by Thad Beyle
The specter of Bill Clinton hung over both major parties during this past
presidential contest. His foibles while in office hurt the Democrats, while
the unsuccessful attempts to thwart and even impeach him left many voters
with bitter feelings toward the Republican Party.
Democratic candidate and Clinton’s Vice President
Al Gore wanted to run as his "own man," free of the negatives
associated with Clinton’s tenure as president. So he ran a distinctly
Clinton-free campaign with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman at his side.
Republicans learned the hard way in several
fights that Clinton was not easy to best in a political contest. In the
budget battle of 1995, the Republican-controlled Congress walked out of D.C.
to force the issue of who really governed, only to find that they were
blamed for the governmental impasse. They impeached Clinton in the U.S.
House, only to lose the vote to convict in the U.S. Senate. They
tried to wrap Clinton misdeeds around the necks of other Democratic
candidates in 1998, only to see the Democrats pick up seats in the House.
This led to one of their most outspoken leaders, House Speaker Newt
Gingrich, resigning and leaving the D.C. battleground. Hence, George W.
Bush’s campaign was noticeably devoid of an anti-Clinton tone.
President Clinton was an important factor in the
2000 election. Why? Because of his positive performance as president. He
entered the last three months of his eight-year tenure with job approval
ratings equal to the other two post-World War II presidents who served two
In a late October 2000 Gallup Poll, 57% of the
respondents approved of the job Clinton was doing as president. By
comparison, in a mid-October 1960 Gallup Poll, Dwight Eisenhower received a
58% positive job approval rating, and in a mid-October 1988 Gallup Poll, 51%
gave Ronald Reagan a positive job rating. Voter News Service exit polls
taken at polling places on Election Day 2000 indicated Clinton’s positive
job performance rating nationally among actual voters was also 57%.
Clinton’s VNS exit poll job approval ratings did
vary considerably across the 50 states and the District of Columbia and tell
an interesting story. They ranged from an 87% high in D.C. to a 39% low in
Wyoming, home of GOP vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney.
Gore won 17 of the 18 states (including D.C.) where
Clinton’s job rating was at or above the national average of 57%. Which
state didn’t fit this pattern? No surprise. Florida (where Clinton’s
positive rating was 58%) was the one state that Gore didn’t "carry" when the
rating of Clinton’s job performance was at or above the national 57%
Bush won 29 of the 33 states where Clinton’s job
performance was below the national average. The other four states that Gore
was able to win had Clinton job performance ratings just below the national
average: Iowa and Wisconsin (56%), Oregon (55%) and New Mexico (52%).
Another way to view how Clinton’s job approval
ratings and the election results interplayed is that every state with
Clinton ratings of 60% or more went to Gore. Every state with Clinton job
ratings 51% or lower went to Bush. The election was decided in states where
Clinton’s job ratings ranged from 52% to 58%. These 18 states split, with 11
going to Bush and seven going to Gore.
Had Gore called upon Clinton to campaign for the
Democratic ticket in some of these states, the results might have been
different. Remember that it would have taken only one of the Bush states to
go for Gore to change the results of the 2000 election. Here are two
• New Hampshire, where voters supported the
Clinton-Gore team in 1992 with a very close one-point victory spread and
in 1996 with a considerably wider ten-point spread. Clinton’s 56% job
approval rating in the 2000 New Hampshire exit poll suggests such an
effort might have made a difference in how that state’s four Electoral
College votes were cast, especially as the Bush-Cheney team won by just
over 7,200 votes, a 1-point spread. Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen was
re-elected by nearly 29,000 votes (a 5.1-point spread), in the only other
• Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, where voters
had supported him in five of his six races for statewide office, and where
the Clinton-Gore team won in 1992 by nearly 169,000 votes (a 17.9-point
spread) and in 1996 by nearly 150,000 votes (a 16.9-point spread).
Clinton’s 53% job approval rating in the 2000 Arkansas exit poll also
suggests such an effort might have made a difference in the outcome in
2000, when the Bush-Cheney team won by slightly more than 50,000 votes (a
Regional differences are apparent in these job
ratings. In New England, Clinton’s ratings ranged from a 72% high in Rhode
Island to a 56% low in New Hampshire. In the South, the range was from
Florida’s high of 58% to a 45% low in Bush’s home state of Texas. Seven
Southern states clustered around a 50% positive Clinton job rating. On the
Pacific Rim, the range was from Hawaii’s high of 65% to a low of 44% in
The point of this exercise is to show that an
incumbent president’s job performance is significant, as perceived by those
in the broader population and hence in the nation’s voting booths. For
politicians and their advisors to ignore this in their strategic political
planning is a serious omission.