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.

“The author of nearly two dozen books analyzing recent American political history, Michael Nelson of Rhodes College is one of the nation’s most distinguished American political scientists. His latest work, Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance, will only add to this reputation. In a careful analysis of congressional and presidential elections going back to the election of 1968, Nelson argues that until 1992, Congress was partially or completely controlled by the Democrats while the Republicans mostly controlled the White House. This led to an increase in political partisanship. In 1992, Clinton was elected president, but in the 1994 midterm elections the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1952 and held it throughout the remaining six years of his administration. Although Clinton was reelected in 1996, the result of divided government has been ‘de facto divided government’ and partisan polarization ever since. An absorbing and well-written analysis of a crucial development in American political history, this book should be of great significance to anyone interested in the modern age of US politics.’”

—Burton I. Kaufman, author of The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton

“Renowned presidency scholar and award-winning author Michael Nelson has penned a captivating analysis of Bill Clinton’s two presidential election victories, situating them in the arc from the turbulent 1960s to the divisive age of Trump. Nelson masterfully argues that Clinton’s centrism—the very core of his electoral successes—ironically resulted in the polarized extremism of twenty-first-century American politics.”

—Barbara A. Perry, author of Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier and The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases

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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