1988 U.S. Presidential Election
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
The 1988 U.S. Presidential Campaign was seemingly quite conventional, with George H.W. Bush defeating Michael Dukakis in the general election. It was, however, in many ways a baseline for what has happened since.
The realigning election of 1980 saw Democrat Jimmy Carter only winning six states plus D.C., and 1984 proved to be a coronation of incumbent Ronald Reagan with Mondale only carrying Minnesota and D.C. After eight years of Reagan, it seemed like the door might open back up for a Democrat to be elected. The public was finally tiring of its infatuation with Reagan near the end of his term. Then-Vice President Bush began taking steps to distance himself from Reagan in preparation for his presidential run, such as declaring himself an environmentalist. Major issues of the day included the Iran-Contra scandal, concerns over weakness of the economy in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, an ongoing farm foreclosure crisis and drought in the Midwest, and the unlikely coalition of John Kerry and Jesse Helms raising serious questions about the U.S. government's close relationship with dictator Manuel Noriega of Panama. The war on drugs, AIDS, Satanic panic, the rising political power of the religious right, and public infatuation with crime and gangs such as the Crips and Bloods were all hot topics.
 Culture wars
This atmosphere of moral panic made 1988 the first of the modern presidential campaigns in which culture war issues took center stage. ACLU membership became a hindrance to winning instead of a plus, and the most effective campaign tactic turned out to be racist dog whistle attack ads featuring Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who was given weekend leave under Dukakis, and who then went on the run, committing several more crimes. Though run by an independent PAC, Dukakis failed to respond clearly enough to repudiate claims made about him. Notably, "Willie Horton" was known by those close to him as simply "Will Horton", meaning that the name "Willie" was added in for pure rhetorical purposes.
The Willie Horton ads became a symbol of a lot of what is wrong with U.S. presidential politics, in terms of negative campaigning winning out over staying positive, the use of focus groups in selecting issues tailored for maximum appeal to morons (aka the Silent Majority), and said morons falling for that level of demagoguery.
The Republican nomination was Bush's to lose, although he did face a surprisingly not-dead-on-arrival challenge from Pat Robertson, who presumably ran so he could hasten the second coming of Jesus by getting his itchy finger on the nuclear button. Nobody remembers who any of the other candidates were, nor cares.
On the Democratic Party side, Al Gore made his first presidential run, Jesse Jackson his last. Joe Biden and Gary Hart are best remembered for dropping out of the race after scandals. Michael Dukakis ran on his record as governor of Massachusetts - the "Massachusetts miracle" where the state's economy had rebounded during his administration - and won the nomination.
Notable third party campaigns included Ron Paul's run on the Libertarian Party ticket, which he parleyed into a successful newsletter business; David Duke's run on the Populist Party ticket, after which he ran successfully for the Louisiana legislature as a Republican; and from the left, Lenora Fulani on the New Alliance Party ticket which managed to get on the ballot in all 50 states but only won 0.2% of the vote.
Dukakis ran a positive campaign on his record. Dukakis stuck to principle by stating he opposed the death penalty in all circumstances, making him the last major party candidate to do so. Dukakis proudly mentioned his ACLU membership.
Bush ran on Willie Horton. And his promise of "no new taxes", which came back to haunt him. He also successfully pinned Dukakis as being "soft on foreign policy". Dukakis tried to counter this by posing with tank in a photo, but this backfired and made him a joke.
We all know how taking the high road turned out. Dukakis went from leading in the polls to a 20 point deficit. This tells us more about Boobus Americanus than it does about Michael Dukakis.
The two vice-presidential candidates are remembered chiefly for demonstration that vice-presidential picks rarely make a difference in elections. Lloyd Bentsen, Dukakis's running mate, crushed his opponent Dan Quayle with his "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" comment, yet it failed to help Dukakis win the election.
In the end Dukakis settled on a 20-state strategy of only campaigning in 20 states he needed to carry the electoral vote, conceding the entire south and intermountain west to Bush. Whether a different strategy would have worked is doubtful; he lost many of the states he was counting on winning, including Illinois, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Vermont. He came surprisingly close to winning South Dakota and Montana though, and might well have won them had he bothered to campaign there, although this wouldn't have helped his electoral vote much especially if he diverted any resources from the big fish to go after those smaller ones. He did easily win Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oregon, and Washington, as well as the more predictable wins of New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and D.C., which indicate he might have done better had he pursued a farm belt strategy in the Midwest and west instead of dumping all that money into such money sinks as Pennsylvania and California.
Negative campaigning. Tough on crime posturing. The war on drugs. Establishing the baseline of the current red state-blue state divide after the Reagan Revolution had hit the reset button on whatever the old divide was (Democrats have simply added new states to the baseline established in 1988, giving up only one, West Virginia). Focus groups instead of principal. ACLU membership and opposition to the death penalty becoming seen as non-starters for a would-be president. Those pretentious Andre the Giant has a Posse stickers. Okay, that last one wasn't a legacy from the presidential campaign, but since Shepard Fairey did design Obama's hopey-changey posters while he rakes in millions consulting for corporations while still pretending to be some kind of important culture jamming street artist...
Pat Robertson's 1988 primary run became the base for his Christian Coalition to set out to take over the Republican Party at the grassroots level. He wound up with a prime time speaking slot in the 1992 Republican convention along with Pat Buchanan, which the two turned into an ugly culture war festival while the world watched. This backfired on the Republicans.
Otherwise, Bush managed to respond to the winding down of the Cold War by getting the U.S. deeply embroiled in the Middle East quagmire from which the country has yet to get out over two decades later, angered his own conservative base by going back on his "no new taxes" pledge, and lasted only one term. Angry middle class Republican base voters more worried about their jobs going overseas while the Republican Party wanted to play culture wars flocked to Ross Perot in 1992 while Bill Clinton ran a very different campaign from Dukakis to win in 1992.