A History Professor Rewrites History

There’s a myth that the first Clinton, the Big Dog as he’s been called, was able to win in 1992 because he won back the working class vote for Democrats — taking away an electoral advantage from the Republicans.  So with another Clinton in the race, 2008 sounds a lot like 1992.

There’s just one thing that everyone offering this argument in support of the second Clinton conveniently forgets, though: Perot. 

Reading through Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz’s pro-Hillary piece at Huffington Post, Perot is the one factor he forgets to mention.  (I admit that I only read halfway through his piece before searching for “Perot” — once I found out Perot isn’t mentioned, I stopped reading.  Why waste time on incomplete analysis that doesn’t take the most important factor into account?)  But I did read far enough to see Wilentz belt out this gut-buster:

Northern white working-class defections to the Republicans grew steadily in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Republican’s Watergate debacle temporarily halted the trend, but the disasters of the Carter presidency, especially its mishandling of economic woes and foreign policy, accelerated the defections in 1980. In his two successful races, Ronald Reagan won the support, on average, of 61 percent of white working class voters, compared to 35 percent for his opponents, Carter and Walter Mondale. (Both times, Reagan carried Ohio and Pennsylvania handily.) As the caricature of “Reagan Democrats” as racist militarists hardened among “new politics” advocates, they strove to make up the difference by creating an expanded base among African-Americans, college-age, and college educated voters. The result was yet another humiliating defeat for the Democrats in 1988.

Bill Clinton’s shift to a centrist liberalism stressing lunch-pail issues–“Putting People First”–won back a large number of Reagan Democrats in 1992, enough so that, by the time Clinton won his second term in 1996, Democrats could claim parity with Republicans by winning a slim plurality among non-college educated working class white voters. But the perceived elitists Al Gore and John Kerry lost what Clinton had gained, as George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by a margin of 17 percent in 2000 and a whopping 23 percent in 2004.

Moral of the story?  Bill Clinton stole working class Republican votes and won the election.  Right?  

Well, not quite. 

Ross Perot ran for President in 1992, and if you think Nader was a spoiler, wait until I show you some of Perot’s numbers.  The basic current running under Perot’s numbers is that, from 1988 to 1992, when you add the votes that Bush got in 1992 to Perot’s vote totals, they roughly equal the vote totals Bush received in 1988.  This means Perot took away so many votes from Bush that it allowed Clinton to win working class counties in swing states.  So, new moral of the story — Bill Clinton didn’t win any of the working class vote. 

Here’s a few numbers to demonstrate this:

In 1988, Bush the First received 53.37% of the vote nationally; Dukakis got 45.65%  But in 1992, while Clinton only got 43% of the national vote, Bush got 37.45% and Perot got 18.91%.  Combine those, and Bush/Perot got 56.36% of the popular vote in 1992 — which looks very similar to the 53.37% Bush got in 1988.  

This trend extends to the county level in Ohio.  Here are the Ohio county votes for 1988 and 1992. I’ll point out a few examples.

First, we’ll take an urban county — Hamilton, home of Cincinnati, a Republican stronghold.  In 1988, Bush got 61.3% of the vote in Hamilton, but in 1992 he got 47.7% and Perot got 14.9%.  Combined, that equals 62.6% — only 1.3% difference from 1988.

Now let’s look at some rural counties.  I’ll pick two at random — yes, by that I mean that, as I type this, I still don’t know what counties I’ll use, so I’m that confident of the results based on my analysis of other counties that I have looked at.

Darke County: Bush got 67.9% of the vote in 1988; he got 45.4% and Perot got 25.5% in 1992.  Combined, that equals 70.9 — only a 3% difference. 

Licking County: Bush got 66.7% of the vote in 1988; he got 44.5% and Perot got 22.8% in 1992.  Combined, that equals 67.3 — a less than one percent difference. 

Like I said, I just picked these counties out at random.  I could go through the whole list if I had time and the results would be similar — mirroring the national results.

So the theory that Professor Wilentz proffers is a myth — Bill Clinton did not win the working class vote.  And while Gore* and Kerry may have lost because they were “perceived elitists,” as Wilentz states, they also did not have a candidate taking 15-20% of the Republican vote in working class counties helping them — Clinton did.  If it weren’t for Perot, Clinton would have never won in 1992 and we probably wouldn’t see his wife running for president now. 

This is something to keep in mind the next time Hillary’s supporters claim that she can win the working class vote.  Her husband never did, so what makes them think that Hillary can?

* – While he was a “perceived elitist,” Gore lost in 2000 because George W. Bush’s brother was able to wipe many legal black voters off the rolls in Florida.  Sure, Nader’s candidacy made things way too close, but when thousands of black voters are illegally disenfranchised, I think that’s a bigger problem. 

9 Responses to “A History Professor Rewrites History”

  1. There is no question that Ross Perot was the reason Bill Clinton won in both 1992 and 1996. In 1992 Perot received 18.9% of the popular vote nationally and ,while not nearly as impressive, he received 8% of the national vote in 1996. To put this into context, Ralph Nader pulled a whopping 2.74% of the popular vote in 2000 when he was deemed a “spoiler” on the left.

    This entire exercise of looking under ever rock for a potential excuse to keep Hillary in the race is ridiculous. Unfortunately, even Princeton history professors are not free from self censorship when it comes to presenting an thorough argument. Thanks for reminding everyone of the truth surrounding the Big Dog’s rise to power TAS.

  2. Great post. What these folks who hold up Bill as a success story for the party forget is that he could not even pull in 50% of the vote in 92 or 96, and lucked out because he ran against two rather dreary candidates. And if Ross is not running in ’92, does he even win, despite GHWB’s flaws?

  3. tas says:

    Michael: GReat point on Nader’s vote total in 2000 not even being near Perot’s in 1996, nevermind 1992. I would have liked to include that and made a more comprehensive post, but I had about 45 minutes during breakfast to write this, including gathering sources. So I kept it minimal.

    Bostondreamer: Thanks. And to answer your question with a question, if Perot ran in 1988, would Dukakis have been our president? The answer is probably yes. And among other things tthat Clinton supporters choose to ignore is that George Bush was a weak candidate in 1992, being viewed as a president who didn’t finish the job in Iraq and parts of the country were in a recession. The way I look at these vote totals, though, is that the conservative vote split — most of them stayed with the party, but 15-20% of them gave their votes to Perot. That was more than enough to enable Clinton to win the election. But if you look at those Ohio county-by-county numbers, Clinton actually got less votes among the working class than did Dukakis! None of Hillary’s supporters, like Princeton history professors (who should know better) mention that, though.

    Essentially, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry did not capture the working class vote. But only one had Perot to split the conservative vote — hence win the election. But all this rhetoric about Hillary winning over the working class because Bill did is bunk, simply bunk. Bill never won over the working class. So Hillary supporters claiming that she might repeat her husband’s success could, ironically and unfortunately enough, be right.

  4. Tony Smith says:

    The problem with your analysis is that you fail to prove that all — or even a majority — of Perot votes would have gone to Bush (same thing with Nader and Gore). This is just an assumption in your argument. But it’s a mighty important one…Many studies of exit polls from ’92 have concluded that Clinton would have won even without Perot, because his voters were basically split over what they would have done with him on the ticket. They would have voted for Bush, Clinton or stayed home. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2519/is_n5_v13/ai_13975246/pg_1

  5. Tony Smith says:

    Tas- interesting that you base your analysis of Clinton’s working class support on ONE state. How does this prove your conclusion that he did not win the working class?

  6. Tony Smith says:

    I am not sure what happened to this post – but here goes again. Your analysis rests on the unproven assumption that all — or even a meaningful amount — of Perot voters would have voted for Bush. But that’s not supported by exit polls. Most polls show that Perot voters would have either voted for Clinton or Bush or stayed home without Perot on the ticket. Essentially, that means his presence was without effect. Now, the state-to-state races show that he likely had an impact in Ohio – the data that you focus upon. But this is an anamoly, and Clinton would have won without Ohio anyway!


  7. Well considering that he did not win even 50% of the popular vote in 1992 or 1996, one could extrapolate from Ohio. Or maybe not.
    Yes, Mr. ‘Last Successful Democratic President’ never won 50% of the vote and then coopted Republican policies. Yay.

  8. tas says:

    Tony, I noted this in my first comment but to mention it again, this post couldn’t be as comprehensive as I wanted it to be because I had around 45 minutes to gather sources and write it. Writing wasn’t much of a crap shoot because I had done research into this before, back when I was a full time blogger. And I’d like to do more research, but there’s the whole time thing… I just moved and now I have to find a job. So I want too get back to this issue, and although this may seem like a cop out, but it’s probably going to take me a couple of weeks.

  9. DiamondJay says:

    I am surprised how big the myth of Ross Perot being a spoiler is in terms of spread. I’m surprised especially on a blog which doesn’t claim to be conservative either. I would not only link to the NY Times article Smith linked to, but remind you that Ross Perot was pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, and against NAFTA, which both Clinton and Bush were for. Thus, Perot is pretty liberal on those issues. Libertarians and liberal-moderate Republicans, after the RNC with the far religious right like Buchanan, Falwell, Robertson, and all the rest of those nuts speaking were NOT going back to Bush. Remember the Murphy Brown flap and “family values” as a campaign theme?
    Second, Bush had approvals in the 40’s and 30’s thruout the whole year. Presidents and parties do not win re-election with those numbers. To compare it to 1988 is ridiculous, because by that logic, Carter should have won 1980, and FDR should have lost 1932 in a landslide, just because Hoover won the previous election 1928 by a landslide. That being said, not only did exit polls show that Perot did not change the outcome, but if you look at the polls before Perot came back, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE2DE143CF931A1575AC0A964958260 Bush was polling the exact SAME 37 percent he got in November to Clinton who was polling in the upper 50’s, landslide proportions. The poll I showed was after labor day, and to show this was a pattern, look a week before http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE0DC1F3EF936A2575AC0A964958260 . If you look at all the polls from after the Dem Convention, when Perot dropped out until Perot came back, they all looked like this. Bill Clinton was headed to a landslide win. All Perot was did plunder Bill’s political capital. If Perot helped anyone, it was Bush, by getting him back in the game. Their guys even knew it http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE2D71030F933A0575AC0A964958260 as a Bush pollster says it best about Perot: “He’ll be important if we accomplish our goal, which is to draw even with Clinton”

    If you want to go by state by state, don’t forget Ohio wasn’t the only state, and for bush to have gotten to 270, He’d need 112 electoral votes more, as he only got 168. There were 11 states Bill Clinton carried by less than 5. Bush would need to win EVERY ONE OF THEM, and assuming Bill lost all except Wisconsin, which even Dukakis carried, he STILL WINS!!!! And Bush is not going to win ALL the swing states, because he was not only unpopular, you don’t win all the close states in elections anyway. Not to mention, for Clinton to have reached 50 percent, he’d only need 7 more points, and 7 out of Perot’s 19 is 37% of Perot’s vote. For Bush to get to 50 percent, he’d need 12.6 points of Perot’s 19, or 2/3. Now given the exit polls and Perot’s liberal social stances, that is NOT HAPPENING. Those numbers assume all of Perot’s voters still vote, which would not have happened. Tas, it seems you are the one rewriting history, not Professor Wilentz.

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