Clinton's Elections

1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance

Michael Nelson

In the presidential elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988, the three Democratic nominees won an average of about 10 percent of the Electoral College vote—a smaller share than any party in any three consecutive presidential elections in US history. In the next seven elections, Democrats won the popular vote in all but one (2004), a feat not achieved by a political party since the Democratic Party’s inception in the 1820s. What separated these record-setting runs was the election and presidency of Bill Clinton, whose pivotal role in ushering in a new era of American politics—for better and for worse—this book explores.

Perhaps because Clinton’s presidency was hobbled by six years of divided government, ended in a sex scandal and impeachment, and was sandwiched between Republican administrations, it is easy to forget that he revived a presidential party that had become nearly moribund. In Clinton’s Elections Michael Nelson describes how, by tacking relentlessly to the center, Clinton revived the Democrats’ presidential fortunes—but also, paradoxically, effectively erased the center, in the process introducing the new political reality of extreme partisan divisiveness and dysfunctional government. Tracing Clinton’s place in American politics from his emergence as a potential nominee in 1988 to his role in political campaigns right up to 2016, Nelson draws a deft portrait of a savvy politician operating in the midst of divided government and making strategic moves to consolidate power and secure future victories. With its absorbing narrative and incisive analysis, his book makes sense of a watershed in the modern American political landscape—and lays bare the roots of our current era of political dysfunction.

“Nelson’s book stands as an excellent account of how, beginning with the Clinton elections, American governance reached this troubling state.

—Journal of Southern History

“A nuanced look at party politics, congressional elections, campaigns, the impact of divided government, and the personalities involved in a new era of politics.

—American Political Science Quarterly
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About the Author

Michael Nelson, the Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the author of Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (Kansas) and winner of the American Political Science Associations Richard E. Neustadt Award.

Additional Titles in the American Presidential Elections Series