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Bill Clinton beat Dole then Obama beats McCain: Let’s Compare

March 7, 2008

When I look at the possibilities for the upcoming general election, I’m reminded of the situation in Bill Clinton’s 96 reelection campaign. The GOP was in trouble for obfuscating on the budget and their figurehead Newt Gingrich was a polarizing, unpopular figure. After a tough primary, the GOP chose Bob Dole to challenge Clinton. Dole was considered somewhat moderate, an old school conservative and war hero who was an uninspiring public speaker. The GOP’s vaunted ground game enabled Dole to win many Midwestern and Southern states (including Texas) whereas our side, with the emphasis on message (media buys, free press, rapid response) won nearly all the states with big electoral college numbers.

McCain’s in a position similar to Dole’s back then; an older conservative weak on camera running during a time when being a Republican isn’t as popular as it has been. Obama is similar to Clinton in that he is a “natural” politician with good instincts about whom to hire and a strong willed, equally talented spouse. Let’s just say Obama and McCain meet. Let’s compare the 96 race with a potential 08 race. (see table below the jump)

Item Bill Clinton Bob Dole Mitigating Factors Advantage
Ideology Socially Moderate /Fiscal Conservative Liberal Socially Moderate Conservative/Fiscal Conservative Clinton’s Triangulation strategy could make him appear more liberal or conservative when situation called for it; but some still thought of him as a super liberal Push. Prior to 95, the country was almost equally divided between R and D, but in 96, GOP was not so popular
Campaign Skill Great Orator; charismatic Terrible Orator; not a handsome man Crowd not expected to be wowed by Dole Clinton
Age Boomer Senior citizen a higher percentage of seniors vote but in lesser numbers and not necessarily for the older candidate; Dole’s age turned out to be a minor issue (“Brooklyn Dodgers” remark, falling off stage at a campaign event) Clinton
Public Persona Affable; “just one of you” Grandfatherly, Gruff Despite Dole’s caricature, he was considered to be a genial person; neither men took personal affronts well, but Clinton had more control in public Clinton
Governing/Senate Persona Hard nosed, a yeller deal maker, team player usually only of concern to pundits, journos and political junkies, but questions arose about Dole’s temperament Clinton
Perception of success medium-high; though Clinton had few legislative successes, he did have Family/medical leave act, the crime bill and the balanced budget act; being an incumbent always helps low; GOP controlled Congress blamed for shutting down government in 95 and Dole was the Majority leader that year With foreign policy not a huge public concern in 96, people were unconcerned with Dole’s FP experience Clinton
Appeals to: Democratic base, youth, disaffected independents, conservative Dems Traditional conservatives, White males,blue collar, hawks Though the race was a blow out, it was tight in the South (e.g only 2% win in TN), Hillary Clinton was often a boon in big cities on the East and West Coasts, not so much in places like TN where the campaign considered her to be too polarizing. Clinton
VP Help Inventor of the Internet zero Clinton
Boogeyman Newt Gingrich Hillary Clinton; “liberals” At the time, Gingrich made a very effective villian in our narrative Clinton

Clinton won by about 10%. He didn’t face any challengers being the incumbent so we were able to start attacking Dole early. Clinton was still considered a liberal despite his centrist leanings and we lost some Southern and Midwestern states.

Item Obama McCain Mitigating Factors Advantage
Ideology Socially Liberal /Fiscal Moderate Liberal Social Conservative/Fiscal Conservative McCain may have a slightly more nuanced position on immigration however he is still a conservative; conservatives are not all that popular at the moment Obama, slightly
Campaign Skill Great Orator; charismatic leader Terrible Orator; not so tall McCain has improved but he still sounds like he’s reading his speeches from a sheet of loose leaf paper Obama
Age low end Boomer/high end Gen X Senior citizen Youth vote appears to be a real factor this election cycle Obama
Public Persona Affable, dry wit, stylish Grandfatherly, Grumpy and dumpy There is no way for McCain to counter this, none Obama
Governing/Senate Persona coalition builder “independent” in front of the cameras, deal maker in the backrooms; grandstander may become an issue this year because of Obama’s lack of time served in the Senate; McCain has sponsored a lot of bills that have the added benefit of raising his public profile; McCain’s Senate dealings are already an issue in the media McCain, barely
Perception of success low; has little to point to of substance because of his short time in the Senate high; has a long record to tout even if results are controversial; strong on issues that could be big in November if the stars align for McCain Public feeling about Iraq may make McCain’s biggest strength a weakness, bad economy always makes Dems stronger historically and “foreign policy experience” doesn’t mean as much as some candidates would like it to in a Presidential election McCain
Appeals to: Massive coalition of the willing Traditional conservatives, White males,blue collar, hawks Everyone is looking for a change it appears, no matter the ideology except for the neo-cons who are happy with Bush. There are about 12 of them. Michelle Obama could help lift the spirits of feminists disaffected by a H. Clinton loss. Obama
VP Help unknown; most of his choices are better than the potential GOP choices He will have to go moderate, if he chooses Michael Steel the press will question the choice as being simply to counter Obama on the race issue unknown
Boogeyman Dubya The Clintons; “liberals,” Muslims Sadly, HRC is still one half of the GOP’s favorite target; people are more dissatisfied with Bush than they are distrustful of the Clintons.Islamic terrorists may only be a significant factor if there is an attack. Otherwise, file them under “Iraq.” Obama

Where Obama differs greatly from where Clinton stood in the 96 campaign is on the perception of success slot. This is related to “issues,” where Obama has mostly proposals, not accomplishments to show. Generally this is why governors have an advantage over legislators (senators and representatives) in national elections. They’ve already been CEOs. This is also why “foreign policy experience” doesn’t mean as much as Hillary Clinton and McCain make it out to be. Regan, a former governor, had no foreign policy experience, but he beat Carter on that issue. He won that issue on 1) vision and 2) the failed rescue attempt in Iran. Obama can make up the deficit by marrying sound proposals to a larger vision, where his skill set lies.

Also, Obama will likely have to hook up John Edwards or Jim Webb because he’ll need help convincing those independents and “Regan Democrats” with a populist bent that he’s their guy. Gov. Sebelius could do that for him, however, I think an African American man/White woman ticket might be too much for those groups to bear whether they say it openly or not.

Perhaps later, I’ll do a chart with H.Clinton and McCain, though in terms of political skill sets, she doesn’t match up well with her husband.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2008 10:42 am

    This sticker says it all:

  2. will permalink
    March 16, 2008 6:00 pm

    Do you think your description of Obama’s support as “Massive coalition of the willing” might lead someone to think you are not neutral?


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