In another writeup about elections, I wrote that "there are no standard elections", and for those of us who have drunken of the intoxicating nectar that is politics, there are no dull elections either. However, if I had to impugn the importance and great fun that is the United States' process of choosing a president, I would probably choose the election of 1996 as one of the more lackluster elections.
The 1996 election pitted incumbent President Bill Clinton against Bob Dole, the Republican Senate Majority Leader from Kansas. Third party candidate H. Ross Perot also ran, but was less important of a factor than he was in 1992. There was also other minor party candidates, but none of them played that important of a roll in the election. Bill Clinton secured his nomination by being the incumbent President. H Ross Perot secured his nomination by being the billionaire financer of his own party. And Bob Dole, according to the conventional wisdom (which in this case is probably right), secured his nomination by being a senior Republican leader who earned his nomination as a reward for years of service in the party. Bill Clinton's running mate remained Al Gore, Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp, a former representative from New York, and H Ross Perot chose Pat Choate, an academic economics Professor.
Unseating a sitting President is not usually an easy task, unless there is a weakened economy or some major scandal. Clinton had a strong economy (and, as yet), no major scandals. The Republican Party had made a very strong showing in the 1994 House races, but this seemed to be a reaction against Clinton's 1992 victory, rather than a real sea change in the opinions of the American electorate. For this reason, it is probably that Dole would have had to do something miraculous to have a chance of winning. Although I don't imagine that many would admit it, the Republicans probably knew that they would not win, and campaigned accordingly.
The 1996 election was the last election in which I was too young to vote. If I had been older, I might have understood a bit more of the context of the election, and if I was a bit younger, I might have learned more about the election more through study than through my own experiences. As it is, I mostly think about this election through the vague impressions of a 17 year old who wasn't very interested in conventional politics at the time. The 1990s were an era when, at least on the surface, there were no great foreign challenges, and American society was, at least on the surface, without major crises. Without any major issues to drive the election, Bob Dole did fine at appealing to the base, capturing much of the South, Prairie and Mountain states, but he didn't seem to have any strategy for appealing to middle-of-the-road or suburban voters who were happy enough with the way things were going. Bob Dole was also harmed by a mockery of him as an out-of-touch old man that was somewhat cruel, but also somewhat deserved. The candidate running against the incumbent often has to provide the burden of proof to the electorate, and Dole failed to do that, and thus lost the election.
The election had a few lasting effects. The most important of these, I think, was to show that the basic electoral outline that had started in 1992, where the West Coast, Upper Midwest and Middle Atlantic and New England were reliably Democratic, was not just a fluke, but would probably continue for some years. The second was that H Ross Perot's reform movement seemed to run out of steam, both electorally and ideologically, garnering far less votes than in 1992, and also failing to stimulate debate. The third point was that while the Democratic Party's "Coastal" base was very close to being a lock on the electoral college, they would need another region to push them over the edge, which came in the form of Clinton and Gore's ability to win votes in their home region of the South/Appalachia. The fourth point, as mentioned, is that any candidate hoping to unseat, or even run a serious campaign against an incumbent with a healthy economy has to pick an issue that resonates with the electorate strongly.
In all, as I said in my introduction, the 1996 election was perhaps one of the least interesting elections of modern years, both for students of politics, and for its impact on popular culture. However, it is still a piece that has to be understood if we are to understand some of the more interesting elections that surrounded it.