The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 1, 1999
Mar. 1, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 24


Q & A: Ben Ginsberg on the Next Presidential Election

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Benjamin Ginsberg, David Bernstein Professor of Political Science, reflects on the United States' current political climate and looks ahead to the presidential elections of the year 2000.

We're months away from the first primary election. However, many candidates are planning and fund raising in preparation to run. Who are emerging as the leading candidates?

On the Democratic side, the nomination is all but locked up by Al Gore. He's raised an enormous amount of money. He's been working tirelessly for this nomination for some time now. There are a couple of other Democrats who are creating campaign organizations, namely Bradley and Carey, but essentially their only hope would be some serious stumble on Gore's part. The other calculus here is, if there is another candidate, the media--since the media love horse races--will give that candidate more play than he may deserve. So, for example, if it comes down to Gore and Bradley, Bradley will get a big boost just from being the alternative.

On the Republican side, it's very open. The front-runner is said to be Gov. Bush of Texas, but it remains to be seen whether he is a real national candidate or not. There's a long history of front-runners who are popular governors of states, who once they emerge in a national campaign turn out to be paper tigers. They self-destruct very quickly. John Connally is an example. Other possible candidates include John McCain, who's an extremely strong candidate, an attractive campaigner, a war hero, but within Republican Party circles has a problem--namely, he is pro choice, which makes him persona non grata with social conservatives in the Republican Party.

Another interesting candidate is Liddy Dole. She's a great campaigner, knows everybody and is sufficiently interesting as a candidate that a number of women I know who are activists in the Democratic Party in Washington would seriously consider working for [her]. On the negative side, she's also thought to be pro choice, or at least she's not strong on right to life, which some Republicans find objectionable. Then there are a whole bunch of sort of fringe candidates, including Gary Bauer, who's a very well-respected and active social conservative, and there's of course the ubiquitous Pat Buchanan, who will amuse everyone for awhile before he deflates.

Dan Quayle is running. How much of a chance, if any, does he have of winning the Republican nomination?

He has basically no chance. Dan Quayle was destroyed by a couple of miscues. There's the obviously famous Bentsen barb during the vice-presidential debate, and then the media hopped all over him for misspelling potato, which I suspect 99 percent of the people in Washington would do. But because of these miscues, Quayle is not taken as seriously as he deserves. His record is no worse than that of a lot of other potential candidates, but I would say he has no chance whatsoever.

Vice President Al Gore. Does Clinton's glowing or seemingly glowing popularity necessarily transfer to the vice president?

No, not at all. Being vice president puts you in a position to be a strong contender for the nomination, but it's no guarantee of winning the election. Remember, a vice president runs for office with a lot of negatives as well as some positives. All the people who hated the president will automatically hate the vice president. There is incredible guilt by association. On the other hand, the people who liked the president don't necessarily like the vice president. We have this curious phenomenon of the dislikes transferring but the likes not transferring. A lot of notable vice presidents went down to defeat--Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey. George Bush won one time but then, of course, lost the second time. So I guess the record says being vice president has as many disadvantages as advantages. It's going to give Gore the nomination almost for sure, but the election is another matter.

How much residue from the impeachment process will there be? And do the Republicans come away with their chances diminished as a result of the impeachment business?

Well, you know, in politics issues and events have an extremely short half-life. The impeachment may have some continuing effect, but I think people in the year 2000 will be voting on the basis of issues and events that have yet not yet taken place; 1998-99 will be ancient history, and Bill Clinton will not be a candidate. So in a direct sense, the impeachment is not going to be a major issue. On the other hand, there will be some lasting fallout because Clinton survived and in some measure was vindicated, and public opinion supports him. That's had the effect of energizing forces on the Democratic side. For example, organized labor [recently] announced that they were going to keep their operatives in the field for the next two years, and they plan to spend $50 million in the run up to the election. On the Republican side, a lot of the forces that pushed for the impeachment are now quite dispirited by having lost. And it's going to be a while before they build up enough energy to begin campaigning again, so some valuable time is going to be lost. So I guess in an indirect way, the impeachment process will help the Democrats and hurt the Republicans, but it's not going to be decisive.

Elizabeth Dole and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton even have been mentioned as possible candidates. Could 2000 be the year the United States elects the first woman president?

It certainly could be the case. On the Democratic side, obviously Al Gore will be the candidate. But on the Republican side, it's quite possible that the scenario would be that G.W. [Bush] turns out to be a paper tiger, and there is no clear front-runner. I can imagine Elizabeth Dole winning the nomination. It's probably more likely that she'll be the vice presidential candidate, but it's certainly possible that she would be the Republican candidate. That would be very interesting and significant. It's in the realm of possibility that the president we elect in 2000 will be a woman.

President Clinton's continued popularity throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal rested, at least in part, on the American economy continuing to chug along relatively strongly, even as economies around the world suffered. What happens to the Democrats' chances of retaining the White House if the U.S. economy finally feels some pain from the worldwide economic slowdown?

If the economy slows down, then the chances of the party in power diminish. There is a very strong association between the condition of the economy and electoral behavior. As you say, part of Clinton's popularity had to do with the robust character of the American economy. As has been shown, the presidential approval question that's asked in the polls is highly correlated with the state of the economy. If the economy is strong, people say they like the president. And that's not unreasonable. But if there is an economic downturn between now and the year 2000, obviously that's going to hurt the Democrats. This is another illustration of the fact that the impeachment is now behind us. Politics is about what's going to happen, what has happened recently. Impeachment will be ancient history by the time people vote. The economy's going to be much more important.

Do you see any real hot-button issues emerging in the race for 2000? Crime? Health care? Social Security? Tobacco? Gun control?

All of the above. In order of likely significance, the economy, taxes, Social Security, health care. The parties are going to be jockeying for position on those issues over the next year and a half. Obviously, Congress and the president are going to present rival plans to fix Social Security. Obviously, Congress and the president are going to present rival tax-change schemes. The president claims that his Social Security spending increase is actually a tax decrease. I haven't checked the arithmetic. It sounds improbable but sounds like a good political claim. And then health care is always close to the surface because one would have to objectively say the nation's health care system has deteriorated over the last few years. Managed care has turned out to be a very unpopular alternative, and most people quite rightly are looking for some fix in the system, and this gives politicians an opportunity to propose a variety of fixes.

Can you tell us roughly how much money a presidential candidate must raise to be viable?

According to the law, presidential candidates are limited to basically public funding. They have to raise a relatively small amount of money, which is then matched in the primaries. The two parties' presidential nominees get roughly $60 million each, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The real money comes from so-called soft money and so-called independent expenditures. Soft money is money spent by the political parties on what are called party-building activities. But these are often thinly veiled efforts to influence the presidential race. I'm guessing in the next presidential election soft money will add up to as much as half a billion dollars or more, possibly $700 or $800 million. Then we have so-called independent expenditures. These are expenditures that are nominally undertaken by individuals and groups in a way that is uncoordinated with the presidential race. You know, if you or I want to take out an ad in the newspaper touting the virtues of Vice President Gore, that's free speech. We can spend as much money as we want, so long as it's not coordinated with the Gore campaign. These independent expenditures may be another $100 million or even $200 million, so the total cost of the year 2000 campaign, if you combine presidential with congressional elections, will probably exceed $2 billion. Of that total, maybe $1.2 or $1.3 billion will be spent on the presidential race. We can do the arithmetic now. Of that $1.2 or $1.3 billion, $150 million will be provided through public funding, so that leaves about a billion dollars, give or take, that the candidates are going to have to [raise]--at least that's going to be spent--by or on behalf of the candidates.

Some apparently very good potential candidates for the oval office have decided in the past not to run because of the intrusion into a candidate's personal life--Mario Cuomo comes to mind. Has the impeachment scandal changed this dynamic at all, one way or another?

There are two big problems with running for office at any level. No. 1, there's a pretty good chance that all of your secrets will be revealed, because it is common for contending groups to employ what is called opposition research--that is, dirt digging--against their opponents. In Washington right now there are possibly 300 firms that specialize in opposition research. For a fee, they will investigate anyone and endeavor to find out what that person might have done that would be deemed illegal, or at least embarrassing. So you have to assume that all of your dirty linen will be aired in public. Second, there are legal issues. A lot of folks who came to Washington with the Clinton administration have wound up in jail, have borne enormous legal costs. This is not only high-ranking officials but lowly staffers. So you really have to think twice before considering public life today. In my view, no reasonable person should do it, because the risks are great. But perhaps there are those out there who are more public-spirited than I am who are willing to bear those risks, and that's wonderful. But both parties report difficulty in recruiting candidates over the last couple of years. I've spoken to several members of Congress who have chosen not to run for re-election because in the current climate they just found it distasteful. So I think part of the fallout of the kind of politics that we've had in recent years, a politics that is characterized by an acronym, RIP--Revelation, Investigation, Prosecution, and often Rest In Peace for those who are subjected to it--this kind of politics just has a devastating effect on the willingness of people to enter public life.

So the seeming widespread belief among most "ordinary people" that this stuff is obnoxious and unseemly and shouldn't be done doesn't matter, because why? Because it works?

It works. Besides, all those same people who say that, I see standing in the grocery store checkout line reading the National Enquirer, which they also say is terrible and obnoxious. You know, the public, for whatever it says, has a taste for this stuff.

Any final thoughts?

Well, I have one very firm prediction about the year 2000, and that is that half the electorate will stay home. One of the ironic facts about contemporary American politics is that on the one hand, we've had very vicious political conflicts between the two parties, conflict leading up to the impeachment of the president, in what has to be seen in a completely partisan effort. And despite all this, the two parties don't seem to be that much interested in going out there and mobilizing voters. They prefer to fight it out through smear campaigns and through the judicial process, rather than by the traditional method of mobilizing voters, trying to defeat their opponents at the polls and sending them back to the practice of law, which I guess is a fate worse than death but is considered respectable. And that's one of the most remarkable changes in our politics: the decline of elections and the rise of politics by smear and by litigation.