The Presidential Election and the
New Era of Coalitional Partnership
Bill Clinton won the presidential election in 1996 with 49 percent of the popular vote, against 41 percent for Bob Dole and 9 percent for Ross Perot. He won in 1992 with 43 percent of the popular vote, against 37 for George Bush and 19 for Ross Perot. Removing Ross Perot from the picture, Clinton's share of the two-party vote in both elections was identical: 54 percent.
According to most observers, the basic explanation for both outcomes was the same: it was the economy, stupid. The economy was bad (or, to be more precise, perceived to be bad) in 1992, whereas it was good (or perceived to be good) in 1996. This explanation has been favored in part because it "works"—never mind that any number of other factors might have been the real cause. It is also a mode of explanation with deep roots in a school of academic interpretations of elections, which argues that presidential elections are determined by major structural factors, of which the condition of the economy is the most important. And the economy worked decisively in Bill Clinton's favor in 1996. If one wants to broaden this school a bit beyond the merely economic to take into account a more general structural factor—how people feel things are going—the same conclusion follows. People did not like where things were heading in 1992 and, despite signs of lingering anxiety, they did like where things were heading in 1996. 1 Borrowing a cue from Ronald Reagan, President Clinton during the campaign asked Americans if they were better off in 1996 than they were four years ago. And—student of the polls that he is—it is a sure bet he knew the answer. For the first time in years more Americans in 1996 believed the country was headed in the right direction than not. The application