Clinton campaign credits success to early start, careful targeting of states

November 05, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Republicans, winners of five of the previous six presidential elections, were supposed to be the state-of-the-art political technicians, but the Democrats in Little Rock taught them a lesson or two in the way they crafted the election of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

According to David Wilhelm, the young campaign manager from Chicago in charge of electoral-vote strategy, the Clinton campaign started earlier than the Bush campaign, built wide leads in key states, then carefully targeted the rest of the country in terms of the effort and resources needed to compete in specific remaining states.

Mr. Wilhelm set up three categories, based on past party performance, 1992 economic circumstances or other special circumstances:

* "Top end" states -- 13 plus the District of Columbia in which Mr. Clinton figured to win without the expending of major resources: Democratic standbys Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Minnesota, Hawaii and D.C., plus Arkansas, California, New York, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Connecticut. Mr. Clinton won all of them.

* "Play hard" states -- 18 in which an all-out effort would be required: Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Mr. Clinton won all of them except North Carolina, which eluded him by a single percentage point.

* "Big challenge" states -- 10 in which the task was so difficult that spending the time and money it would take to win didn't seem justified: Alaska, Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah; plus nine that merited "watching" only: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Virtually no effort was made in the first 10 and only a modest try in the other nine. Mr. Clinton lost them all except New Hampshire, which he carried by one percentage point, and Nevada, which he won by three.

Based on that strategy, Mr. Wilhelm said, the campaign built a battle plan to win 376 electoral votes in the 31 states and the District of Columbia comprising the first two categories. Mr. Clinton came away with 370 in 30 of the states and the District of Columbia, plus New Hampshire and Nevada.

Guided by this carefully constructed blueprint for victory, the campaign went about allocating its budget for radio and television advertising. According to Mandy Grunwald, the campaign's media specialist, the Clinton campaign spent very little on network television advertising, choosing instead to put the bulk of its resources into targeted state and local radio and television.

These less expensive local and state ads, she said, enabled the campaign to bring specific messages to specific states and parts of the country.

One reason the Clinton campaign was able to get by with so little network television time was the immense amount of free time made available to all of the candidates, both national and local, starting with the cable talk shows such as "Larry King Live." The network shows, such as "Donahue," soon fell in line, then the more serious, mass audience early morning news and entertainment shows on the major networks.

In many "play hard" states, Ms. Grunwald said, the local advertising began before Labor Day, giving the Clinton campaign a two-week jump on the Bush campaign and shoring up the governor's leads against Mr. Bush's post-convention attacks on him.

And, though some public polls indicated a closing of Mr. Clinton's lead in the final week, the Clinton campaign's own survey, according to campaign pollster Stan Greenberg, showed a steady lead of about 7 percentage points.

As early as summer, Mr. Wilhelm had talked about a reversal of customary Democratic and Republican strategies. In recent elections, he noted, it was the Republicans who were able to cast a wide net for electoral votes and the Democrats who had to "thread the needle" in a small number of larger states to amass the 270 required for election.

The reason for the reversal, he said, was that opposition to Mr. Bush, and the electorate's desire for change were so strong in so many states that for once the Democratic campaign was able to start with a solid base while the Republicans uncharacteristically had to work on solidifying their own base long after their convention.

While the Bush campaign was thus occupied, the Clinton campaign did not have to worry much about its "top end" states and could focus resources and "play hard" in the states that figured to be most competitive, largely ignoring the rest.

The strategy required reliable polling data in each of the states and steady nerves. In the closing days, Mr. Clinton made brief forays into a few of the "big challenge" states, essentially to keep the Bush campaign occupied there, but kept his real focus on the original targets. In the end, the Clinton campaign had a solid hold on enough electoral votes in enough states to reduce the Bush campaign to desperation.

At the start of the campaign, the Republicans were said by many to have a "lock" on the electoral vote. James Carville, Mr. Clinton's chief political strategist, observed yesterday, "We didn't find the key to the electoral lock here. We just picked it."

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