Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

Campaign of 1988

On October 13, 1987, George H. W. Bush announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President. He faced three main opponents for the nomination—Senator Robert Dole of Kansas; Pat Robertson, an evangelical leader; and Representative Jack Kemp from New York. Bush stressed his service as vice president in the Reagan administration, his government experience, and his commitment to continuity. To run his campaign, Bush depended on two allies: James Baker, an old friend from Texas who had served as Reagan's chief of staff and as secretary of the Treasury; and Lee Atwater, a hard-hitting political consultant.

Bush lost the Iowa caucus badly, finishing third behind Dole and Robertson. Bush had long struggled with an image of being soft or "wimpy," and not tough enough to get down and dirty in the trenches of electoral politics. The campaign of 1988, however, disproved that perception. After Iowa, Bush came back to run a strong campaign and hit his opponents hard. He won the New Hampshire primary and then went on to dominate the Super Tuesday races.

The Republican National Convention was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in August 1988. After Bush clinched the nomination, he began to consider his choice for vice president. Eventually, he selected Dan Quayle, the junior senator from Indiana. Bush was attracted to Quayle because of his youth and his conservative credentials. He was more conservative than Bush, and some advisers thought that he would appeal to the conservative base of the party as well as to women voters. However, Quayle became a controversial choice and a problematic running mate because many considered him too young and inexperienced to be vice president.

In his acceptance speech at the convention, Bush stressed the successes of the Reagan years and his ability to continue to build on them. He pointed to his military service in World War II and his years of public service. He pledged to round out some of the harsher edges of the previous administration, stating that he wanted "a kinder and gentler nation." And famously, he promised not to raise taxes: "Read my lips: no new taxes."

The Bush team launched an aggressive campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and running mate Lloyd Bentsen. The Bush campaign went after Dukakis, who was the governor of Massachusetts, as extremely liberal and out of touch with most Americans. Bush accused Dukakis of being "a card-carrying member of the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union)." In one of the most famous incidents in the campaign, the Bush team accused Dukakis of being soft on crime by allowing prisoners serving life sentences to have furloughs away from prison; one such felon, Willie Horton, attacked a couple while out on furlough. Supporters of Bush created a television advertisement that featured men walking through a revolving door to illustrate the Massachusetts furlough program. The Willie Horton advertisement became synonymous with negative campaign attacks.

Because Bush was campaigning to continue the Reagan legacy, he did not propose radical changes. He opposed flag burning and abortion, supported free trade and community volunteerism, and wanted to be remembered as the education President. Bush and Dukakis debated twice before election day, and Dan Quayle had one debate against Lloyd Bentsen. It was during this debate that Bentsen eviscerated Quayle after the latter argued that his youth and experience was comparable to that of President Kennedy. Bentsen retorted, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Nonetheless, on election day, the electorate supported staying the course, and the Bush-Quayle ticket won the election with 53 percent of the vote and 426 Electoral College votes. Although Bush won the election, the Democratic Party gained seats in both houses of Congress. Bush began his presidency with the Democrats controlling both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Campaign of 1992

When the Persian Gulf War ended in March 1991, President George H. W. Bush had very high approval ratings, some even approaching 90 percent. Few people imagined that in just a year, his political fortunes could change so dramatically. But the American people were less concerned with his foreign policy successes than with the changing economic situation at home. The U.S. economy had slowed down, and middle-class Americans had grown increasingly upset about the President's inaction on the economic recession. Many people, especially Republican die-hards, had also never forgiven the President for breaking his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes.

Changes in personnel also hindered the Bush campaign. In March 1990, Lee Atwater, who had helped run Bush's 1988 campaign and was now head of the Republican National Committee, collapsed during a speech; he died a year later of a brain tumor. Without Atwater's leadership, the RNC was less effective and short on money, and dissolved into factional infighting. The Bush team also lost John Sununu when he resigned as chief of staff in December 1991 after a controversy involving his personal use of government transportation. Without the hard-hitting Sununu running the White House, President Bush lost a polarizing but effective adviser.

Within the Republican Party, President Bush easily won the nomination. But his Republican primary opponent, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan, personified the dissatisfaction of the right wing of the party. Bush had lost the support of many conservative Republicans for a variety of reasons, including raising taxes and cutting defense spending. Buchanan's challenge forced Bush to move further right during the primaries, especially with regard to social issues. To appease the right wing of the party, the Bush team asked Buchanan to give the keynote address during the Republican convention. Buchanan's speech alienated many moderates and was roundly criticized in the media. In his address, Buchanan offered a gloomy view of America's health, noting that this election was "about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."

Early in 1992, New Jersey senator Bill Bradley and New York governor Mario Cuomo, Democrats who were widely considered to be front-runners, decided not to run. The Democratic candidate who gradually emerged as the party's standard-bearer was Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Clinton had an everyman appeal that made Bush appear out of touch with the average American. Bush's reelection campaign was also hurt when a third-party candidate, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, decided to enter the race. His "United We Stand, America" citizens group promised a White House dedicated to patriotism, candor, honesty, and a balanced budget.

The 1992 presidential campaign focused primarily on domestic issues, specifically the economy. Clinton's unofficial campaign slogan was "It's the economy, stupid," which highlighted the hard times many Americans were enduring economically. As the economy slowed down, Bush did not enact any major legislation that might have proved to the voters that he was responding to their concerns. The President was also damaged by charges that his domestic policy lacked vision, and he gained little among the electorate by pointing to his foreign policy accomplishments.

Bush ran a lifeless campaign that seemed to lack focus and energy; many observers felt he was ineffective at communicating to the public about his achievements. Some have suggested that Bush had health problems that prevented him from conducting a vigorous campaign, while others blamed the absence of Lee Atwater as the main reason for Bush's lackluster performance. Bush's campaign was directed by a troika composed of Robert Mosbacher, Fred Malek, and Robert Teeter, and many longtime GOP operatives argued that this team never provided a rationale for the American voter to keep their man in office for four more years. In the end, the responsibility for the defeat rests with Bush himself, who seemed to be repeatedly caught off guard by the energetic Clinton-Gore campaign. (It did not help the President's cause when he was seen checking his watch in the middle of a televised presidential debate, as if he preferred to be anywhere else but debating the issues of the day.)

Clinton proved to be an expert campaigner who overcame personal foibles to win over voters. Perot complicated the campaign and capitalized on public discontent, winning over many conservative Republicans and independents. Bush lost his reelection bid to Clinton, who gained 43 percent of the popular vote, while Bush received 38 percent and Perot took 19 percent. Clinton, however, won 370 Electoral College votes to Bush's 168. Although Clinton did not win a clear mandate, the combined Clinton and Perot vote indicated that the American public was sending a strong message for change. Bush left the White House somewhat embittered, convinced that the media had slanted its coverage in favor of his opponent in the 1992 election.