The Presidential Election of 1992 was supposed to be a blow-out. President George H.W. Bush had led the United States to a decisive victory in Operation Desert Storm, and the economy had yet to show signs of weakness. Major Democratic figures such as New York Governor Anthony Cuomo, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt and many more passed over the idea of challenging the presumably unbeatable President.
Seven major Democrats – one senator and six governors – would announce presidential campaigns for the 1992 cycle: Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, California Governor Jerry Brown, Nebraska Governor Bob Kerrey, Iowa Governor Tom Harkin, and Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder.
Paul Tsongas became the early frontrunner for the cycle. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a Greek father and a mother of Greek descent, Tsongas attended Dartmouth, where he was active on the swim team, majored in economics, and was a member of its class of 1962. In 1978, the 38-year-old unseated a Republican incumbent by ten points; however, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, he vacated his seat to seek treatment. After a successful recovery, instead trying to unseat his successor, Senator John Kerry, Tsongas traveled back to New Hampshire to seek out the presidency.
As the First Bush Presidency progressed, however, it became clear that the President would not cruise to re-election. Former White House aide and political commentator Pat Buchanan challenged President Bush as a representative of a conservative base that felt betrayed by Bush’s higher taxes and let down by a faltering economy.
During his visit to Dartmouth College, Buchanan spoke to a crowd of around 900 residents in the Hopkins Center for the Arts at an event that was protested by the on-campus gay community.
Both Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire turned away offers for a Democratic debate that year, significantly lowering the focus of presidential campaigns to get on campus.
The Iowa Caucuses were held on February 10th. Governor Harkin received 77.2% of the vote in his home state, almost twenty times the second-place-finishing Tsongas, who received a little more than 4.3%. While Clinton finished in third, all campaigns were almost seen as irrelevant as the media presumptively wrote off this landslide as being the natural result of Harkin running in the state he governed, turning the national focus in the primary even more directly on New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire Primary took place soon after on February 18th. Tsongas received 33.2% of the vote, Clinton received 24.8%, Kerrey received 11.4%, Buchanan 10.2%, and Brown 8.2%.
While Tsongas immediately got the most from these results, temporarily cementing his place in first over Harkin, this was largely assumed to be because of his New England roots. Clinton famously gained a boost from this primary, going on to be dubbed “Comeback Kid”, and as the campaign turned southward, Clinton began to find more and more success, not losing a state after April 2nd, and ultimately being endorsed by Tsongas at the convention.
New Hampshire was also the first state in which President Bush faced a primary challenge. Pat Buchanan pulled in 37.5% of Republican Primary vote to Bush’s 53.2%, embarrassing Bush and demonstrating to the nation just how weak the incumbent president, who not too soon before was hovering around 90% in so polling, actually was.