Running up that hill

October 6, 1995

Can Clinton win? Huw Richards looks into the American political scientists' crystal ball

It's my job you're after" says the banner toted by the grim-looking chap on the cover of the programme for this year's annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. President Clinton knows exactly how this voter a Louisiana mill-worker staging a counter-demonstration against environmentalists feels. Everywhere he looks are people who are after his job.

The 53rd running of the world's greatest quadrennial political steeplechase may not open formally until the New Hampshire primaries early next year, but it has really been under way since Bill Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992, giving the Democrats the presidency for the first time in 12 years. And academic attention is just as unremitting. As Helmut Norpoth of the State University of New York at Stony Brook pointed out in the APSA journal Political Science: "Forecasting elections may be impossible, but no more so than resisting the temptation to try. No phenomenon in our discipline comes in such a regular, precise and verifiable form as an election."

All predictions come with a health warning. Both Nelson Polsby, a veteran heavyweight election analyst from the University of California, Berkeley, and the youthful Paul Herrnson of the University of Maryland insist: "It's too soon to make any serious predictions." The timetable of the primaries in early 1996 will be more concentrated than before. The "Big Mo" theory, prompted by Jimmy Carter's rank outsider's victory in 1976, that a campaign can build up unstoppable momentum through a series of primary successes, has been losing adherents ever since and may be eliminated.

For the first time in more than 40 years, a presidential election will take place with the Republicans rather than the Democrats in charge of Congress. As John Petrocik of the University of California, Los Angeles, says: "There is always a spillover effect. The 1994 elections will have an impact on those of 1996, and they in turn will have their effect on 1998." The Democrats may be demoralised by their rout in 1994 while the victorious Republicans receive an immense boost. An alternative outcome suggested by Jim Gimpel of the University of Maryland, who has worked as a Republican pollster, is that Republican grassroots groups may wither as supporters conclude that they have done their job while Democrat groups revitalise.

Does history have lessons for the coming campaign? Norpoth has designed a forecast model based on results since the civil war. This shows that whenever one party captures the White House from the other as the Democrats did from the Republicans in 1992 they go on to win the next election comfortably. The single exception to the rule in 130 years is Jimmy Carter's failure to beat Ronald Reagan in 1980 after ejecting Gerald Ford in 1976. It might simply be put down to the oddities of 1976, following Watergate, plus Carter's bad luck. Nevertheless, it is alarming since Carter was the last Democrat president before Clinton.

Less encouraging for Clinton is New Jersey analyst Joe Ryan's nine-election cycle model. This divides presidential history into nine-election cycles, in each of which the dominant party wins six or seven. The current Republican- dominated cycle began with Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, making the 1996 poll the eighth of the cycle. "So far the dominant party has always won the eighth election in the cycle," says Dr Ryan. He adds that the one election a party should aim to lose will be the ninth in 2,000. "The party that wins the last election in a cycle has never gone on to be the winning party in the subsequent cycle."

The question then arises of how far elections are about parties at all. Newt Gingrich may have introduced an unusual degree of party discipline into the 1994 Republican campaign for Congress and its subsequent deliberations, but this is unlikely to carry over. "Presidential elections are about individuals and not parties," says Herrnson.

This introduces an immense variety of potential variables, but almost all analysts are agreed on one proposition that Clinton will have little difficulty in retaining the Democratic nomination. "Why should anyone else want it? The label is so unpopular that anyone who wants to challenge Clinton is better without it," argues Sam Popkin, a Clinton pollster in the 1992 campaign whose assessment of his own party's fortunes is unsparingly gloomy.

Nomination assumed, can Clinton win? "Conventional wisdom now appears to be that he is likely to win," says James Reichley of Georgetown University. This view has been buttressed by polls in which Clinton sees off most Republican contenders.

Outright enthusiasm for Clinton's prospects is hard to find, but Norpoth's belief that he will win is founded on more than simple belief in his own model. "The economy is OK, inflation relatively low and there are no foreign affairs crises looming." John Gerring of Boston University does not expect the Whitewater scandal to matter. "It is too complicated and people are bored with it already."

Others are less convinced, although few express this in quite such pungent terms as University of Tulsa historian Paul Rohe, who says: "Clinton is a liar and this is self-evident. He is over-exposed, talks for too long and people are sick of him." Polsby takes a different view of the phenomena Norpoth sees as pointing to victory. "With low inflation and peace his poll standing should be much better. He looks extremely vulnerable. Bush had much better polls at this stage of his presidency and still lost." Reichley points to "a broad perception that he lacks gravitas and isn't up to the job."

Popkin, whose book The Reasoning Voter informed much Clinton campaign strategy last time, notes that everyone remembers the catchphrase devised by campaign chief James Carville, as its leitmotif: "The economy, stupid." "But the main line on Carville's blackboard was 'Change versus more of the same'. One of Clinton's problems is that he now looks like more of the same," says Popkin.

The key variable is the likely opposition not only Republicans but possible third candidates Bill Bradley, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, old Uncle Ross Perot and all - considering a run. And if there is little enthusiasm for Clinton's prospects there appears even less for those of the Republican alternatives. "Clinton looks vulnerable, provided the Republicans don't beat themselves," says Rohe, sharing the belief that they easily might. Frank Sorauf of the University of Minnesota sums it up: "The Republican battle could be extremely bloody and could give the right-wing, who hold a lot of views that are unpalatable to most of the electorate, a great deal of exposure." He suggests the new primary structure might send three or four surviving candidates to the convention.

The current front-runner is Senate leader Bob Dole, his position viewed with widespread scepticism. "Essentially the ABC candidate Anyone But Clinton," says Petrocik. His age 73 a somewhat crusty disposition and a lifetime of Washington deal-making count against him. Few watchers perceive any real enthusiasm for him, least of all from the radical right, while some note the irony that a history of getting things done on Capitol Hill is likely to work against him. But he could still be a tough opponent for Clinton. Unlike, in most eyes, either of the leading right-wingers Phil Gramm or Pat Buchanan. It is hard to find anyone with a good word to say for the well-funded Gramm.

Popkin believes the 1996 winner will be an ex-governor. Clinton is an ex-governor, but so on the Republican side is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, also once Secretary of Education. The withdrawal of California governor Pete Wilson boosts his chances, but his profile remains very low.

The wild card is Colin Powell, the former armed forces commander currently promoting his memoirs. Few doubt that he could get the Republican vice presidential nomination by asking for it, with Norpoth arguing that this might pull important black support away from Clinton and seriously damage his prospects. Polls seem to support this.

Most observers question Powell's chances of running successfully for either the Republican nomination or as an independent. His ratings are boosted by a voter tendency to construct one's own idealised Colin Powell, neatly caught by a cartoonist who pictured a voter with a "Powell 96" button saying "Good lord, is he black?". Sorauf said: "What we know of him is that he is a fairly self-contained man who gives very little away. Being a candidate would force him to commit himself on issues on which he would lose votes. He might self-destruct."

Will there be a third candidate ? "Probably not," says Polsby. "Probably," suggest Sorauf and Gerring, who believes a chaotic multi-candidate race after the pattern of 1912 is possible. "If there is a serious third candidate all bets are off," says Norpoth. Perot's decision to set up an organisation for the 1996 election though not yet to declare himself makes an independent runner much more likely.

So what chance of four more years of Clinton? Such consensus as there is is best expressed by film mogul Sam Goldwyn: "A definite maybe."

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