Economic Concerns Fueled Clinton’s Drive to Victory : L.A. Times Poll: Exit survey indicates that discontent with the status quo was the motivation for most voters.


In the end, the key to the 1992 presidential election was as simple as the sign on the wall at Bill Clinton’s campaign command center in Little Rock, Ark.: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Like Democratic President Jimmy Carter 12 years ago, George Bush was swept from office by an irresistible tide of economic discontent that shattered his presidential coalition, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll of voters nationwide.

For all the campaign charges and countercharges, the questions about character, veracity and experience, and the unpredictability introduced by Ross Perot’s maverick campaign, the poll suggests that Tuesday’s vote came down to a straightforward assessment of the nation’s direction and the health of the economy.

On both counts, the poll found, voters expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with the status quo and took out their anger on the incumbent. Clinton carried the Democratic Party back to the White House by rolling up insurmountable majorities with voters who consider the nation on the wrong track and those who believe their financial situation has deteriorated since Bush took office.


Even though Perot proved to be a formidable force for voters unhappy over the nation’s course, the poll shows that economic discontent allowed Clinton to stitch together just enough of the coalition of traditional Democrats and swing voters that his strategists had targeted since he declared his candidacy in October, 1991.

With a message that blended economic populism and calls for “personal responsibility” in social policy, Clinton posted strong majorities among traditional Democratic voters such as blacks and union members, reclaimed almost 55% of disaffected blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” and managed an even three-way split of independents--a group that had voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent presidential elections.

Still, Perot’s success narrowed Clinton’s appeal and left him more heavily dependent on votes from hard-core Democratic partisans than his advisers had once hoped. With many groups, Clinton’s success was holding roughly the same percentage of the vote as Michael S. Dukakis captured in his losing effort in 1988, while Bush’s support plummeted in the three-way race.

Perot cut a broad swath down the center of the electorate: He carried 33% of independents, 16% of Reagan Democrats and 19% of Republicans who do not consider themselves conservative. But, despite claims to the contrary by some Bush partisans Tuesday night, Perot’s presence had no meaningful impact on the overall national vote; if he had not been in the race, the poll found, Clinton’s margin would have been virtually unchanged.

The Times’ poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 14,513 voters as they left polling places nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

In California, the exit poll found, Clinton swept to his decisive victory--the first for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state since 1964--by holding his base, while Bush’s deserted him, along with political independents. The California exit poll surveyed 3,871 around the state; its error margin is also plus-or-minus 4 points.

More that four out of five California Democrats voted for Clinton--slightly more than nationally. But Bush carried just three out of five California Republicans--lower than his national percentage. And among independents--the backbone of Republican success in the state--Bush suffered a stunning repudiation: Just one out of six California independents backed the President for a second term, with the rest splitting evenly between Clinton and Perot.

In California, Clinton carried eight out of 10 blacks, more than five out of 10 Latinos, and pluralities of Asians and Anglos. Perot’s support was concentrated among independent voters--though he carried as large a share of Latinos as he did Anglos.

On the national level, despite a stubborn challenge from Perot for the votes of the disaffected, Clinton rode into the White House on the same forces that had lifted him to his lead in polls all summer and fall:

* Nearly seven out of 10 voters said they believed that the nation was on the wrong track; they gave Bush just 18% their votes, with 57% preferring Clinton and 24% Perot. Bush carried three-fourths of those who consider the nation on the right track--but they represented just under one out of three voters, down from about 45% on Election Day four years ago.

* When Bush was elected in 1988, nearly 45% of voters said they were better off than they had been four years previously: Their overwhelming support provided the backbone of his victory.

This time, nearly 40% of voters said they were worse off than four years ago: They gave Bush just 15% of their votes, with 61% preferring Clinton and 23% Perot. Bush narrowly carried the just a bit more than one-third who said their economic condition was unchanged from 1988. Those who consider themselves better off gave more than three-fifths of their votes to Bush--but just a bit more than one out of four voters were so sanguine about their situation.

* Likewise, nearly three out of five of all voters cited the economy as one of the two issues of most concern to them Tuesday. That was more than double the number raising any other concern. Those voters bent overwhelmingly toward Clinton: The Democrat carried 54% of their votes, compared to 23% each for Perot and the President.

Other bread-and-butter concerns ranked high on the list of priorities. More than one out of six cited health care as a top concern: Clinton won over 70% of their votes. Perot’s strongest support came from the roughly one out of six voters concerned about the deficit: He won nearly half of their votes.

Against those powerful currents, questions about Clinton’s character and record as the governor of Arkansas found little traction. In fact, the poll suggested that questions about Bush’s character and veracity may have carried equal weight.

One out of five voters cited Clinton’s Arkansas record as a major factor in their vote: They gave Bush a 14-point advantage over the Democrat. Those raising Clinton’s activities during the Vietnam War as a major concern gave Bush two-thirds of their vote--but they constituted just 13% of all voters.

On the other hand, roughly one out of five said “Bush’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal” had a major impact on their vote: Sixty-three percent of them backed Clinton, with just 23% supporting the President.

Just under one out of six cited the President’s reversal of his “no new taxes” pledge as a major factor in their vote--and the President didn’t have to read their lips to interpret their message. Less than 5% of those voters supported Bush, with more than seven out of 10 preferring Clinton, and almost one out of four favoring Perot.

Social issues also carried less weight than the economy. Just under one out of four voters said “moral values” ranked among the most important issues in their decision: They gave Bush 71% of their votes. Republicans were almost twice as likely as independents, and almost three times as likely as Democrats, to raise that as a concern.

Overall, Clinton appears to have had at least moderate success at winning back culturally-conservative Democrats who had abandoned the party in droves over the past generation. More than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Clinton spoke openly of his religious faith during the campaign. Clinton, a Southern Baptist, split the white Catholic vote with the President; Bush carried the group by 7 percentage points four years ago. White Protestants gave Bush a 48%-34% margin over Clinton on Tuesday, but four years ago they preferred the President by a 2-1 margin over Dukakis.

Clinton had less success winning back white evangelical Christians--he carried about 26% of their votes, about the same as Dukakis did four years ago. But these religious conservatives, who Bush so ardently courted during the Republican Convention in August, did not deliver as strong a vote for the President as he hoped: With almost a fifth deserting to Perot, Bush carried 56% of the evangelical vote, down from seven out of 10 in 1988.

At the same time, Clinton was able to make inroads with socially liberal suburban independents who had also preferred the GOP: Independents gave him 34% of their votes, compared to 33% for Perot and only 31% for Bush. Four years ago, Bush carried a majority of independents.

The results varied relatively little by age, education, income or even sex.

Women preferred Clinton over Bush and Perot by 46% to 37% and 16%, respectively. Men similarly backed the Democrat by 41% to 38% and 20%. Four years ago, Bush carried nearly 60% of men.

After a decade in which Republicans commanded the allegiance of young voters, Clinton--the first baby boomer elected to the Oval Office--recaptured them. Voters age 18 to 24 gave 44% of their votes to Clinton, with just 35% backing Bush. Perot ran best with young voters, capturing a fifth of them and suppressing Clinton’s margin.

Voters age 25 to 64 split their votes in roughly the same proportions as young voters. Clinton ran up his largest margin with senior citizens, while Perot suffered his poorest showing with seniors.

Clinton also appeared to benefit from a favorable comparison between the vice-presidential contenders. Those who cited Vice President Dan Quayle as a major factor in their decision--about 13% of all voters--gave almost two-thirds of their votes to Clinton . Those who cited Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee as a major factor--about one out of every 10 voters--also gave Clinton two-thirds of their votes.

With voters so consistently voting their pocketbooks, it’s an open question how much the last two months of frenzied campaigning actually influenced the results between the two principal competitors. Among voters who made their decision any time from before the primary season through the party conventions this summer, Clinton held a 9-point lead over Bush; those who decided from the end of the conventions through Tuesday gave the Democrat a 6-point advantage. The one difference: Perot captured just 8% of the early-deciding group, compared to 29% of those who made up their minds during the official fall campaign period.

Last-minute revelations that Bush may have known more than he has said about the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran appeared to slow his momentum in polls last weekend. But those who made their decision since last weekend were somewhat less likely to cite that controversy as a major factor in their decision than those who decided earlier.

The Message Behind the Votes

The Times questioned voters as they exited their polling places nationwide Tuesday to determine what issues were most important to making a decision. The poll is based on interviews with 14,513 voters at 201 polling places. How to read this chart: The numerals represent the percentage of the candidates’ supporters who agreed with the statement on the left:

Why did you support your presidential choice today?

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters Like him and his policies 65 57 59 He is the best of a bad lot 30 41 21 To send a protest message 5 2 20

What did you like most about your candidate?

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters He cares about people like me 33 8 28 He has the experience to be President 8 62 5 He thinks like me on the issues 22 11 20 He doesn’t waffle on the issues 3 4 15 He’s an outsider 2 -- 12 He has strong leadership qualities 17 23 24 He has a clear vision of the future 22 3 17 He has values like mine 10 15 7 He’ll bring changes to government 29 2 29 I trust him to handle a crisis 3 29 3 He has honesty and integrity 4 11 13 None of the above 9 5 2

What issues were most important to you in deciding how to vote?

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters Moral values 9 46 15 Education 25 13 15 Jobs/the Economy 69 34 72 Environment 10 3 4 Taxes 7 21 9 Abortion 11 17 4 Health care 28 8 12 Poverty 5 -- 2 Federal budget deficit 10 10 40 Crime/drugs 3 4 2 Foreign affairs 1 19 1 None of the above 2 4 2

Which of these things had a major influence on your vote today?

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters Bush’s role in Iran-Contra 29 12 15 Candidates’ economic proposals 40 23 45 Clinton’s activities during Vietnam 5 24 12 Your opinion of Dan Quayle 19 8 9 Bush’s flip-flop on raising taxes 25 1 19 Your opinion of Al Gore 16 8 4 Democratic Party is too liberal 2 41 13 Bush’s leadership in the Gulf War 5 43 3 The broadcast debates 16 9 32 Clinton’s record as Arkansas governor 16 27 18 Republican Party is too conservative 24 1 7 None of the above 10 10 17

Do you think things in this country are generally:

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters Going in the right direction 13 66 11 Seriously off on the wrong track 87 34 89

Over the past four years, has your financial situation:

% of % of % of Clinton Bush Perot voters voters voters Improved 16 45 18 Stayed the same 32 40 34 Declined 52 15 48

Source: Los Angeles Times exit poll taken Nov. 3. Margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.