1992: Bill Clinton builds a winning coalition, Jackson is diminished

The Arkansas governor emerged as the national front-runner, but his candidacy was imperiled by a series of scandals.
Image: Rev. Jesse Jackson listens to Bill Clinton at a convention in Atlanta on Sept. 9, 1992.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson with Bill Clinton at a convention in Atlanta on Sept. 9, 1992.Curtis Compton / AP

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By Steve Kornacki

A tight Democratic race turns into a blowout when black voters side overwhelmingly with Bill Clinton, whose only black opponent drops out before a single vote is cast.

Jesse Jackson was an obvious contender, but faced a dilemma.

If he ran for president a third straight time and didn't win the nomination, would his stature be diminished — a perennial candidate who could unite the black vote but make no further inroads?

He had time to deliberate. The Gulf War in early 1991 sent President George H.W. Bush's approval ratings into the stratosphere and paralyzed Democratic presidential politics. Only in late summer, with the economy dragging and gravity starting to assert itself on Bush's numbers, did a Democratic field begin assembling.

Publicly, Jackson agonized over the decision, even as Democratic leaders sent discouraging signals. "They've admitted they would like to use me to register voters, inspire voters and argue the case and pick the cotton," he told an interviewer. "But when it's time to bale it and have legitimate interest in the industry, that's where they want to draw lines.” (“When Not Running, Jesse’s Jilted," Susan Page, Newsday, Oct. 10, 1991.)

He had another option: CNN, then the only cable news channel around, was offering Jackson his own show — a potentially valuable platform to expand his profile and bide his time until 1996. In early November, Jackson said yes to the television lights and no to the campaign trail. His supporters, he said, were now "free agents in a political market.” (“Jackson Says He Won’t Run for President,” Douglas Frantz, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 1991.)

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That was a particularly significant declaration because there was already another black candidate in the race: Virginia's Doug Wilder, who two years earlier had become the first African American to be elected governor in American history. Wilder and Jackson were not close — Wilder hadn't supported Jackson's presidential campaigns — and embodied different political approaches. In contrast to Jackson's fervent liberalism, Wilder backed capital punishment and right-to-work laws, earned plaudits from conservative commentators, and boasted of his refusal to close his state's budget shortfall by raising taxes.

He called himself "the longest of long shots" but sketched out a roadmap to the nomination that involved cornering the market on the black vote as Jackson had but also competing seriously in heavily white states like New Hampshire. "Could it be," columnist Carl Rowan wrote, "a black candidate who erases white paranoia and re-establishes a coalition of blacks, white working people, and others who once formed a powerful party?” (“Wilder’s candidacy will help Democrats,” Carl Rowan, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Sept. 20, 1991.)

Democratic presidential candidates Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown and Douglas Wilder before a debate in 1991.Cynthia Johnson / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images file

Jackson refused to endorse Wilder and remained neutral. In the press, Wilder's campaign was regarded as a test of Jackson's clout. If Wilder, running without Jacksons blessing and on a markedly different message, attracted the same levels of black support as Jackson, what would that say?

Preliminary polling from Mason-Dixon in Maryland and South Carolina, two states with significant black populations, put Wilder in first, powered by strong black support. Tensions surfaced, however, with Wilder accusing Jackson of seeking to undermine him. "He's asked people not to support me," he said. Jackson shot back: "I don't know what prompted this outburst. I don't want to be used as a scapegoat for what's happening in his campaign.” (“Wilder Accuses Jesse Jackson of Working Against Campaign,” John F. Harris and Donald P. Baker, The Washington Post, Dec. 24, 1991.)

That was the other problem for Wilder. While he was showing strength with black voters, the breakthroughs elsewhere weren't materializing. He'd stumbled into several controversies, money was scarce and polls back home showed voters angry that their governor — limited by law to a single four-year term — was spending so much of his tenure outside of the state. "Wilder for Resident" signs were reported around Virginia. In early January, a month before the New Hampshire primary, Wilder withdrew from the race.

The remaining field of five were all white, with Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas emerging as the national front-runner. His candidacy was imperiled by a series of scandals, but he steadied it with a second-place finish in New Hampshire, setting up a contest in the South between Clinton and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas.

Black voters were poised to play a key role, and Clinton, who had extensive experience courting black communities in Arkansas and was far outpacing the field in endorsements from black leaders, had the inside track. It also helped Clinton that Tsongas was running as a pro-business fiscal conservative, promising to be "the best friend Wall Street ever had," making it easy for Clinton to attack him on what had traditionally been core Democratic issues.

In the March 10 Super Tuesday primaries, Clinton routed Tsongas across the South, carrying around 80 percent of the black vote, according to NBC News’ black voter data analysis, and coupling it with deep support from working-class white voters (many of whom had abandoned the party in the '80s to vote for Reagan and Bush). The one-two punch gave Clinton an enormous lead in the delegate race, all but sealing the nomination.

The Clinton coalition, a New York Times editorial declared, represented "the first time since Robert Kennedy's Indiana primary campaign in 1968, that it is politically possible to bring poor blacks and blue-collar white voters together. It is finally possible for Americans to transcend racial division and look instead to mutual interest.” (“Bill Clinton in Black and White," editorial, The New York Times, March 11, 1992.)

The Democratic race finished with a momentous coda. When Clinton officially wrapped up the nomination, his general election prospects seemed bleak, and Jackson, who'd clashed with him over the years, saw a chance to exert influence.

Bill Clinton speaks at the "Rebuild America" conference held by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in Washington in 1992. Clinton sought the support of black voters and urban leaders, promising a plan to rebuild American cities.Greg Gibson / AP file

Jackson had his own platform and he challenged Clinton to adopt it, hinting that black voters would sit the fall election out — or even support independent candidate Ross Perot — if Clinton refused. Jackson had extracted demands this way from the two previous Democratic presidential nominees, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, but Clinton — unlike Mondale and Dukakis — had won a significant share of black voters in the primary season.

It was against this backdrop that Clinton delivered his "Sister Souljah" speech, which opened up a public war with Jackson. Critically, though, Clinton did not suffer any discernible fallout among black voters; in fact, many black political leaders — some nursing their own grudges against Jackson — used the occasion to throw their support behind Clinton.

The episode vastly diminished Jackson's perceived political strength for the rest of the campaign, and for years to come.