You have a vulnerable incumbent President with a gaffe-prone VP, and the challenging party has a diverse field of candidates, which is considered historically weak. The long ago perceived frontrunner comes from a state and region away from the party’s base region of strength, and he’s considered a flip-flopping opportunist out of sync ideologically with that base. The party faithful really wants a more attractive option, as the most riveting candidates that appeal to the party base took a pass, and other more experienced candidates either have no interest or felt it was not their time in the political environment. Making matters worse, the states that voted before Super Tuesday produced mixed results, with multiple winners and no “momentum” being established for any of the remaining candidates.
Nope, not talking about 2012 and the GOP field, with Mitt Romney as the early established frontrunner. I was actually describing the 1992 Democrat race and its frontrunner (in perception only) Bill Clinton - future President William Jefferson Blythe Clinton. Of course the comparisons of the two candidates are not perfect: Mitt Romney has a marriage and personal life so squeaky clean that it almost comes out of a 50s-era sitcom, while Bill Clinton, at the time, was a more inspiring speaker and emoter to his party base. Mitt Romney is extremely wealthy – almost uncomfortably so to a fault – while Bill Clinton came from humble beginnings and made about $50K annually as Governor of Arkansas. But both were 2 of the smartest American students of their generation and had a firm grasp on national policy, despite both never having worked for a minute in Washington, D.C. Both were (are) married to smart, articulate, strong women who actually made public appeals on behalf of their candidate husbands.
But just as Mitt Romney and his establishment supporters are realizing that the primary season is no picnic in the park, he’s having a pure cakewalk to his nomination compared with Bill Clinton in 1992. Quick overview of that race: The Democrat field was considered quite weak, even coming off of the 1988 buffet that included Michael Dukakis (as nominee), Rep Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon (no, not the musician from the 60s-80s, but the Illinois Senator), Rev Jesse Jackson, and (future Dem VP & 2000 Presidential nominee) Sen Albert Gore, Jr. In 1992, NY Governor and riveting speaker (who wowed the party base at its 1984 Convention) Mario Cuomo passed on the race – It’s assumed the 1992 nomination was his for the taking had he ran. So the Democrats were stuck with a lackluster field of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton – considered a moderate, as he ran the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, former MA Senator Paul Tsongas (pronounced Sonn-Guess) – considered the fiscal conservative of the race, former CA Governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown (known affectionately as “Moonbeam"), Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa (yaaaaaawn), and Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey – another perceived “moderate.” Governor Douglas Wilder of VA was a candidate early, but dropped out before first contests began.
Once the 1992 race began in earnest, the primary and caucus results came & went as followed. Sen Harkin had favorite son status in Iowa, so the most anticipated contest every four years was rendered meaningless. Harkin won 77%, “Uncommitted” finished 2nd with almost 12%, and Tsongas was a very distant 3rd – with 4%. Only about 3000 votes were cast in Iowa that year. Thanks, Harkin.
Moving on to New Hampshire, the real contest began. Sen Tsongas, with the state being basically in his backyard coming from MA, won comfortably with a lackluster 33%. But the real story coming out of the First in the Nation Primary was the saving of his campaign by Bill Clinton, who finished with a respectable 24% - very good considering the Northeast was not his area of strength. Kerrey finished in 3rd with a weak 11%. Like the 2012 Iowa GOP winner, Harkin finished a distant 4th in NH (10%). Brown of CA finished a depressing 5th (Another big-state governor going down in flames early?).
Next on the docket, to finish out February of ’92, came 2 very small states before heading into “Mini Tuesday” in early March. The Maine Caucus had a very weak turnout (only about 3200 participants) and only 3 of the 5 candidates were contesting. It finished Brown, Tsongas, and Clinton, in that order. On to South Dakota, officially the first and best test in the West (Note: Every chance you get to make a clever string of rhymes, you take it.). This time Kerrey won with 40%, Harkin finished 2nd with 25%, Clinton 3rd with 19%, Tsongas 4th, and Brown a pathetic 5th place with less than 5%. So that’s 4 contests before March with 4 different winners. A jumbled mess if ever there were one. Quick recap: Iowa winner finishes 4th, N/A & 2nd in the next 3 contests; NH winner finished 2nd, then distant 4th; Maine Caucus winner finished in single digits in the other 3 contests; SD Primary winner finished 3rd in NH and basically N/A’d the other 2. Oh, and the party’s “frontrunner” going in, Clinton, had yet to win, finishing 3rd, 2nd, 3rd (out of 3 participating), and 3rd to close February. That’s 3 bronze & a silver for what would eventually be a two-term (impeached) President.
Next were 6 primaries and caucuses – plus American Samoa & Minnesota, both with no real contest - held on March 3, a week before Super Tuesday. Four were states out West, one from the South, plus the Beltway state of Maryland. The setup should have been regional advantage and a chance for real momentum for former CA Gov Brown. He won just one state (Colorado), finished 2nd in two states (both out West), and finished in anemic single digits in the other 3. Tsongas finished first in three states (two impressively out West), 2nd in two, and a close 3rd in another. (Why Tsongas isn’t the presumptive favorite at this point is a mystery). Kerrey has dropped out by now, while Harkin’s campaign is on life support (even as he wins Idaho in a basically unattended, uncontested caucus). And finally Bill Clinton wins an actual race, dominating the Georgia Primary with 57% (Tsongas in 2nd). He finished 2nd twice (CO & MD) and 3rd thrice. Not an outstanding haul for Slick Willy, but his campaign is still alive. Ten contests in, and the punditry “frontrunner” has one victory (in the South, and he being the only candidate with a link to the South).
Three contests were held the Saturday before Super Tuesday, and Nevada Caucus was held that Sunday. The big prize was the South Carolina Primary, and Clinton walked away with it, getting 63%, while Tsongas finished 2nd at 18%. More Western-field advantage was fumbled away by Brown, as he failed to win both AZ & WY caucuses (though he would win the lightly-attended NV Caucus). Clinton regained his stride with three 2nd place finishes in the western states. Now 14 states in and Bill Clinton had won only two of them – both Southern states – and finished 3rd in 6 of the 14. Now THAT, friends, is a weak frontrunner. Nobody (not named Clinton) in their wildest dreams at this point would have expected him to ever be hearing “Hail to the Chief” played on his behalf.
Moving on to Super Tuesday, March 10, Bill Clinton begins to gain steam in a three-man race at this point. Using geography to his advantage – 7 of 11 are either in the South or include neighboring states (6 of the 11 states actually border Arkansas!) – Clinton rolls to victory, winning majorities in 8 states, while Tsongas won 3 states in the Northeast, including his home state of Mass. A week later Clinton wins majorities in both the Michigan and Illinois primaries, and it’s basically all over but the cryin’. He wins every remaining state but two in the Northeast and the nomination is his. Despite a horrendous start in the primary calendar, the Clinton campaign waited patiently for its moment, didn’t panic, and walked away with the nomination before the end of March (basically all but sealing the deal the first week of April). Slow and steady won the race. Not that the liberal Democratic base didn’t have to be dragged kicking & screaming along the way. There was no “true progressive” in the 1992 race, and Clinton was a Southerner in a party whose base was centered mainly in the Northeast and Midwest, and gradually – through both Reagan success and erosion of the Democrat brand in Dixie – had been moving away from the traditional South. To add further to his “weak frontrunner” status, billionaire Texan H Ross Perot entered the race as an Independent (later under the banner of the “Reform Party”), and further cut into Clinton’s base of moderate and mild-conservative support. Within about a week of Perot fanfare, Clinton was 3rd in a three-man race, behind both George HW Bush and Perot, with about 30% in new polls. You can’t get much more weak as a nominee-in-waiting, being fresh off sweeping primary victories and when the party faithful is supposed to rally around you in solidarity.
Granted, Presidential politics is different than it was 20 years ago, but compare the above results with what Mitt Romney has accomplished so far in 2012. He basically tied in Iowa (They still haven’t found 8 precincts worth of votes) – declared as winner by 8 votes on Caucus night – without going for broke in the state until he knew he could win, blew away a six-person field in New Hampshire, finished 2nd out of four with 28% in a southern state, won with 46% in a closed Florida Primary, got a majority in NV (closed) Caucus, finished 2nd in CO Caucus, 3rd in Minn Caucus (only 49K people participated in total), lost a Missouri “beauty contest” in which he never tried, then got a near majority in AZ and finished 1st in Michigan, his 41% being misleading by inclusion of both Indy voters and Democrats allowed to vote (Dems fashioned their own version of “Operation Chaos” by voting for Santorum to damage Romney) – he got almost majority of the declared Republicans in Michigan. Now it’s on to Washington for a caucus on Saturday, and then on to Super Tuesday, March 6.
Though the 2012 nomination battle is far from over, and Mitt Romney is not out of the woods yet, he’s in historically fine shape at this point. Although his Super Tuesday map is not near as geographically friendly as Clinton’s was back in ’92, Romney is likely to win at least half of the states and a plurality of the delegates at stake. But now, barring collapse, he’ll be the presumed frontrunner and nominee-in-waiting once the calendar moves into April and beyond. None of the other 3 candidates have a logical path to the majority of the delegates, and their stock has been fading in the last few weeks. Considering where a future President was in his nomination battle at this point back in 1992, Mitt Romney cannot objectively be called a weak frontrunner. Here are his finishes in the first ten states’ results: 6 outright Gold medals, a tie in Iowa, 2 Silvers, and a Bronze – in geographically & demographically diverse states no less. He’s won 41% of the vote when delegates are at stake, almost the total number of votes of the next two competitors combined to this point. That’s electoral success by any measure and hardly weakness in a frontrunner.
Update: Mitt Romney is victorious in his 5th contest in a row by capturing the Washington Caucuses on March 3rd. He garners 38% of the total vote, while Ron Paul inches out Rick Santorum 25% to 24% & capturing 2nd place. A strong Super Tuesday by Mitt Romney - say, winning 7 of the 10 states on the ballot - and the Fat Lady begins to clear her throat on the 2012 nomination.