On November 8, 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis was defeated by Republican George H. W. Bush, the first incumbent vice president of the United States to win a presidential election in 152 years, since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
The 1988 election featured an open primary for both major parties, as President Reagan had served his two terms and was leaving office. On the Republican side, Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush, was the nominal front-runner, but he suffered from a reputation as a “wimp” and faced challenges from both Senator Dole and the Reverend Pat Robertson. His victories in the “Super Tuesday” contests guaranteed his nomination at the Republican convention at the Superdome in New Orleans from August 15 to 18, 1988. The only point of contention during the convention was his choice of the young and inexperienced Indiana senator Dan Quayle as his running mate, a decision that was widely criticized.
On the Democratic side, a long list of Democrats competed, derisively referred to as “The Seven Dwarfs”: former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, Delaware seantor Joe Biden, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, Missouri representative Richard Gephardt, Tennessee senator Al Gore, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and Illinois senator Paul Simon. The race narrowed down to Gore, Jackson, and Dukakis, who after finishing first in the New York primaries, secured the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, from July 18 to 21. Jesse Jackson, who had finished second, made a behind-the-scenes effort to claim the vice presidency. He relented, however, fearful of splitting the party along racial lines, and managed to include a few planks favorable to minorities in the party platform. Dukakis instead chose Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, and as the successful convention ended, Democrats stood 17 percentage points ahead of Bush in the polls.
Without a clear vision and path for his own presidency, Bush campaigned against his opponent’s weaknesses, instead of stressing his qualifications for the job and his plans for the country. His speeches and campaign advertising did not address national concerns, such as the federal deficit, but focused instead on issues such as a Massachusetts prison furlough plan and Dukakis’s veto of a state law requiring public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Bush campaign depicted Dukakis as an unreasonably left-wing liberal and a member of the ACLU. Although criticized, the plan worked, and Bush took the lead in the polls by the end of the summer and never lost it. Bush capitalized on a good economy, a stable international stage, Reagan's popularity, and emphasized Dukakis’s weaknesses. The Democratic campaign was unable to counter a series of highly effective attacks by the Bush team—most notably the famous “Tank Ride” ad—and Dukakis himself was not a very effective campaigner. Although he enjoyed a minor rebound after his vigorous performance in the first of two televised presidential debates, Dukakis lost many potential voters after the second debate. Asked by moderator Bernard Shaw whether he would still oppose capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered, the Democratic candidate delivered an emotionless response ("I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life”) and did not mention his wife’s name once. This did not resonate with voters, and his poll numbers dropped seven points that night, placing the governor as far as seventeen points behind. Dukakis did not give up and began drawing enthusiastic crowds in the final weeks of the campaign, even coming close to Bush in the polls in the last weeks of the campaign.
But it was too late, and George H. W. Bush won 54 percent of the popular vote and a 426–111 margin in the electoral college. It was the third presidential election Republicans won in a row, and Bush became the first incumbent vice president of the United States to win a presidential election in 152 years since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Just like Van Buren in 1840, President Bush also was defeated for reelection after serving a single term.
The campaign was extremely negative, leaving many voters disenchanted with the whole election. In his inaugural address, President Bush reached out to those who had voted against him and declared that "When I said I wanted a kinder and gentler nation, I meant it—and I mean it," he said. "My hand is out to you, and I want to be your president, too."
The start of the primary season in early 1988 was not met with a lot of enthusiasm, except among journalists, who lavished a monumental amount of attention on the Iowa caucuses and on New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary was held on February 6. Covering both events, Rather was, according to the Washington Post, “determined to inject pizazz into proceedings many regard as stubbornly tedious.” He “exploded onto the air with jargon blazing,” and his “folksy, frisky rat-a-tat [was] infectious.” Faced with a lack of audience and the competition of the Winter Olympics, the three networks cut back on their coverage ahead of Super Tuesday, March 8, when twenty states and Guam elected 2,110 delegates. On the Democratic side, the major surprise of the 1988 primaries was the surge of Jesse Jackson, who won in Michigan. While he had done well in the 1984 election, Jackson was now a “plausible” nominee. But with his success came increased scrutiny by the press. Journalists pointed to weaknesses in his program, albeit always very carefully as they feared being labeled as racists. Jackson came second to Michael Dukakis and many expected, or wished, for some tension between the two men at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in July.
The DNC demonstrated how the relationship between political committees and television had reached a new level. After being warned that local stations would go back to their more lucrative programs at 11 p.m., the Democratic Party in Atlanta scheduled all convention business for prime time, 8–11 p.m. It structured the convention so that it would be “effective on television” and would serve as a positive showcase for the party. A combined telephone, computer, satellite, and print communication system was also set up, enabling the DNC to deliver news of the convention directly to televisions around the country at no charge to the stations. The party could thus secure coverage and control the image and message. With C-SPAN and CNN covering the entire convention and hundreds of local stations doing their own coverage, the three networks completely abandoned the gavel-to-gavel approach, staying instead on the convention from 9–11 on the four days. This move by the networks was a response to changes in party procedures that changed the nature of the convention, since the primaries already designated a nominee, in addition to the lack of interest by the audience for conventions, as well as a consequence of the downsizing of news divisions following new ownership. In addition, labor-saving devices enabled ABC, CBS, and NBC to cut by a third to a half the crew sent to cover the conventions, and the cost of that coverage. There were still 15,000 journalists from around the globe covering 5,400 delegates at the DNC.
In Atlanta, Dan Rather anchored from the CBS booth, with Bill Plante, Bob Schieffer, Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl as floor correspondents and Diane Sawyer at the podium. Lane Venardos was the executive producer of special events and David Buksbaum the vice president and director of special events for CBS News. Although the Washington Post described Rather as “smart and smooth but a little stiff” on the first night of the DNC, as he had been “trying to calm troubled eternal waters” after months of tensions and layoffs, the CBS team remained “the best in the business.” Walter Cronkite and Eric Severeid joined him for some commentaries. With Dukakis’s nomination a given and the convention very scripted, the only question was Jesse Jackson’s conduct and that of the 1,100 delegates who supported him. They were angry at the manner in which Bentsen was selected as the vice presidential nominee, twenty-four hours after Jackson had expressed interest in the position. On the morning of the first convention day, however, Dukakis and Jackson appeared together at a press conference, “effectively robbing the media of the only excuses for a news story they had at this convention; those simmering, nagging conflicts between the two candidates.” In the end, Jackson and his supporters managed to have a number of minority planks included in the party platform. After Jackson’s electrifying and emotional rousing speech, Texas governor Ann Richards’s “earthy rib tickler,” and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s soporific endorsement speech, Michael Dukakis’s acceptance speech was praised by journalists. The convention had been highly successful for the Democrats, who showcased harmony, unity, order, and competence, a far different picture than the chaos of the 1968 convention a generation earlier. Early polls showed a lead of 8 to 13 points for Dukakis over Bush.
Not unlike the Democratic one, the Republican convention in New Orleans came across as a little dull after Dan Quayle was nominated as vice president. Most notable were speeches by Gerald Ford, television evangelist and presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, and of course Ronald Reagan’s address, which delighted the delegates. In his acceptance speech, Bush promised the delegates and his conservative backers that he would resist any tax increases, giving his famous “read my lips” pledge.The line was so popular that Bush used it throughout the general election. At the convention, Dan Rather’s civility was commented upon by the Washington Post, which called him “a gentlemen, and in terms of authority, no one looks at the convention hall with more of it.” The ratings, however, were at an all time low, continuing a trend that started in 1976 with convention ratings steadily declining because of changes in party rules. In addition to rules changes, parties also changed conventions for the sake of television, and, in doing so, made them paradoxically less interesting.
In October 1988, the League of Women Voters, which had been sponsoring the televised debates since 1976, withdrew its sponsorship after the first presidential debate. In a statement, the president of the league, Nancy M. Neuman, explained that it would not participate in a debate in which the campaigns themselves had to set the format, choose the moderator, and the questioners and determine the seating arrangements and the camera positions: ''We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.'' In addition, the new format did not allow for follow-up questions and led to “misstatements of the facts and unanswered questions were left hanging.” Neuman was critical of how the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate had also been financed largely by corporate contributions. Leaders of both campaigns worked with the Commission on Presidential Debates to organize the second and last debate in Los Angeles. While Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings moderated the first presidential debate and the vice presidential one respectively, Dan Rather declined to moderate the second presidential debate, stating that “ I appreciate the request by the candidates to be a panelist in the forthcoming debate, but I also believe that the procedures they have developed are not the best.” There were speculations that the Bush campaign had wanted Rather, hoping that, after their confrontational interview in January 1988, Rather would be harder on Dukakis. After his poor performance at the second debate, Dukakis and his campaign staged a comeback, learning the tropes of television and media at the end of the campaign. They scheduled more interviews and simplified the message, while Bush, leading in the polls, stopped playing offense and was careful not to make a mistake. Dukakis focused on the issue of economic class, accusing Bush of favoring the rich and using the “I’m on your side” approach, and the race grew closer. But it was too late.
As laid out in the Los Angeles Times, coverage of the 1988 general election was characterized by shorter stories about the election, less than two minutes long, and stories that focused first on horse race and second on campaign issues. The networks tried to move away from "photo-op" stories and were looking for broader stories on issues, but claimed the candidates themselves refused to answer questions about substantive issues. The Dukakis campaign realized that shielding him from reporters was more productive for him and so did the Bush campaign, which followed the Reagan pattern of 1984. Both tried to manage and even control the narrative in the media; something the Bush campaign excelled at. Michael Oreskes in the New York Times and Thomas Rosenstiel in the Los Angeles Times both showed how the 1988 campaign was a “TV-Driven Campaign,” with the candidates carefully controlling the message and its placement, while the networks attempted to “neutralize” the candidates' efforts to turn the evening news into campaign commercials. The 1988 election had also been dominated by television and negative ads, each side spending an unprecedented $30 million. For the first time, candidates used as many negative ads against their opponent than positive ads promoting themselves. In the end, the Bush campaign had a more effective use of television, putting more money in ads that were more impactful, even is they often strayed away from reality and truth.
On election night, Dan Rather anchored CBS's coverage with Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, and Bruce Morton providing special reports as well as reports from 60 Minutes correspondents Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, and Diane Sawyer. Adhering to a commitment they had made to Congress, the networks did not, for the most part, project the results of an election in a state until at least the majority of the state’s polling places had closed. They did, however, project the presidential winner as soon as he safely had 270 electoral votes, which CBS did first at 9:17 p.m. Once again, the projection of a winner while polls were still open in eleven states led to sharp criticisms against the networks and reignited the calls for uniform poll-closing legislation. Throughout the night, Rather continued to urge voters to go to polls as “there are a lot of ballot issues, a lot of reasons for going to the polls in the West, vote.”