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A look at 1988 shows just how much presidential polls can shift

In the New York Times, Adam Nagourney revisits the tale of how George H.W. Bush overcame Michael Dukakis’ summer advantage in the polls.

In July of 1988, a Gallup poll showed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis leading George H.W. Bush (then the incumbent vice president) by 17 percentage points.

As you recall, Bush ended up not only winning the election but in a relative landslide (by 8 percentage points in the national popular vote and carrying 41 states).

The polls in the current race have been stable for quite a while, showing Democrat Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump by margins that range from high single digits in many polls to 10 percent in some. Can Trump pull off a smaller (since he trails by less) but similar come-from-behind victory?

In Saturday’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney revisits the 1988 tale. I’ll link to it below. But the point is obvious. Between the summer and the fall, a lot can change. Obviously, a turnaround of the 1988 magnitude is not typical, but it happened, and 1988 is not ancient history. Bush’s team had identified a few lines of attack that you may recall if you were around in 1988.

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Perhaps the name Willie Horton rings a bell. Horton, a convicted murderer, benefited from a Massachusetts program, under Dukakis, that allowed prisoners to get a weekend “furlough” out of prison. Horton didn’t return from his furlough, and managed to commit assault and rape. Bush ran scary, effective ads that pretty much turned Willie Horton into Dukakis’ running mate. That’s just one element, but the most famous and perhaps the most effective, of the attacks on Dukakis that turned the race around.

Vice President Bush debating Gov. Michael Dukakis on Oct. 13, 1988 in Los Angeles.
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Vice President Bush debating Gov. Michael Dukakis on Oct. 13, 1988, in Los Angeles.
In fact, Bush crushed Dukakis by 8 points in the national popular vote and by a staggering 426-111 in the electoral vote.

Perhaps you haven’t thought about that election for a long time, if ever. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that the poll numbers in the summer and the outcome in November can be quite different. I can pretty much guarantee that the Trump re-election team has been thinking about the 1988 race, and even about the Willie Horton ads, as they contemplate which lines of attack against Joe Biden might enter the history books alongside the tale of Dukakis and Horton.

Team Trump has, of course, been trash-talking Biden for months already. If the polls are right, nothing Trump has tried so far has seemed to change the race, which seems to be a referendum on Donald Trump’s (awful) character and (terrible) record as president. Team Trump’s efforts to nickname Biden “Sleepy Joe” and brand him, a solid liberal, as a “socialist,” have not worked, at least to date, according to the polls.

Reading Nagourney’s look-back at 1988 as we prepare for this week’s GOP convention (by the way, I predict Trump will be renominated), I couldn’t help but wonder whether Team Trump has cooked up some new lines of attack, other than calling Biden “sleepy,” calling Kamala Harris “nasty” (his favorite term for women who stand up to him) and other than the red-baiting they’ve already done to death. Perhaps some item from Biden’s long history in public life will be introduced to scare the country into believing that some fate equivalent to Willie Horton raping women would occur if Biden were to become president.

The Nagourney piece is here.