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Why the Dukakis 1988 analogy is baloney

A different electorate, Trump incumbency turn 2020 race to likely Biden

The 1988 presidential race and the up-and-down performance of Michael Dukakis is not a guide for the 2020 content, Rothenberg writes.
The 1988 presidential race and the up-and-down performance of Michael Dukakis is not a guide for the 2020 content, Rothenberg writes. (Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Most observers writing about President Donald Trump’s weak reelection standing note that George H.W. Bush was in a deeper hole yet managed to crawl out to win comfortably in 1988. They make the point that November is still months away, and things can change.

But the 1988 case isn’t useful today in helping us understand where the 2020 presidential contest is now.

Democrat Michael Dukakis led Bush by 17 points, 55 percent to 38 percent, in a Gallup poll conducted July 21-22. But that survey was taken on the last day of the Democratic National Convention and the day after, while Dukakis was receiving an artificial bump.

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The previous Gallup survey, conducted July 8-10 (before the convention), found Dukakis leading by only 6 points, 47 percent to 41 percent. Clearly, the 17-point margin was misleading because it reflected Dukakis’ convention “bounce,” not the fundamental shape of the race.

Equally important, the 1988 electorate was dramatically different from the 2020 one. We are more polarized now, with fewer swing voters and fewer people willing to change their opinions about the parties and nominees.

A Los Angeles Times piece published a week after the Aug. 15-18 Republican National Convention in 1988 noted that Gallup’s polling found a dramatic change in Bush’s “like” and “dislike” numbers and in Dukakis’ “dislike” numbers.

The article quoted veteran California pollster Mervin Field as saying, “I have never seen anything like this, this kind of swing in favorability ratings, ever since I have seen polls, going back to 1936.” The beneficiary was Bush.

Times are a-changin’

Can you imagine the same thing happening now, with large chunks of the electorate changing their opinions about Trump? The correct answer is “no.”

I won’t go into detail about how the electorate has changed since 1988 or how different the map is. But white voters constituted 85 percent of the electorate then (according to a CBS News/New York Times exit poll), compared to 71 percent in 2016. And Bush, the Republican, carried California and Illinois but not West Virginia.

And, of course, neither Dukakis nor Bush was a sitting president, a prodigious difference from this year’s contest.

Current national polls have shown the president trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden by a wide, often doubt-digit, margin. Biden has generally hovered around or above the 50 percent mark in ballot tests, while Trump has usually been anywhere from the upper 30s to the low 40s.

Recent New York Times/Siena College polls showed Trump sinking in key battleground states. Biden’s lead was in the double digits in key Midwest states, but he was also leading in other states that Democrats rarely carry in presidential contests. Fox News polls confirmed the trend, with more and more red (Republican) states in play for the fall.

Together, the state polls seem to validate national polling. Biden is overperforming in Republican states, as well as nationally.

But can’t this be a mere bubble, coming right after George Floyd’s death, national protests and another round of COVID-19 reports? Couldn’t the polls be exaggerating Biden’s leads? Sure.

Recent polling could be showing Trump at his low-water mark. Defecting Republicans could return to the fold (some almost certainly will), and Biden certainly could — probably will — stumble, allowing Trump to narrow the race, both nationally and in key states. 

But that doesn’t change the fundamental positioning of the contest. Biden has a clear advantage both nationally and in key states.

Onus on Trump

The burden is now on Trump to change the trajectory of the race, probably by demonizing Biden, who is well known after decades in politics and widely regarded as a decent and empathetic man. The president must pray he can once again squeeze out an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote by a larger margin than in 2016.

It’s difficult to imagine Trump improving his own image after alienating so many voters with his overall style and agenda during his first four years in office.

He has shown little interest in redefining himself or in talking with swing voters. Where does he go to talk to the American people? To a rally in Tulsa. To a Students for Trump event in Phoenix. And to a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, with only enthusiastic supporters in attendance.

Moreover, Trump repeats the same arguments ad nauseam, numbing viewers who have heard the language and reasoning before. That’s one problem with him tweeting and appearing so often in the news. He relies on slogans, rarely introducing a new idea. If he hasn’t convinced a voter of his correctness on an issue after 1,000 tweets, tweet No. 1,001 isn’t likely to be more effective.

In addition, while Trump supporters call Biden a “gaffe machine,” the president has the same problem. He isn’t very agile with language and doesn’t show knowledge or intelligence. Disinfecting lungs? “Good people on both sides?” So it’s hard to believe he will suddenly become articulate in the campaign’s final four months.

Imagine the amount of video footage and the number of tweets the Biden campaign has available to keep Trump on the defensive and paint his presidency as a failure. His incumbency makes him a much weaker candidate now than he was in 2016. He was on the offense then but will be on the defense this year.

Biden’s race

Given all these problems, the president can’t be viewed as anything other than an overwhelming underdog for reelection. Yes, something could disrupt the contest and change everything. But until then, the race is what it is.

In January 2019, I wrote that the presidential contest deserved to be rated as a toss-up/tilting to the Democrats.

In March of this year, I changed that to leaning toward Biden.

With just four months to go, Trump is not likely to change his language or messaging. Americans are talking about health care, social justice and the economy, while the president complains about the media and Barack Obama, tweets about “law and order,” vows to protect statues, and generally looks out of touch, inept and petty.

Trump’s current reelection positioning is a disaster. While the race could well tighten, he needs a dramatic change in its trajectory. For now, move this race from leaning Biden to likely Biden. But keep watching. Strange things happen these days.

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