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The Presidential Election of 1992: Bill Clinton, Ross Perot & George H.W. Bush

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  • 0:05 George H.W. Bush
  • 1:55 Bill Clinton
  • 3:04 Ross Perot
  • 4:30 Election Day Analysis
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Learn about the three-way presidential race of 1992, which pitted Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush against Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot. The campaign focused heavily on the economy.

George H.W. Bush

In the spring of 1991, in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, roughly 9 out of 10 Americans thought that President George H.W. Bush was doing a good job. Then, as the 1992 primary season opened, President Bush and Vice-President Dan Quayle defeated their challengers to win the Republican nomination. But that's not to say everything was good as the presidential election loomed.

As one of his opponents famously noted, 'It's the economy, stupid.' The United States faced a persistent recession in the early 1990s, affecting blue and white-collar workers alike. Some Americans began to wonder if the nation's economic problems couldn't be blamed on Republicans who had held the White House for 12 years. Maybe it was time for a change.

But President Bush had more than one major strike against him. Four years earlier, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bush had promised, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.' It was a promise he couldn't keep, and his critics loved to bring it up again and again. The new taxes also alienated many of the most conservative members of his own party, and despite that new income, the federal deficit continued to rise.

Finally, President Bush represented a different era. He was a WWII hero with an impressive Cold War résumé. But in 1992, that chapter of history was all but over; the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the iron curtain, had all crumbled away, and many Americans felt like Bush was their parents' president, not their own.

Bill Clinton

This was the political backdrop as the Democrats weeded through a crowded field of presidential hopefuls. In the end, Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, emerged with the Democratic Party's nomination. He selected Senator Al Gore as his running mate.

In many ways, Clinton was Bush's polar opposite. He was certainly not a Washington 'insider' with all the associated baggage; he was just a popular, personable governor with a track record of addressing the economy, education and health care at the state level. He was not a war hero (he wasn't even born until after WWII), he'd never served in the military and he had even been pegged as a draft dodger during the Vietnam conflict. He admitted to smoking pot back in the 60s and faced charges of sexual harassment.

But all of these political faux pas seemed to endear him the more to the Baby Boomer generation he represented. And when President Bush tried to tell America that Bill Clinton was inexperienced and irresponsible, he just smiled back and kept on message: 'It's the economy, stupid.'

Ross Perot

Unfortunately for President Bush, he was getting hammered on the economy from both sides. A third party candidate appeared, appealing to fiscal conservatives who were frustrated with Bush's broken tax promises, with Congress's inability to reign in the federal deficit and other economic issues.

Texas billionaire Ross Perot told voters that they would hear a 'giant sucking sound' as jobs left the American economy if politicians continued on their intended course. After a television appearance, he garnered enough support to appear on the ballot in all 50 states - a remarkable feat for an independent candidate - and the strongest third party challenger since Theodore Roosevelt. By mid-May, Perot was in the lead in a national poll.

His main campaign tactic was to air primetime 'infomercials' in which he carefully spelled out his plan for rescuing the economy. Even though Perot was seen as somewhat eccentric, his businessman's approach appealed to many voters who were tired of politics as usual. But in July, he abruptly dropped out of the race, claiming that Republicans were planning a smear campaign against his daughter. Perot actually threw his hat back into the ring in October, but it was too late to save his campaign.

Election Day Analysis

Tuesday, November 3, Election Day 1992, belonged to Bill Clinton. While he garnered only 43% of the popular vote, that was enough for victory given the three-way split. President Bush carried just 37%, while Perot earned 19%. Considering Perot had the backing of no major political party and was out of the race for several months just preceding the election, it was an impressive showing.

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