With the New Hampshire Primary and Iowa Caucuses over, the 1996 presidential election campaign is in high gear and several University faculty members feel it may be one of the most fascinating, if rancorous, contests in recent years.
"This is," declared Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), "a wonderful drama."
Landy and other faculty reflected on the 1996 campaign in the wake of candidate Pat Buchanan's victory in New Hampshire last week and discussed factors, trends and events which might ensure or jeopardize President Bill Clinton's re-election. Given the current tumult in the Republican Party, a volatile political climate, a more prosperous but skittish electorate, and an unstable international situation, they say, the election year is liable to be a long, roller coaster ride.
Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication), left, and Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science). (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
"The events and trends in February 1992 - when Clinton was at his low ebb - did not really point to the eventual outcome," Landy said. "The national agenda is changing so fast, it's hard to say what will be in focus in November. Look at what's gone on in the past several weeks: Where's Newt Gingrich? What happened to the budget battle? Ross Perot? Most likely, events that take place in August or September will have far more bearing."
For now, the faculty agree, the spotlight is on Buchanan's unexpected success and Sen. Robert Dole's perplexing difficulties on the campaign trail. While Buchanan has been able to mobilize voters with minimal advertising, the cash-rich Dole campaign has not been able to strike a chord, as Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication) notes.
"I played for some students a clip of Clinton's State of the Union address, followed by Dole's response," Herbeck said. "They were stunned by the differences in style, at how Dole sounded. It was as if they had never seen an unedited politician before.
"Buchanan may have relatively limited appeal," he said, "but he is a guy who knows his strengths and limitations, and how to put his message across."
The depth and breadth of Buchanan's support is a matter for discussion, the faculty said. Despite a large turnout in New Hampshire, Landy notes that Buchanan actually received about 9,000 fewer votes than he did in 1992, which may suggest his triumph has limited significance. Still, faculty point out, with a number of upcoming primaries in the South, Buchanan's conservative political and social views are likely to draw support, especially from the Christian Right.
While the Christian Right tends to favor Buchanan over Dole, Asst. Prof. Duane Oldfield (Political Science) says it runs the risk of alienating itself within the GOP if the movement goes out on a limb with a divisive Buchanan candidacy, a threat the party cannot ignore.
"A lot will depend on who the nominee is, but there will likely be a major clash over the vice presidential candidate and the platform," said Oldfield, who is the author of a forthcoming book on the Christian Right and its relationship with the GOP. "Where the Christian Right is most effective for Republicans is when they mobilize their base, but stay away from the limelight. Buchanan, however, throws a wrench into all this and whatever accommodation is reached will be quite visible."
While Clinton has been able to remain largely out of the fray, faculty agree he is by no means out of political danger. The American presence in Bosnia is "a ticking time bomb" for Clinton, Landy says, who could be "one terrorist attack away from disaster," and lingering questions about the Whitewater affair and White House travel bureau firings could also make him vulnerable.
The economy, meanwhile, could represent an unusual factor in the race, according to Prof. Peter Gottschalk (Economics). Despite general improvement during Clinton's administration, he said, poverty rates are higher than they were in 1973 and many Americans are nervous about the economy.
"While the average American family income is at an all-time high, many families fear that they will lose the jobs necessary to maintain this standard of living," Gottschalk said. "They feel more like 'the little guy' whom Buchanan is constantly talking about."
This could make for an unprecedented realignment, Gottschalk said, with unions and blue-collar workers supporting a Republican who champions protectionism, and Wall Street supporting a free-trade Democratic president.
The media's coverage of the race also bears watching, Herbeck said. Although the arrival of "new media," such as the Internet and talk shows, was expected to add a more populist and less traditional slant to campaign coverage, Herbeck says its impact thus far is not discernible.
"We're still seeing the horse race metaphor," he said, "and there's still a lot of dependence on polls. One interesting thing is that Buchanan has been successful so far in running more of a grass-roots campaign with little advertising. But will it work nationally in this age, where there's so much reliance on TV and the money it takes to finance a campaign?"
Return to Feb. 29 menu
Return to Chronicle Home Page