George H.W. Bush was in trouble. It was July 1988 and Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president, was on a roll after his party’s convention in Atlanta. A Gallup poll showed Mr. Bush trailing by 17 points.
But he had a road map to victory.
One month earlier, Mr. Bush’s top aides had gathered at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, deliberately out of sight and away from campaign headquarters, to review a thick binder of polling and focus group data. The campaign’s research showed that Mr. Dukakis’s record was not well-known and that some of his liberal positions, in particular supporting prison furloughs and opposing the death penalty, could swamp him in a general election.
Using the plan laid out in that room, the Bush campaign proceeded, as Lee Atwater, the campaign manager, put it, “to strip the bark off the little bastard,” beginning in force with Mr. Bush’s hammer of a speech at the Republican National Convention in August through Election Day.
Mr. Bush not only overcame Mr. Dukakis’s summer polling advantage, but defeated him handily: by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. He won 40 states.
In many ways, with Mr. Atwater as its dark prince of strategy, the Bush campaign of 1988 marked the birth of the modern-day negative campaign. Most memorably, Republicans plastered Mr. Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, with the case of Willie Horton, an African-American man who raped a white Maryland woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on a Massachusetts prison furlough program.
As President Trump faces similarly daunting poll deficits in his contest with Joseph R. Biden Jr., he is running one of the harshest campaigns since Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Dukakis, and Republicans are looking back at the 1988 race as a beacon of hope in a bleak political landscape. For all the differences between the Democratic nominees in 1988 and today, Mr. Dukakis’s collapse in the face of an onslaught by Mr. Bush has long stood as a lesson in how quickly public opinion can change, how summer polls can prove ephemeral, and how an artfully executed party convention can help turn around a struggling campaign.
As Republicans gather in the coming week to nominate Mr. Trump for a second term, the president and his political and media allies have torn into Mr. Biden and particularly his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, including making racist and sexist attacks. There is a direct line between the hard-edge campaign Mr. Bush ran portraying Mr. Dukakis as a far-left liberal — and the racial undertones personified by seizing on Mr. Horton — and the Trump campaign that is emerging today.
Mr. Bush, then the vice president, won in 1988 by moving that summer to aggressively define Mr. Dukakis, who was held up in Massachusetts being governor, as an Ivy League elite who was out of touch with the nation. Mr. Bush invoked the hot-button issues — in particular, taxes and crime — that have repeatedly proved effective against Democrats, the same ones Mr. Trump has embraced against Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.
“I’m not the most enthusiastic Trump supporter in the world, but I tell my friends who are, it’s not hopeless,” said Charlie Black, who worked as a senior adviser to Mr. Bush. “There’s plenty of ammunition for Trump to work with. The question is, do they have a disciplined enough candidate to do that?”
But if the 1988 race offers a cautionary tale for Mr. Biden, there are some critical differences between that race and the current campaign that is now moving into high gear as Democrats finished their convention last week and Republicans step on to the mostly virtual stage.
Mr. Biden is far better known than Mr. Dukakis was and he has shown a resilience to caricature that Mr. Dukakis did not have. Mr. Trump is viewed unfavorably by a big swath of voters, in no small part because of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 175,000 people in the United States and devastated the economy on his watch. His lack of credibility with many Americans has undercut his ability to deliver an attack.
The nation is more pessimistic than it was when Mr. Dukakis faced Mr. Bush, who as Ronald Reagan’s vice president was effectively running as an incumbent. A New York Times/Siena College poll in June found 58 percent of respondents said the nation was headed on the wrong track. In the fall of 1988, a significantly lower 46 percent of registered voters said the nation was going in the wrong direction, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll.
“This is going to be tricky for them: Biden is a pretty well-known quantity,” said Susan Estrich, who was Mr. Dukakis’s campaign manager. “The way you usually burst balloons is paint the other guy as a risk.”
Mr. Dukakis, proud and disdainful of politics, refused to believe these kind of attacks would hurt them, and did not heed the advice of his staff that he fight back. He allowed Mr. Bush to define him before Labor Day.
“I made this dumb mistake not to respond,” Mr. Dukakis said in a recent interview. “And I paid for it. This death penalty thing: I’m from Boston. He’s from Houston. Massachusetts had the lowest homicide rate in America. Most people even in Massachusetts didn’t know that.”
In what might prove to be the most important difference between 1988 and today, Mr. Biden has been far more aggressive in repelling Mr. Trump’s attacks.
“They have run a good campaign,” said John Sasso, who was Mr. Dukakis’s senior strategist. “They know what to let go by. They seem to know what is not credible in this barrage of accusations and distortions and they don’t bite on it.”
Yet one of the lessons of the Bush campaign was that many voters do not begin to pay close attention to a race until late in the summer. Mr. Biden has picked a running-mate, Ms. Harris, with a more liberal record and less experience in national politics, which may give Mr. Trump more of the target. And Mr. Biden’s lead over Mr. Trump is not as large as the Dukakis midsummer advantage; the president is certainly within striking distance of victory, particularly in some battleground states.
“The similarity is that Biden is committing to an awful lot of progressive, socialist, whatever-you-want-to-call-it ideas in order to unify his party,” Mr. Black said. Mr. Trump, he said, could use Mr. Biden’s alliance with Senator Bernie Sanders to portray his Democratic rival as an out-of-touch liberal — much the way Mr. Bush portrayed Mr. Dukakis as an out-of-touch liberal — even though Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders disagree on many issues.
Still, Mr. Black said, Republicans should only have so much hope. “Most political pros would rather be in the position of being ahead at this point than that far behind,” he said.
‘The turning point was the convention’
Mr. Bush was struggling when he arrived at the Republican convention in New Orleans in mid-August. He was trying to buck history by leading his party to a third consecutive term in the White House.
“He was behind for a couple of reasons,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, who was Mr. Bush’s deputy national political director. “He spent eight years as vice president and the solid Reaganites were always suspicious of Bush 41 for not being conservative enough. And he endured a lot of lousy press coverage that was a caricature of him.”
“The turning point was the convention,” Ms. Grissom said. “That was our reintroduction of Bush and our first real opportunity to define him without filters. People saw him through the convention, the convention speech. ‘No new taxes.’ ‘Kinder, gentler.’”
The glowing reintroduction of Mr. Bush set the table for the attack. The campaign’s plan to bring down Mr. Dukakis was unambiguously telegraphed in Mr. Bush’s acceptance speech, mixed in with all the talk about a “kinder, gentler nation.” Mr. Bush listed all those positions Mr. Dukakis had taken that his aides had reviewed at the hotel room in Washington.
“Should public schoolteachers be required to lead our children in the Pledge of Allegiance?” Mr. Bush said, in just one example, as he informed his audience that the governor had vetoed a bill that contained exactly that requirement. “My opponent says no — but I say yes.”
On the campaign stump and television, in mailings and radio advertisements, Mr. Bush used Mr. Dukakis’s record to make him a threat to middle-class voters. Mr. Bush used the governor’s own words against him, such as being “a card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.”
His opponents even raised questions about Mr. Dukakis’s mental fitness, decades before Mr. Biden faced the same. Conservative groups were circulating rumors, with no substantiation, that Mr. Dukakis was hiding the fact that he had been treated for depression.
As the summer came to an end, Mr. Reagan was asked if Mr. Dukakis should release his medical records. “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid,” he said.
Mr. Reagan later said this was a failed joke, but by design or not, it succeeded in thrusting the rumor to the center of public attention. Mr. Dukakis called a news conference to say he had never struggled with mental illness.
But in his most devastating attack, Mr. Bush seized on the case of Mr. Horton, which was Exhibit 1 in the case he made against Mr. Dukakis and his liberal criminal justice policies. The furlough program became a staple of Mr. Bush’s attacks on Mr. Dukakis, and in many ways, came to define the 1988 contest.
The Bush campaign produced an advertisement attacking the Massachusetts furlough program that showed a series of prisoners walking through a revolving door, but did not mention Mr. Horton’s name. But an advertisement produced by an independent political action committee included an ominous black-and-white picture of Mr. Horton. “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty,” the announcer said. “He allowed first-degree murders to have first-degree passes.”
Mr. Atwater denied any connection between the Bush campaign and the campaign that featured the photograph of Willie Horton. Mr. Dukakis never believed that. And whatever the case, Mr. Atwater had always made clear that Willie Horton was key to a Bush victory.
“If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election,” he said.
For the Trump campaign, that lessons of 1988 seemed to have been absorbed even before Democrats finished their convention. On Thursday, in remarks in Pennsylvania hours before Mr. Biden’s convention acceptance speech, Mr. Trump launched a new attack on Ms. Harris that had direct echoes of Willie Horton.
“As district attorney of San Francisco, Kamala put a drug-dealing illegal alien into a jobs program instead of into prison,” Mr. Trump said. “Four months later, the illegal alien robbed a 29-year-old woman, mowed her down with an S.U.V., fracturing her skull and ruining her life.”
Through the summer, the Dukakis campaign was lulled by the polls that showed him heading for victory. And Bush operatives had learned from to consultants in Massachusetts who had run campaigns against Mr. Dukakis that he would stay silent if attacked.
Ms. Estrich said Mr. Dukakis rejected her idea that he lead the Democratic convention in the Pledge of Allegiance, a move she told him could blunt the attacks.
“Dukakis allowed the Bush operation to define him during that period in a distorted way,” Mr. Sasso said.
Mr. Bush was a genial product of Connecticut, and he told his advisers he considered negative campaigning distasteful. But when they warned him it was the only way he would win, he took their direction with so much gusto that he all but apologized for the tenor of his campaign after he won.
It took weeks for Mr. Dukakis to reach that point. At the end of October, Mr. Dukakis embraced what had been Mr. Bush’s central line of attack. “I’m a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy,” he said.
It was too late.
While Mr. Trump may face a steeper hill, there are a number of avenues that Republicans see as a way to reprise the Bush comeback. He is portraying Mr. Biden as a captive of the left. He is demonizing Ms. Harris. He has seized on episodes of civil unrest in places like Chicago.
But as the Democratic convention ends and the Republican one is set to begin, time is growing short.
“The problem for Trump is he has yet to find his Willie Horton, as it were,” Ms. Estrich said. “But he’s looking.”