Hope, fear fuel Clinton campaign

September 17th, 1996

With less than 50 days to go before the presidential election on November 5, the Dole campaign is in trouble. National polls continue to show President Clinton with a commanding lead -- most around 15%. 

The outlook in the state-by-state electoral vote -- the one that really counts, where it takes 270 out of 538 votes to the win the presidency -- is even more bleak. According to Sunday's "Electoral Scorecard" compiled by the conservative Washington Times, there are 13 Western and Southern states with 96 electoral votes solidly in Dole's column. 

By contrast, Clinton now has 27 states (including the District of Columbia) with 325 electoral votes solidly in his column -- already enough to win. 

What is stunning about this picture is the dramatic change since July, when the same scorecard, showed Dole with 175 electoral votes (in 20 states) against Clinton with 218 electoral votes (in 16 states). The change from July amounts to a 186 vote swing, including a loss of 79 electoral votes for Dole and a gain of 107 votes for Clinton. What happened is clear: Clinton cracked once solid support for Dole in the South and the West and solidified his support in the Great Lakes region and in the Mississippi River valley states. 

Why Dole stalled is less clear, which accounts for the army of party activists and political analysts in search of an explanation. There are many. 

Some blame the candidate. Some blame it on the campaign strategy, and that's why there was a major shake-up in the campaign's advertising team last week -- to bring a harder edge to Dole's ads. Still others cite the temper of the times. 

For example, there is growing evidence that the public is turned off by personal attacks. That's why spotlighting Clinton's "character problem" and other scandals -- like Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit, Travelgate, Filegate, presidential advisor Dick Morris's fling with a prostitute using campaign money, special prosecutors for cabinet officers Mike Espy (resigned) and Henry Cisneros -- doesn't seem to have traction with voters and is viewed by many as mudslinging. Result: It is hard for Dole to make Clinton the issue. 

Others credit the Dick Morris-designed Clinton campaign with combining the best of 1984 and 1988. In 1984, Ronald Reagan invoked hope, convincing the American people to "stay the course," that it was "morning in America." Today, with the economy chugging along and people numb to the character issue, voters are not searching for reasons to dump Clinton. They have to be given a reason. 

Second, Clinton laid a backdrop of fear. Beginning in April, the Democrat incumbent and his allies spent tens of millions of dollars to define Republicans as radicals and extremists. It's like 1988, except: Newt Gingrich has replaced Willie Horton, and the suggestion that Mike Dukakis was soft on crime (which was true) has been replaced by Republicans wanting to cut Medicare and deny school lunches to hungry children (which was not true). Democrats, aided and abetted by national media, have also demonized Republicans as a party of special interests intolerant of gender, racial and religious diversity. It has worked. 

Most political campaigns are some combination of hope and fear, and the Clinton campaign has been very effective in spinning a message of hope against a backdrop of fear. There is a lot to fear about a second term for Clinton -- beginning with Supreme Court appointments and bigger government. If Dole is to win, he needs to fight fire with fire. 

Number: 
290

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