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A presidential election campaign follows a set of familiar steps, from the early maneuvering and testing-the-waters activities in the pre-campaign period to frenetic last-ditch efforts of the party nominees in the fall.  Each presidential campaign occurs in, and is shaped by, a unique historical context. 

 The Field of Play
The context, or playing field on which a campaign is fought, sets broad bounds within which the candidates and their organizations must operate.  Events, social and economic conditions, cultural tendencies, technology, and rules and laws governing the election process all combine to create a political landscape which may favor one or another of the candidates.

For example, the technologies a campaign can use to reach voters are constantly developing.  In the past the whistlestop tour may have been the best way to communicate with voters; nowadays the 30-second television spot is the preferred currency and the Internet is becoming increasingly important.  An Abraham Lincoln or a Theodore Roosevelt-type candidate might not be electable in such a communications environment.  To take another example, the conduct of federal elections is governed by rules set out in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations, state laws, and rules of the political parties.  The current frontloaded primary process for choosing the party nominees places a premium not on ideas or experience, but on the ability to raise money in the year before the election.  There are many such contextual factors.  The relative dearth of women in high elective office means that few women are yet considered presidential timber.

More generally, historical context impacts the substance of a campaign, pushing various domestic and foreign issues into greater or lesser prominence. 

In 1996, the Cold War had receded into people's memories, and the campaign was fought on domestic issues.  The debate over the Clinton administration's health care proposal, the Republicans' gain of control of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections, and the unprecedented shutdowns of the federal government all set the stage for the 1996 campaign.

The event that most colored the political landscape in the 2000 cycle was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  This sordid story dominated the news in the latter part of 1998, culminating in the U.S. Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment in January 1999.  Clinton survived, but the scandal set up a strong undercurrent which continued to resonate throughout the election cycle. 

In 2004, the war on Iraq and issues such as homeland security and bioterrorism are likely to be at the fore. 

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 burned into the national psyche.  Americans responded with a wave of patriotism; flags sprouted on office buildings, front porches and car antennas.  Within a month, however, anthrax letters spread further anxiety to the extent that people were afraid to open their mail. 

In post-September 11 America, increased security has led to a new set of realities including long lines at airports and unsightly barricades around some public buildings.  President George W. Bush's popularity soared with the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan; his job approval reached 92 percent in October 2001 and was still at 83 percent in late January 2002. 

The focus shifted to Iraq, and by the summer months of 2002 there was much speculation in the press and political circles about a possible war to force a "regime change" in Iraq, and about what form such a war would take and when it would come. 

In this environment the 2002 mid-term elections took place.  President Bush put his political capital on the line, raising money and stumping extensively for Republican candidates.  Republicans kept control of the House and gained control of the Senate, performed better than expected in governor's races, and made advances in state legislatures.  The outcome was seen as a triumph for Bush:

The Republicans' Slim Edge

Nov. 2002

Jan. 2003

U.S. Senate 50D 49R 1I
48D 51R 1I
U.S. House 208D 223R 1I, 3v
205D 229R 1I
Governorships 21D 27R 2I
24D 26R -
State Legislatures 48D 47R 3 tied
43D 52R 3 tied

Meanwhile the administration continued to focus on Iraq.  On March 19, 2003, having failed to gain the backing of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, backed by a "coalition of the willing," launched a strike on a meeting of key leaders in Baghdad, thereby beginning the war with Iraq.   In March and April scenes of the war saturated the news.  On May 1 on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush declared, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."  That did not mean the end of American involvement, however.  In subsequent months there were near daily reports of soldiers being attacked or killed and the costs continued to mount.

Neither did domestic concerns disappear.  The major corporate scandals of late 2001 and 2002 have receded somewhat from memory, but the economy remains shaky.  The loss of manufacturing jobs is a particular concern.  Glowing projections of federal budget surpluses in 2001 have given way to sizable deficits in 2003 and 2004.  State and local governments likewise face severe budget difficulties.  Difficult choices on Social Security and Medicare continue to loom; the Congressional Budget Office projects that federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will double by 2030. (2).  America continues to run up large trade deficits month after month. 

Enron's December 2, 2001 bankruptcy filing set off a wave of investigations, prompting discussion of issues ranging from energy policy to pension reform.  WorldCom's announcement in June 2002 that it had improperly accounted for about $3.9 billion in expenses (the company filed for bankruptcy on July 21) gave further prominence to corporate accountability. 

2001 Statistical Abstract of the United States (U.S. Census Bureau)
Economic Briefing Room (U.S. Census Bureau)
Economy at a Glance (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Overview of the Economy (Bureau of Economic Analysis)
Consumer Confidence Index (The Conference Board, Inc.)
National Debt Interest on the National Debt (Bureau of Public Debt--U.S. Dept. of the Treasury)
U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock
"Fact Sheet on the True Size of Government" (The Brookings Institution)

2002 Mid-Term Elections
Election 2002 Web Archive (MINERVA)

IMPAC 2000
NCEC's Redistricting Resource Center

C-SPAN's American Presidents: Life Portraits
Why Not A Woman?
Allan J. Lichtman's The Keys to the White House

Copyright 2002, 2003  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.