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Thad Beyle is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This article appeared in the January 15, 2001, edition of The Polling Report.



Running With, Or From,
the President's Coattails?

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.

The Clinton Factor
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 full terms.

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. (See table, below.)

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% average.

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 examples:

• 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 statewide race.

• 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 5.4-point spread).


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 Alaska.

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.

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 . . .

 

President Clinton's Job Approval Ratings in the
2000 VNS Exit Polls, and the
Bush-Gore Vote

 

 

 

STRONG: 60-87%
14 states

GOOD: 50-58%
24 states

FAIR to GOOD: 39-49%
13 states

 

 

 

State Clinton
Rating
(%)
Winning
Margin
(points)
State Clinton
Rating
(%)
Winning
Margin
(points)
State Clinton
Rating
(%)
Winning
Margin
(points)

 

 

 

DC 87 G 77 FL 58 B 0 MS 49 B 15
RI 72 G 29 WA 58 G 5 KY 49 B 16
MA 69 G 27 MI 58 G 4 IN 48 B 16
NY 66 G 25 US 57 G 0.4* ND 48 B 28
NJ 66 G 15 PA 57 G 4 AL 47 B 15
HI 65 G 18 IA 56 G 1 OK 46 B 22
DE 64 G 13 WI 56 G 1 TX 45 B 21
IL 64 G 12 NH 56 B 1 AK 44 B 31
VT 64 G 10 NV 56 B 3 MT 43 B 24
MN 64 G 2 OH 56 B 4 NE 42 B 30
CT 63 G 17 OR 55 G 0 ID 40 B 41
MD 63 G 17 MO 55 B 4 UT 40 B 41
CA 62 G 12 WV 55 B 6 WY 39 B 41
ME 60 G 5 VA 55 B 7      
      AR 53 B 6      
      CO 53 B 9      
      NM 52 G 0      
      AZ 52 B 6      
      SD 52 B 22      
      GA 51 B 12      
      TN 50 B 3      
      LA 50 B 8      
      NC 50 B 13      
      SC 50 B 16      
      KS 50 B 21      
                 
     

* Gore’s percentage of the two major party candidates’ vote was 50.2% to Bush’s 49.8%.

 
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