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-by Lyman Kellstedt, John Green, James Guth, and Corwin Smidt
The 49% Solution
If there is one thing Americans dislike, it is ambiguity. From tie ball games, to movies with inconclusive endings, to arguments with shades of gray, a lack of resolution tries our patience.
It is not surprising, then, that most Americans were disappointed by the 1996 election. Aside from the usual foolishness, insults, and scandal, the election results were essentially inconclusive, a wash, no decision. Indeed, government gridlock was affirmed in grand fashion: President Clinton won (only the third Democrat this century to be re-elected) while the Republicans retained control of the Congress (for the first time in 68 years). And even this historic standoff represented a tepid "49 percent solution": Clinton and the Republican Congress each received just under a majority of the votes cast-by just less than a majority of eligible voters.
These ambivalent results were especially galling given the political buildup to 1996. The 1992 and 1994 contests had been dramatic. Just four years before, an incumbent president was rejected, and an independent candidate garnered nearly one-fifth of the vote. Two years later, in 1994, the minority Republicans unexpectedly gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years and captured the lion's share of state and local offices to boot. The forces unleashed by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich seemed headed for a showdown in 1996, if not at the OK Corral, at least in the voting booth.
There are, of course, many reasons why the expected confrontation fizzled. For one, election contests involving incumbents inevitably turn on the state of the economy and the world. Relative prosperity and peace certainly helped both Clinton and the congressional Republicans. In addition, the campaigns of the challengers, Bob Dole and Ross Perot, can be charitably described as ineffective, while the president campaigned masterfully. Almost the reverse occurred at the congressional level: Democrats proved only a partial match for the new Republican majority. ...