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U.S. Presidential Campaigns in 1988 and 2020: A Comparative View

The year was 1988, Michael Dukakis, Democrat, was on a roll after the DNC in Atlanta and the polls showed Bush trailing behind, by a sizable 17 points. But Bush had a plan.

In June, Bush’s top aides gathered in Washington, deliberately out of the periphery and far from campaign headquarters, to review binders full of poll and focus group data. This “research” showed the aides that Dukakis’ record and policies were not well known and some of his liberal positions such as his support of prison furloughs and opposition to the death penalty. This knowledge was enough to decimate Dukakis in the upcoming election.

Using this plan laid out in a room, the Bush campaign proceeded to, as Lee Atwater, manager of the campaign put it, “to strip the bark off the little bastard”. This process began with the hammer of a speech at the RNC in august through election day. Bush not only defeated Dukakis, but did so while winning 40 states.

President Trump is clearly facing the same deficit in the polls against his democratic opponent Joe Biden. His campaign is being treated harshly by the polls and many citizens. The one takeaway from the 1988 elections is that public opinion can change fast. Dukakis' entire campaign fell to the onslaught of an artfully executed turn of events.

As the republicans gather next week to vote Trump in as the presidential candidate for the Republican party, the president and his party have tried to rip apart the campaign of Biden and his running mate, including racist and sexist remarks on Harris. It is to be noted that there is a thick line between the hard edge campaign by Bush against Dukakis, portraying him as a radical left liberal and the racial undertones by the trump campaign. Charlie Black says, ”I’m not the most enthusiastic Trump supporter in the world, but I tell my friends who are, it’s not hopeless, there’s plenty of ammunition for Trump to work with. The question is, do they have a disciplined enough candidate to do that?”

Biden is far better known than Dukakis and has shown much more resilience than the latter. Trump's lack of credibility as a president and an early responder to unknown forces has also been very low. As Susan Estrich says, “This is going to be tricky for them: Biden is a pretty well-known quantity, the way you usually burst balloons is paint the other guy as a risk.”

Dukakis has himself admitted that he should have understood that such a tactic may have hurt him and should have spoken out, in essence, he allowed Bush to define him before Labour Day. He said in an interview,“I made this dumb mistake not to respond, 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.”

The fundamental difference between the democrat of 1988 and the democrat today, is that the latter has been both responsive and efficient in deflecting trump's attacks. John Sasso, strategist of the Dukakis campaign himself has said, ”They have run a good campaign. 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.”

One of the lessons voters didn't learn from the current campaign is that biden picked his running mate late into the summer, with a more liberal agenda and lesser political experience, which gives trump more of a target and currently Biden’s lead isn’t as large as the Dukakis- Bush midsummer gap. If the president, if he plans his moves right, he might just defy the odds, once again.


Reporter: Jovan H

Bangalore, India | epicenter.newsmedia@gmail.com

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