Amid victory claims, real winners, losers Election: Despite the rosy pictures painted by spin doctors and special interests, there was good news and bad for many in the election of 1996.

Election 1996

November 07, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On the day after the '96 vote, everyone seemed to be spinning victory claims.

Republicans and Democrats alike found a bounty of positive nuggets in the national election returns. And from the Christian Coalition to the Rainbow Coalition to the Sierra Club to the Chamber of Commerce came competing boasts that they were the ones who had made the crucial difference Tuesday.

But in politics, as in life, everybody can't come out ahead. What follows is a highly arbitrary listing of some of the election's noteworthy winners and losers.

WINNER: Incumbents. Happy days are here again for the folks who promised to end politics as unusual. Re-election rates for incumbents soared above 95 percent, approaching the record levels seen in the 1980s. Only one senator and 20 House members went down to defeat. And Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win re-election.

LOSER: Mandates. Re-elected to do what? The president's sunny, morning-again-in-America campaign tasted great but left many voters less than fulfilled. Clinton never sketched out big ideas for a second term. And when he missed, by a whisker, his personal target of 50 percent of the popular vote, it made it that much harder to claim a mandate for his second-term agenda. As for the Republican Congress, there was no "Contract with America" this time; they're just glad to be coming back.

WINNER: Women. The new power brokers in American politics provided Clinton with his margin of victory, favoring him 54 percent to 38 percent for Bob Dole. Men split their votes evenly between the two.

LOSER: Soccer moms. The trendiest, most sought-after voter group of the year wound up on the sidelines when all was said and done. Women ages 25 to 49 who have children divided their votes evenly between Clinton and Dole. Instead, it was single women, including widows and divorcees, whose votes made the big difference for Clinton.

WINNER: Big Money. The most expensive campaign in history proved again that big bucks rule in American politics. That was particularly true in House and Senate contests, where a huge Republican advantage in campaign cash was decisive down the stretch, fueling a comeback by many GOP incumbents in the final 10 days of the campaign. The same did not happen in the presidential race, where Dole and Clinton were required by law to spend equal amounts of taxpayer funds.

LOSER: Big Labor. The AFL-CIO's much-ballyhooed crusade to overturn Republican control of Congress fell short. Organized labor was disappointed that only 18 of its roughly 100 targets were unseated. It appears the $35 million effort to soften up Republican incumbents peaked too soon, giving targets time to fire back. And Democratic challengers were left defenseless when Big Business counterattacked with ads warning voters that "labor bosses" were trying to buy the election.

WINNER: Republican freshmen. The Revolutionaries of 1994 are coming back. Only a dozen of the 71 GOP freshmen lost, fewer than some party officials had feared. Many freshmen, forewarned that they were prime targets for defeat, armed themselves with lots of campaign money -- much of it from special-interest groups -- and discovered in the process that there's no edge in politics quite like incumbency.

LOSER: Motor voter. A new law allowed millions of Americans to register to vote over the past three years when they renewed their drivers licenses. Tuesday's returns proved that you can lead a citizen to the voter rolls, but you can't make him vote. Participation fell below 50 percent of those eligible, by some estimates, the worst turnout since modern record-keeping began.

WINNER: Reform Party. By receiving more than 5 percent of the vote, Ross Perot's party can obtain federal funding for the election in 2000. That all but assures that independent voters will have another choice next time.

LOSER: Ross Perot. His theme of election reform was the hottest message at the end of the campaign, but voters rejected the messenger. A majority of voters who supported Perot in 1992 switched to other candidates this time, and the Texas billionaire finished with only about half the vote he drew four years ago. As it turned out, Perot's oft-repeated line proved right: This election wasn't about him after all.

WINNER: Seniors. Older voters flexed their electoral muscles in the sun-splashed retiree havens of Florida and Arizona. Both states voted Democratic in the presidential race for the first time in decades, in reaction to party claims that Republicans were out to cut programs that benefit the elderly. The warning to Washington politicians was a familiar one: Mess with our Medicare and Social Security at your peril.

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