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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:

  • Entitlement programs were projected to run deficits as the baby boom generation retired. 
  • The savings rate among Americans sank to the lowest level since 1933.  In 1999 the personal saving rate (annual personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income) was 2.2 percent and in 2000 it sank to -0.1 percent. >
  • Income inequality -- the pay gap between CEOs and average workers -- grew significantly during the 1990s. > 
  • Net interest payments on the national debt, which stood at over $5.6 trillion in 2000, consumed more than 15 percent of federal outlays. >
  • The United States continued to run high trade deficits; in 1999 the U.S. imported $265.0 billion more worth of goods and services than we exported; in 2000 that climbed to $368.9 billion. 
Prosperity did not end social problems such as divorce, drug use, teen pregnancy, poverty and crime.  However, both violent and property crime did show marked downward trends in the 1990s, even as arrests for drug abuse violations increased and the number of people in the correctional system rose to record numbers.  More generally, American culture at times seemed to run counter to and undermine basic values of civility, morality and spirituality.  Incidents such as the shootings at Columbine High School seared the national consciousness.  The event that most colored the political landscape in 2000 was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  This dominated the news in the latter part of 1998, culminating in the U.S. Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment in January 1999.  Clinton survived, but the scandal set up a strong undercurrent as the campaign was beginning to gear up, the effects of which continued to resonate throughout the election cycle.

U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock
Economic Briefing Room (U.S. Census Bureau)
Economy at a Glance (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Overview of the Economy (Bureau of Economic Analysis)
Consumer Confidence Index (The Conference Board, Inc.)
National Debt Interest on the National Debt (Bureau of Public Debt--U.S. Dept. of the Treasury)
Index of Leading Cultural Indicators 2001 (Empower.org)
David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
C-SPAN's American Presidents: Life Portraits
Why Not A Woman?
Allan J. Lichtman's The Keys to the White House
See the March 2001 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics for a number of essays examining why those forecasts that Gore would win did not come true.

The 1998 Campaign
The outcome of the 1998 mid-term elections clearly impacts the dynamics of the 2000 campaign in a number of ways. First, the partisan make-up of Congress affects what the president can or cannot accomplish, which in turn affects people's views toward a successor. Second, for a presidential candidate stumping in fall 2000, friendly governors, congressmen and other elected officials and strong party organizations can provide a important boost, reinforcing the message of the national ticket.  Alternatively, if state and local officeholders are from the opposite party or if local party organizations are weak and demoralized, the welcome may be less friendly and less well prepared.

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. 

  • In House races, at least 94 incumbents did not face a major party opponent in November. In Florida alone, 18 members of the state's 23 person House delegation had no major party opponent.  When all the votes were counted, 395 out of 401 incumbents seeking re-election had won and Democrats had a net gain of five seats in the House. The House freshman class in the 106th Congress comprised 23 Democrats and 17 Republicans.

  • In the Senate, 34 seats were up--16 held by Republicans and 18 held by Democrats.  Five Senate seats were open due to retirements--Kentucky (Wendell Ford-D), Indiana (Dan Coats-R), Ohio (John Glenn-D), Arkansas (Dale Bumpers-D) and Idaho (Dirk Kempthorne-R). Republicans had hopes of reaching 60 seats in the Senate, but were only able to hold even, losing New York (Charles Schumer d. Alphonse D'Amato) and North Carolina (John Edwards d. Lauch Faircloth) and the open seat in Indiana (Evan Bayh d. Paul Helmke), while gaining Illinois (Peter Fitzgerald d. Carol Moseley-Braun) and the open seats in Kentucky (Jim Bunning d. Scotty Beasler) and Ohio (George Voinovich d. Mary Boyle).
Partisan Make-Up of the 105th and 106th Congresses
105th Congress (Aug. 98) House 228 Rep. 206 Dem. 1 Ind. Senate 55 Rep. 45 Dem.
106th Congress (Nov. 98) House 223 Rep. 211 Dem. 1 Ind. Senate 55 Rep. 45 Dem.

  • In the statehouses, heading into November, Republicans held 32 governorships, Democrats 17, and there was one Independent.  Gubernatorial elections took place in 36 states (plus Guam and the Virgin Islands), with 25 incumbents seeking re-election and 11 open seats.  Two incumbents were defeated, Fob James (R-AL) and David Beasley (R-SC).  Republicans held on to three of their six open seats (Idaho, Illinois and Ohio), while losing California and Iowa to the Democrats and Minnesota to the Reform Party.  Democrats held only Georgia out of their five open seats, while Republicans picked up Florida, Colorado and Nebraska and Nevada.
1998 Gubernatorial Elections in 36 States
Before Nov. 3, '98:  32 Rep.   17 Dem.   1 Ind. After Nov. 3, '98:  31 Rep.   17 Dem.   1 Ref.   1 Ind.
25 incumbents seeking re-election 
(18 Rep., 6 Dem., 1 Ind.)
23 inc. re-elected 
(16 Rep., 6 Dem., 1 Ind.), 2 Rep. defeated
6 Rep. open seats--
Republicans hold open seats in ID, IL, OH;
lose CA, IA, MN
5 Dem. open seats--
Democrats 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.