How 2016 could look a lot like Dukakis ‘88
In the last two weeks, two national polls on the presidential race showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by double digits.
A Bloomberg survey showed Clinton ahead of Trump by a dozen points, 49 percent to 37 percent. A week later, the ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Clinton with 51 percent and Trump with 39 percent.
Democrats could be elated, but then came whispers of these words of caution: Yeah, but in the summer of 1988, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was up by 17 points, and he lost the presidential race badly.
So can the 1988 race really serve as a cautionary tale for Clinton and her supporters?
Historians and experts say that other than the fact both Dukakis and Clinton are Democrats with a double-digit leads in the summer before an election, there’s not much of comparison. That said, the 1988 presidential contest may provide an interesting framework to analyze the 2016 contest — but only if you flip the candidates.
“If you look at the fundamentals of the race, and not the polls, you can see a lot of similarities if you substitute Clinton for Bush,” said American University professor Allan Lichtman, the author of “Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House.”
“The critical thing is to realize it is a contest about the party currently in power versus the challenger.”
In 1988, George H.W. Bush had served as a key figure in a popular outgoing two-term administration.
President Reagan had an approval rating of 50 percent in July 1988. At the time, Bush had served as vice president for eight years and the director of Central Intelligence, and filled a role comparable to US ambassador to China. He had also lost a bitter presidential primary eight years earlier.
Clinton entered the 2016 presidential election with eight years in the White House as first lady, eight years as US senator, and four years as US secretary of state. She also lost a bitter presidential primary eight years earlier. President Obama’s current approval rating is higher — 56 percent — than Reagan’s was during his last summer in office.
Bush can also uniquely understand Clinton’s frustration with a protracted federal investigation over her e-mail use.
A similar cloud hung over Bush’s head during his campaign: A grand jury convened for over a year, handing out indictments of administration officials over the Iran-Contra affair. Ultimately, Bush was never accused of any wrongdoing in the matter.
There are more ways that Clinton’s battle with Trump is comparable to Bush’s fight with Dukakis. Like Bush, Clinton has devoted much of her campaign message to making Trump appear unelectable to voters.
The knock on Dukakis was nearly the same as it is for Trump on foreign policy. In a well-known Bush campaign advertisement, Dukakis rides around in a tank, and smiles, as a narrator delivers this message: “And now he wants to be commander-in-chief. American cannot afford that risk.”
Clinton could lift that very image for her own campaign advertisements against Trump this year.
Currently, Trump’s campaign is maneuvering to fend off a “Dump Trump” effort weeks before the Republican National Convention. His operatives could model their mission on 1988, when the Democratic nominee thwarted a “Dump Dukakis” effort from disaffected Jesse Jackson supporters.
Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University, said 1988 may provide a cautionary tale for Clinton when it comes to turnout.
In general, Schulman said, Democratic candidates rely on higher voter turnout. He said one reason that Dukakis failed is that the 1988 presidential election had lower turnout than the presidential elections before and after it, 1984 and 1992.
“If turnout is low, and marginal voters — the people that only come out when the contest particularly excites their interest rather than those who vote in every contest — stay home, that could mean trouble for Clinton since those voters are disproportionately young and nonwhite,” Schulman said.
Of course, as the candidates might be the first to point out, the 2016 election is unlike nearly any other national contest in recent history — thanks mostly to Trump’s unconventional rise and Clinton’s long history with voters.
“If there is any comparison, it is that both years featured really weak candidates,” Witcover said.