Sabato's Crystal Ball

1988 Presidential Election

UVA Center for Politics January 1st, 2008

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The election of 1988 was the first election in 20 years in which an incumbent president did not run. With no major figure or no major issues, the road to election day was a turbulent path. Most analysts regard this election as one of the most heated battles, with significant negative campaigning. Bush attacked Dukakis as a “liberal out of touch with American values.” Dukakis countered with criticism of Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate being “the first example of presidential failure.”

Early on, the Republican front-runners were Vice President Bush and Sen. Bob Dole. Bush was the immediate favorite due to his association with the Reagan presidency. Dole, however, was considered a substantial contender; he was the Republican leader in the Senate and had a high profile in national politics. Dole surpassed Bush in the Iowa caucus, causing the Vice President to intensify his campaign and step up the challenge against his rivals for the nomination. His hard work paid off, and Bush took the lead after victory in the New Hampshire primary. Super Tuesday confirmed the nomination for Bush, as he won 17 of the 18 GOP contests.

On the Democratic side, the early contests were almost equally divided between Dukakis, Jackson, and Gore. The race continued on into Illinois, New York, and Michigan. Dukakis held the lead, winning substantially in New York, causing bronze medalist Gore to drop out, though Jackson proved victorious in Michigan. Jackson’s reputation resulted in his downfall – “too radical for the Jews,” thought Edward Koch which only increased adversary relations between the African American community and Jewish population. Dukakis avoided race issues altogether and snagged the Democratic nomination.

The election consisted of constant back and forth banter between Bush and Dukakis, in a highly negative campaign. Bush ads played on Dukakis’ leftism and “un-Americanism.” Dukakis’ ads swayed from Bush’s poor U.S.-Soviet relations to attacking his immense wealth. In the absence of any crises and in a time of general peace and prosperity, Republican vice-president George Bush won the presidency. Though the lowest voter turnout since the 1920s, with a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, Bush defeated the Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Even more substantial, Bush’s 426 electoral votes towered over Dukakis’ 111.