2019 Conference Report: A Presidential Election in an Uncertain Time
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About the Presidential Elections Program
Founded in 2017, the Baker Institute’s Presidential Elections Program is the nation’s first program solely dedicated to the study of U.S. presidential campaigns and elections.
The program examines presidential elections in a nonpartisan manner, providing timely analysis during and after each presidential election cycle and allowing stakeholders of all political parties and groups to better understand the changing dynamics of presidential campaigns. Each conference will explore the various political and policy issues of that contest and their effects on the presidential election process and on elections and democracy in the United States in general.
As part of its activities, the program will conduct biennial conferences on topics of high political and policy salience. A conference will be held in the year preceding and the year after each presidential election to explore the dynamics of that contest and its effects on elections and democracy in the United States.
The Presidential Elections Program builds on the vast experience of the institute’s honorary chair, Secretary James A. Baker, III, whose roles in presidential campaigns are unmatched. He helped lead five presidential campaigns and later supervised the legal team that preserved George W. Bush’s victory in 2000. It is fitting that the country’s premier institution devoted to the study of presidential elections is located at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
In August 1976, President Gerald Ford demonstrated his high regard for Baker by asking him to be his national campaign chairman for the general election effort against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The national press dubbed Baker a “Miracle Man” for transforming the Ford campaign, which was initially seen as having no realistic hope of defeating Carter. Under Baker’s guidance, the campaign was revived, and Ford narrowly lost the Electoral College by a mere 18,490 votes in Hawaii and Ohio.
Baker then began to organize George H.W. Bush’s Republican presidential primary campaign in 1980. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan ultimately won the nomination, but not before he unified his party by choosing his most tenacious primary rival as his running mate: Bush.
In the 1980 general election, Baker was a senior advisor to the Reagan–Bush campaign, with specific responsibility for the presidential debates. Baker’s acute political instincts, his prior Washington experience, and his attention to detail made a strong impression on the Reagans. And so, Reagan asked Baker to be his White House chief of staff.
Again, with Baker’s assistance, Reagan was reelected in 1984 with a 49-state landslide victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale in a campaign largely run from Baker’s chief of staff office.
In 1988, Bush was a two-term vice president and the putative front-runner in the Republican primaries. With Reagan’s reluctant blessing, Baker left what by then was his prestigious post as secretary of the treasury and assumed command of Bush’s presidential campaign. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the 41st president of the United States, and Baker became its 61st secretary of state.
As the 1992 election year began, Bush’s high approval ratings began to erode. In July, he asked Baker to resign his cabinet post and to take over the leadership of his reelection campaign. That November, Bush lost after his campaign was adversely affected by the independent candidacy of Ross Perot.
In 2000, Baker returned to the presidential electoral process, this time to manage Texas Governor George W. Bush’s legal team in the Florida recount process. Under Baker’s leadership, the Bush campaign successfully pursued its complex legal case that led from county offices in south Florida to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, Bush became the nation’s 43rd president.
On December 9, 2019 at the Baker Institute, the Presidential Elections Program held its second conference, “A Presidential Election in an Uncertain Time.” The conference brought together a diverse group of academics, campaign consultants, journalists, and other prominent individuals to explore the political and cultural issues surrounding the 2020 election, including political polarization, waning public confidence in social and political institutions, and the complexities of primaries and caucuses. Veteran political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin served as the conference’s honorary directors. This report summarizes the presentations and discussions of the many individuals who participated in the four thematic panels as well as a lunch conversation featuring Carville and Matalin.