Bill Clinton's Presidency

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How did the 1992 Presidential Election differ from recent ones?

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The previous post was quite lucid.  I would say that another reason why the 1992 Presidential Election was different from other recent elections was because it was the first post- Cold War election and one where American foreign policy was completely undefined.  We have not seen an election where there was so little emphasis on foreign policy and the direction of American activity in the world.  In elections prior to it, the focus was to defeat the Communists.  In elections after it, the focus had been placed on problems in different areas of the world.  In the 1992 election, it seemed as if there was a large level of ambiguity regarding foreign policy.  The emphasis on domestic policy and, in particular, the economy, helped to dull much of the debate on the world outside our borders.  It might be a bit disheartening to now see the emphasis on defeating terrorism as such a dominant reality as something that might have been addressed a bit in broad and transformative thinking that could have been adopted as early as 1992.  I think that the lack of a real and substantive debate on foreign policy might have been one aspect of differentiating the election of 1992 from others.

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The 1992 election was the first after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet collapse, events that brought the Cold War to an end. It was fought shortly after the victory in the first Persian Gulf War, an event that made President George H. W. Bush's popularity rating soar to 89% in 1991. Yet, in a year, the political situation changed dramatically as Bush had to face economic recession and rising unemployment. Because of the already high federal debt, the government couldn't act to stimulate the economy and the number of poor Americans increased to the highest point since 1964. Violent race riots in Los Angeles in 1992 contributed to show that President Bush did not have a definite agenda for American home affairs.

Seeking his second term, Bush found that the opposition front was gaining ground, not only thanks to the charisma of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, but also because of growing hostility from independents. The 1992 election witnessed the strongest performance of a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, in eighty years. Multimillionaire Perot used plain language to get his message across and obtained 19% of the popular vote.

The 1992 election also signalled a shift in the politicies of the Democratic Party after three terms in opposition. The 46-year-old Clinton, the first of the baby boomer generation to be a presidential nominee, sought to present a new, more moderate image of the Democratic Party to appeal to those white suburbanites who had deserted it in the Reagan-Bush era. He famously declared that he wanted to "modernize liberalism so that it could sell again".

Because of the three candidates and the electoral college system, Clinton was elected President although his percentage of the popular vote (43%) was lower than those of the two other candidates combined (Bush 37% and Perot 19%). Clinton's percentage of the popular vote was the lowest for an elected President since the 1912 election when Woodrow Wilson obtained 42%.

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The biggest difference between the 1992 presidential election and the ones in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 is that in 92 there was a viable third candidate for office, Mr. H. Ross Perot.  It's not just that he existed (every election has a slew of candidates from minor parties,) it's the fact that he was polling high enough to allow him a spot in the televised debates.

In order to be invited to the debates (which are, ironically, run by the two major parties in the US through a commission,) a third party candidate must be getting at least 15% of the vote in 5 public opinion polls to be considered "viable."  This number virtually ensures no-one but the candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties will have enough support to participate.  In 1992, though, Mr. Perot's level of support averaged higher than that, earning him a spot.

That's the biggest difference.  If your question was just taking a look at this year's election we could also talk about "SuperPAC" money, but because this is such a recent change it doesn't really relate to the extended nature of the question.



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