Ronald Reagan won a convincing popular and electoral victory in 1980. Campaigning for income tax cuts, smaller government, and a resolute stand against communism, Reagan earned a mandate to carry out his conservative vision. Part of his victory was owed to millions of culturally conservative, blue collar, non-college educated voters in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and elsewhere experiencing the first wave of economic dislocation and insecurity brought on by recession and inflation. These Reagan Democrats were not traditional Republican voters and certainly not the country club, chamber of commerce, and educated suburbanites that made up the Republican Party.
Two other forces emerged from Reagan’s victory, however. George Herbert Walker Bush swept into the vice presidency as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. After a political career that included two senate losses in Texas, two house victories in Texas, and a failed campaign for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan breathed new life into Bush as the new vice president. While in Arkansas meanwhile, the young governor, Bill Clinton, lost his reelection in a dramatic political upset. The Bush win in 1980 and the Clinton loss in 1980 would set in motion two forces that would dominate American politics for the next 36 years and ignore the Reagan Democrats at their peril.
For Bush, the vice presidency created a Rolodex of donors, the politically connected, and the establishment that helped fuel and finance his presidential ambitions. His association with Reagan was the affirmation forsome conservatives to support him. His election to the presidency in 1988 was a result of incumbency, the popularity of Reagan, extensive establishment support, and a division among conservatives that began after Reagan. His kinder, gentler candidacy was an appeal to the moderate center and not Reagan Democrats. Though he won a convincing victory in the afterglow of Ronald Reagan, the coalition that elected Reagan was feint and unenthusiastic for the new president.
For Bill and Hillary Clinton, an election would never be taken for granted. Pollsters would be hired, consultants retained, money would be raised, and triangulation began. Like Bush, the Clintons would delicately appeal to the moderate center, while Hillary would guard the left flank. By 1982, the Clintons were back consolidating their control over Arkansas, appealing to the same kind of voters that elected Reagan, while building their Rolodex among the coastal elites, the big financiers, and the establishment Left.
In 1992, these two families collided. In a stunning election the young governor of Arkansas won the presidency by holding the left while appealing to the center with populist themes. The Reagan Democrats and similar independents were ignored, splitting their votes among Bush, Clinton, and Ross Perot.
Both families built their power and influence in the 1990s. For the Bush family it was electing George and Jeb Bush to the governorships of Texas and Florida. For the Clinton family it was positioning Hillary Clinton for elective office