Changing Times: The 1988 Presidential Election

INTRODUCTION

The 1988 presidential election is underdiscussed by historians and political analysts alike, often creating a façade of mundane normalcy that misleads observers into thinking that the race itself was boring or unimportant. Reality could not be further from the truth. This piece will shed light on some of the more fascinating aspects of the contest, with a particular focus on coalition change.

BACKGROUND

Imagine the state of the U.S. and its citizens leading up to Decision 1988. Most people would probably envision a land of opportunity and stability for the average middle-class American, an interpretation based on Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” advertisement. The ad, which was designed to highlight renewed American prosperity, posed a stark contrast to the stagflation and general economic turmoil of the 1970s.

But the advertisement’s purpose was deeper than simple campaign messaging. At the time that it ran, President Reagan was favored to win reelection against former Vice President Walter Mondale and was arguably more focused on defining his administration’s historical legacy because he himself would be term-limited in 1988.

Reagan had successfully beaten President Carter in 1980 by running as an outsider with a new conservative agenda: reducing the regulatory scope of the federal government. His reelection ad’s message was therefore quite simple: why elect Mondale, a New Deal Democrat in Carter’s mold, and threaten U.S. economic growth? By connecting the economy’s general success with conservative fiscal policies, Reagan was laying the groundwork for America’s acceptance of GOP rhetoric and policies in 1988 and beyond.

But there was also a second “state of America” undergirding the 1988 cycle. While individuals were generally more hopeful about their economic futures during the Reagan-era, the U.S. still experienced hardship, including the worst downturn post-World War II. During the 1982 and 1987 recessions, for instance, farmers, suffered deep financial woes in a period of time that would eventually become known as the Farm Crisis.

Multiple factors, including overproduction and Federal Reserve interest rate policies, doomed members of the agricultural community across the country to financial loss on speculated lands or, in some cases, even outright bankruptcy. The crisis itself had major electoral implications in the Driftless Area, as Split Ticket has covered before, moving many Republican farmers into the camp of Democrats and farm subsidization for decades to come.

Both of these Americas, the good and the bad, the prosperous and the feeble, set the stage for one of the least-covered, yet most interesting, modern presidential campaigns.

CAMPAIGN

To understand the 1988 electoral coalitions, the main subject of this article, one must first understand the campaign itself. In terms of origins, the elephant in the room was definitely President Ronald Reagan. Term-limited after eight years in Washington, Reagan had started a revolution that redefined what it meant to be both conservative and Republican.

Despite the Iran-Contra scandal and the 1987 recession, the sitting President proved to be a tough act to follow for the highly-experienced GOP frontrunner: Vice President George H.W. Bush.

But the natural desire for change in Washington after nearly a decade of one-party rule in the White House was also strong, allowing eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis to open up a large, albeit short-lived, lead against Bush in national polls during the summer of 1988. Further detracting from initial Republican confidence, a Vice President – like Bush – had not won an election to succeed a multi-term President of his own party since Harry Truman in 1948.

High enthusiasm on the Democratic side produced a predictably-large field of presidential candidates, though it would go on to be exceeded by 2020’s record-breaking class. At first, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, runner-up for the party’s 1984 nomination, seemed like a commanding favorite. His campaign was ultimately stymied by allegations of an extramarital affair.

The remaining hopefuls, known collectively as Snow White (Schroder) and the Seven Dwarves included: Governor Michael Dukakis (MA), activist Jesse Jackson (SC), Senator Al Gore (TN), Representative Dick Gephardt (MO), Senator Paul Simon (IL), Senator Joe Biden (DE), Governor Bruce Babbitt (AZ), and Representative Pat Schroeder (CO).

Biden, the curent President, ended his campaign due to reports of plagiarized campaign speeches. Following a the Iowa Caucus and a mixed Super Tuesday, the field began to consolidate behind Dukakis, allowing him to secure the Democratic nomination. His nearest competitor, Jesse Jackson, held out until the convention vote, which only confirmed the inevitable. Dukakis selected Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate.

On the Republican side, Vice President Bush (TX) defeated both Senator Bob Dole (KS) and commentator Pat Robertson (VA). That outcome lined up with preliminary polling, making Bush’s Vice Presidential selection of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle the nomination process’s only real surprise.

In the general election campaign, controversial GOP strategist Lee Atwater played a major part in demolishing the summer polling lead that Dukakis had enjoyed going into the fall. One of his notable creations, the “Weekend Passes” advertisement, featured Willie Horton, a convict who had taken advantage of a weekend furlough program to escape prison and commit more crimes. Because Dukakis was Governor of Massachusetts at the time, the ad successfully convinced many voters that he was soft on crime.

On election day, Vice President Bush replicated Truman’s feat, defeating Dukakis in a 426-111 electoral landslide. The popular vote, though, which Bush carried only 53-46%, was perhaps the better indicator of how competitive this election actually was. Either way, the implications were clear. After eight years of Reagan, most Americans wanted Republicans to keep controlling the White House for another term.

CHANGE

To depict just how different the national coalitions were in 1988, Split Ticket will be looking at two distinct regions in detail: the Acadiana and Northern Virginia. Despite being dissimilar in the geographic and cultural senses, these divisions collectively provide insight into what the old-school coalitions of the 1980s and 90s looked like before realignments began to crop up and solidify following the seminal 2000 presidential campaign.

THE ACADIANA – LOUISIANA

What is the Acadiana? Officially, the region comprises 22 parishes throughout central and southwestern Louisiana. To a greater degree than in other parts of the Pelican State, L’Acadiane can trace its roots back to 17th and 18th-century French expats. Over the centuries, that unique Francophone heritage has significantly influenced the culture of the Acadiana and its most prominent ethnic variety: the Cajuns. Predictably, Le Pays Cadjin accounts for the majority of Louisiana’s ubiquitous and well-known French-origin population.

The visible religious roots of the Cajun-Creole population have actually affected the Acadiana’s political dynamics in more ways than one. Unsurprisingly, given its French connections, this part of the south is a Catholic hotbed amid a sea of protestant sects.

In the 1928 and 1960 presidential elections, Catholic nominees Al Smith and John Kennedy performed predictably-better in these parishes than they did elsewhere in the state. Perhaps more telling was the ascendance of Edwin Edwards, a Catholic who became one of the Gret State’s most memorable Governors. He performed well in the Acadiana in each of his elections.

Presidential results in the Acadiana region by parish (1984 vs. 1988)

How did the Acadiana behave in other presidential elections? It generally stuck with the southern tradition of backing Democratic nominees, albeit by lesser margins as time passed. Interestingly, the Acadiana was the only part of Louisiana to stick with Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when insurgent Republican Barry Goldwater swept many other southern whites into his camp post-Civil Rights Act.

Presidential results in the Acadiana region (1984, 1988)

Besides Nixon, another Republican who managed to appeal to the Acadiana during his Presidency was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper failed to post an overwhelming regional victory in 1980 because of President Carter’s residual appeal with southern whites, but he did break through four years later during his national landslide against former Vice President Walter Mondale.

In 1988, Reagan’s successor, Bush, underperformed in the Gret State despite winning by double-digits. The GOP’s 17 point regional victory in 1984 had rested mostly upon base voters in heavily-Republican Lafayette Parish, though Reagan improved across the board compared to his 1980 performance.

Bush also won Lafayette, allowing him to narrowly carry the 7th congressional district, but lost the Acadiana region to Michael Dukakis because he could not hold his ground in the southwest or within the River Parishes.

Why did the shift toward the Democrats happen? Louisiana political expert J. Miles Coleman, an Assistant Editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, pointed out the importance of oil to the Acadiana’s economy. In the late 80s, while other parts of the country prospered, the Pelican State suffered from low oil prices and stymied production. The same energy that had ousted Republican Governor Dave Treen in 1983 seemed to push populist White Democrats to the polls for Dukakis five years later.

After the Clinton-era, the Acadiana and its swath of southwestern Louisiana would leave the Democrats’ presidential column for the last time. Most of the rural parishes, like Jefferson Davis, have only gotten redder over the years. But downballot Democratic strength remained formidable post-2000 due to lag. The 7th district, which encompasses much of the region, was held by Democrat Chris John until he retired to run for Senate in 2004. Sitting Governor John Bel Edwards even won some of the counties in the Acadiana in 2015, when he defeated former Republican Senator Dave Vitter in a landslide.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA (NOVA)

Northern Virginia, otherwise known as NOVA, is starkly-different from the Acadiana in terms of cultural values and economic livelihoods. Today, the counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William form a bustling, well-educated suburban triad set near to Washington D.C. on the other side of the Potomac River. But this increasingly-Democratic sprawl was not always so inimical to Republicans.

Back in 1988, NOVA was a firm addition to the Republican camp at the presidential level. Democrats had competed successfully for the 8th and 10th congressional districts, both located in this region, but did not lock down the three counties’ House seats until Barbara Comstock lost reelection to represent the current 10th in 2018. Despite the ability to make inroads downballot, Democrats struggled to make regional inroads presidentially.

Loudoun, Prince William, and Fairfax counties voted against Clinton twice, albeit by smaller margins than they had backed Bush Sr. by in 1988. Pro-Democratic trends became apparent in 2004, though, when John Kerry became the first Democrat to carry Fairfax County presidentially since LBJ in 1964. Obama would post similarly-important victories in Loudoun and Prince William four years later.

Why did the Democrats gain ground so quickly? There were multiple reasons. First, NOVA’s affordable real-estate and close proximity to D.C. made it a hotspot for both commercial and residential development. As county infrastructures expanded through the 90s and early 2000s, many transient voters and newly-housed government employees entered the voter stream. The table above shows just how much more significant Prince William and Loudoun, for example, have become in comparison to state presidential turnout as a whole.

While the days of Governor Bob McDonnell and Congressman Frank Wolf are undoubtedly now historical relics, Republicans generally maintain somewhat of a down-ballot foothold in NOVA. When businessman Glenn Youngkin flipped the Governorship to the GOP in 2021, for instance, he cracked 40% in Loudoun and Prince William while holding Democratic margins in Fairfax to just 30 points. Those numbers remain incredible for a modern-era Republican.

CONCLUSIONS

Like any presidential cycle, 1988 shows that coalitions and their associated electoral preferences have, and should be expected to, change over time. It does not, however, suggest that realignments are in any sense immediate. Trends usually take circuitous paths to full manifestation, sometimes leading to temporary reversions.

To derive useful conclusions about national directionality from specific shifts, analysts must interpret changes as holistically as possible. This process revolves primarily around determining exactly how trends adapt over time relative to the state of the nation in its entirety. When one-directional changes in average voting patterns are observed over a consistent time frame in certain regions, it is often safe to say realignment has occurred – even if backsliding comes into play later on.

The future is unpredictable as it is, so the least pundits can do is provide educated-guesses as to how our present coalitions will change and what the alterations will mean for presidential politics.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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