A presidential election campaign follows a set of familiar steps, from the early maneuvering and testing-the-waters activities in the pre-campaign period to frenetic last-ditch efforts of the party nominees in the fall. Each presidential campaign occurs in, and is shaped by, a unique historical context.The Field of Play
The context, or playing field on which a campaign is fought, sets broad bounds within which the candidates and their organizations must operate. For example, the technologies a campaign can use to reach voters are constantly developing. In the past the whistlestop tour may have been the best way to communicate with voters; nowadays the 30-second television spot is the preferred currency and the Internet is becoming increasingly important. Further, the conduct of federal elections is governed by rules set out in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations; the political parties have their own sets of rules, and state laws also come into play.
More generally, the historical context impacts the substance of a campaign, pushing various domestic and foreign issues into greater or lesser prominence. In 1996, for example, the Cold War had receded into people's memories, and the campaign was fought on domestic issues. The debate over the Clinton administration's health care proposal, the Republicans' gain of control of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections, and the unprecedented shutdowns of the federal government all set the stage for the 1996 campaign.
With no clear-cut, readily definable issue like the Cold War facing the country, much of the electorate appeared disengaged from national politics. In a November 1997 column, the Washington Post's David Broder referred to "this age of catatonic politics." Part of the disengagement may be a consequence of the way politics is now conducted in the United States. The emphasis on polling, the professionalization of campaigns, the posturing and petty bickering, and the ready deployment of wedge issues lead to a kind of cookie-cutter type politics. The Post's Dan Balz wrote in a November 16 column, "American politics remain stuck in neutral, dominated by a minimalist agenda, a sour atmosphere and a blame-the-other-party-first sensibility."
The 2000 presidential campaign was conducted against a backdrop of peace and prosperity. Overseas, a number of situations, including nuclear proliferation, tension in areas such as Iraq, Kashmir, and Kosovo, instability in Russia, and the Asian economic downturn posed potential problems that could have grown to have a more direct impact on America, but did not. Leading up to January 2000, there were concerns that the millennium bug would cause serious disruptions here and abroad just as the campaign was getting underway, but these fears proved largely unfounded. Inflation and the unemployment rate remained low throughout the year. Markets climbed in the late 1990s and reached record levels early in the year.
As 2000 progressed, however, the economy showed signs of slowing. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a record high of 11,722.98 on Jan. 14, 2000, but the rest of the year was a bumpy plateau and it finished 2000 lower than it started. The NASDAQ Composite Index, after climbing steadily for two years, peaked on March 10, 2000 at 5048.62; by Election Day it was at 3415.79 and at year end it had fallen further to 2470.51. The fact that the Federal Reserve board raised interest rates three times in the first half of 2000 may have helped dampen the markets. In the fourth quarter of 2000, growth in the Gross Domestic Product was an anemic 1.0 percent (based on "chained 1996 dollars), the lowest since the second quarter of 1995.
Short term economic statistics aside, the United States faced many difficult economic questions as it began the 21st century:
The 1998 Campaign
At stake on November 3 was the make-up of the 106th Congress, control of 36 of the nation's statehouses and the balance in many state legislatures. The 1998 elections, along with those in 1999 and 2000, are critical to the politics of the next decade because they select the governors and state legislators who will have control redistricting following the 2000 census.
While net changes in seats in 1998 were minor, the election did produce some dramatic outcomes.Perhaps the most astonishing result of the 1998 elections was Newt Gingrich's decision not to seek election to a third term as speaker. Just days after the election, the visionary who had led Republicans to their first majority in forty years and who had become the Democrats' favorite villain, opted to step aside. Republicans were disappointed and somewhat stunned by the election results. Congressional Republicans' handling of the budget left many in the party dissatisfied. Although RNC chairman Jim Nicholson argued that the GOP was in a much better position than it was in six years ago--Republicans still hold majorities in the House and Senate, and they control 31 of the nation's governorships--critics within the party argued that Republicans had fallen short and run "largely an issueless campaign."
Democrats meanwhile claimed "historic" victories. DNC national chairman Steve Grossman declared the outcome "a victory of progress over partisanship." "We are back and back big in the South," Grossman said. He also pointed to Gray Davis' win in the California gubernatorial contest, saying, "The first battle of the 2000 campaign has been fought and won." Because these elections occurred in the sixth year of the president's term, and because it was thought that the Clinton scandals would demoralize Democrats and energize Republicans, the GOP had been expected to make gains in the House and Senate. However, Democrats were able to mobilize their base and score some significant wins around the country.
The victory of Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party candidate for governor in Minnesota, showed that outsider candidates cannot be discounted.
|105th Congress (Aug. 98)
|106th Congress (Nov. 98)
|Before Nov. 3, '98: 32 Rep. 17 Dem. 1 Ind.
|After Nov. 3, '98: 31 Rep. 17 Dem. 1 Ref. 1 Ind.
(18 Rep., 6 Dem., 1 Ind.)
(16 Rep., 6 Dem., 1 Ind.), 2 Rep. defeated
|6 Rep. open
CA, ID, IL, IA, OH, MN
hold open seats in ID, IL, OH;
lose CA, IA, MN
|5 Dem. open
CO, FL, GA, NE, NV
hold open seat in GA;
lose CO, FL, NE, NV
|Reform Party gains MN
It's Up to You
Ideally, a presidential campaign should provide a venue for discussion of the challenges facing the nation and presentation of proposals to address them. In practice election-year posturing and rhetoric often undercut such discussion. Your job as a citizen is to keep the candidates, the campaigns, and the media focused on the issues you believe are important.
Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.