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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Elects for a Fragile Compromise

Until the millennium, the watchwords in U.S. politics may be uneasy equilibrium.


After all the turbulence, hairpin turns and unexpected reversals of the past six years, voters Tuesday ratified a tenuous partition of power that denies either of the major parties the right to claim a clear majority of public support.


Instead, the parties emerged from this election closely balanced between offsetting strengths -- geographically, demographically and especially institutionally.


"What we have now," says political scientist John Green of the University of Akron, "are two plurality parties that can from time to time put together an electoral or a legislative majority."


The election left a political landscape marked by emphatically mixed messages and splintered authority -- includ President Bill Clinton won re-election Tuesday with an electoral-vote landslide that still left him a whisker short of winning a popular vote majority and the mandate he had hoped for. With nearly all votes counted, Clinton had 49 percent to 41 percent for Bob Dole and 8 percent for the Reform Party's Ross Perot.


The president carried 31 states and the District of Columbia, for a total of 379 electoral votes -- a slight gain over his victory of four years ago -- while Dole, the Republican, won 19 states and 159 electoral votes.


Indeed, the combined average of Bush's and Dole's popular votes -- just 39.1 percent -- was the lowest consecutive total for the Republican party since the party's landslide defeats at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.


"You can't think about this as just a one-time wart on the party," said Tony Fabrizio, Dole's campaign pollster. "It's not that Bob Dole is just the red-haired stepchild of the party; we're going to face these problems in the future."


But while Clinton continued to fill in the outlines of a new Democratic presidential majority -- built on a solidifying hold on the Northeast, the Pacific West and portions of the upper Midwest -- the party's inability to take back Congress underscored the death of the seemingly permanent Democratic legislative majority that had ruled Capitol Hill for decades.


And the immediate future may hold little likelihood of reversing this trend -- the Democrats will face a steep challenge reclaiming Congress in 1998 because traditionally the party that holds the White House suffers significant legislative losses in the midterm election during a president's second term.


Third-party politics also appears to have reached a stasis with this election, after offering explosive possibilities in 1992. Tuesday's results proved that Ross Perot faces a low ceiling on his support, but he shows no signs of stepping aside for other voices who might be able to expand the Reform Party's appeal.


This new electoral balance leaves the major parties exchanging the clothes they have worn for most of the past 25 years, when Republicans routinely won the presidency and Democrats controlled the Congress. The alignment now has flipped, with Democrats strengthening their hold on the White House and Republicans settling into Congress.


But the more important story may be the fragility of these advantages: Democrats are not as secure in the White House as Republicans were during the 1970s and 1980s, nor is the Republican hold on Congress as entrenched as the long-standing Democratic advantage that the Republican Party finally overthrew in 1994.


Like families living from paycheck to paycheck, political leaders who once dreamed of lasting realignments and blank checks for policy revolutions -- a chastened group that includes both Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- now may measure their mandates only from election to election.


"I think what we're getting now are two-year leases," says Don Fierce, the former director of strategic planning at the Republican National Committee. "The voters are saying, 'You get two years and we're watching you.'''


Neither side has any guarantees, but each seems to have an upper hand in one level of their political competition.


With a national message keyed more to the concerns of fiscally conservative, socially tolerant swing voters, it is the Democrats who for now appear to have the easier path toward reaching 270 electoral votes and the White House.


In 1992, Clinton won the presidency by standing still; both in terms of states and key voter groups, Clinton essentially held Michael Dukakis' losing share of the vote four years earlier, while the Republican coalition sundered between Bush and Perot. This year, though, Clinton clearly expanded his reach.


Compared to 1992, Clinton made significant gains among not only base Democratic voters such as minorities and low-income families, but also swing voters such as Catholics, moderates and independents. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg noted, Clinton "advanced the coalition up the income ladder" -- winning voters at every annual income level below $75,000.


Clinton also widened the gender gap into a chasm, enlarging his margin among women from 5 percentage points in 1992 to 16 points this year, and besting Dole among married women who work outside the home -- a key target group for his campaign all year.


Dole, for his part, was able to stabilize the borders of the core Republican coalition in the campaign's last days. Helped by the billowing questions about the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising, Dole pushed down defection among conservatives and partisan Republicans, and reclaimed the allegiance of groups such as white men and married homemakers.


But the ethical controversies that Dole focused on did not prove nearly as powerful among independents and moderate suburbanites. Turning on its head the GOP success at marginalizing Democrats during the 1980s (particularly among men) around such values issues as crime, Clinton drove Dole toward "the fringe" with a new generation of female-oriented wedge issues -- "symbols like assault weapons, the [government] shutdown and tobacco," Fabrizio said.


Clinton's success at occupying the center was written in his strong performance in suburban battlegrounds around the country that once fortified the Republican presidential majority. Compared to 1992, Clinton made huge gains in leafy GOP redoubts such as Oakland County outside Detroit; Orange and Hillsborough counties in central Florida; Bergen, Middlesex and Somerset counties in New Jersey; and the suburbs of both New York City and Philadelphia. In Ohio, Clinton carried both Montgomery and Franklin counties, two suburban behemoths where Bush captured about 60 percent of the vote as recently as 1988.


Clinton's winning electoral college map so closely followed the outlines of his 1992 victory -- indeed, so closely built on even Dukakis' losing coalition in 1988 -- that it suggested the outlines of a potential new majority in presidential politics. Clinton surrendered only three of the states he won last time -- Georgia, Montana and Colorado -- and more than offset those losses by seizing Florida and Arizona.


In all but four of the other 30 states (including the District of Columbia) that he won in 1992, Clinton meaningfully increased his percentage of the vote in 1996. For instance, he posted gains of seven percentage points in Ohio and Michigan, and 10 points in New Jersey. In Congress, by contrast, the table may now lean slightly toward Republicans. This campaign suggested, in fact, that the party may be able to recreate several of the ingredients that allowed Democrats to hold Congress for so long, including dominance of the South and the capacity to convert majority control into fund-raising advantages.


Republican freshman this fall also displayed a Democrat-like skill at trimming their sails to local winds, steering hard away from Gingrich in districts where that was the price of survival.


But with such a narrow majority in the House, Republicans can hardly rest easy. And in an era of waning partisan loyalties -- and continued skepticism about both parties symbolized by the abysmally low turnout in the election -- even the electoral college tilt toward Democrats that Clinton has engineered could bend back if events turn against his administration, most analysts agree.


"If the second Clinton administration is successful, I think the coalition is going to be there again [for the Democrats] in 2000," says John Green, the University of Akron political scientist. "But, of course, that's a big if."