Day campaign.