The Democratic primary was packed with candidates, as many prominent Democrats saw it as an opportunity to end eight years of Republican leadership under President Ronald Reagan. Vice President George Bush, thought to be the probable Republican nominee, was not perceived as a strong candidate, in comparison with Reagan. Most party leaders considered Senator Gary Hart of Colorado to be the likely nominee. Young and charismatic, Hart had run for president in 1984, losing the nomination to Walter Mondale. Though there had always been rumors of his marital infidelity, no proof had ever surfaced. Tired of all the rumors, Hart dared reporters at a press conference to "tail him", saying, "they'd be very bored". Apparently, his prediction was incorrect. In May of 1987, the Miami Herald, after staking out his townhouse, caught Hart spending the night with actress/model Donna Rice. Hart dropped out of the race soon after.
Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts seemed to be the favorite as the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary approached, and had led the pack of Democratic candidates in fundraising. He nevertheless faced strong competition from Congressman Richard A. Gephardt, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Al Gore, and Senator Paul Simon. After polling a surprising third in Iowa, narrowly behind Gephardt and Simon, Dukakis went on to win decisively in New Hampshire, and was able to fight his way to the nomination, thanks to support from party leaders and a fundraising advantage. The 1988 primary also marked the first appearance of Super Tuesday primaries. This primary schedule, with primaries scheduled in 20 states on the same day, was designed by Democrats looking to counteract the effect of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, by forcing primary candidates to run a national campaign and especially forcing them to campaign in the South. The end result was supposed to give the party a more moderate, electable candidate, and was widely criticized as forcing candidates to raise more money in order to stay in the race. This basic schedule has been maintained for every presidential election since.
George Bush was the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination, having run for it once before in 1980, and having served as Vice President for the last eight years. However, he still faced competition in the primaries, most notably from Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate Republican leader. Other major candidates included Congressman Jack Kemp, former Secretary of State and four-star general Alexander Haig, and Reverend Pat Robertson. Bush finished a distant third in the Iowa caucus, behind Dole and Robertson, which was surprising to many, as he had won there in 1980. He managed to fight back to win New Hampshire, and eventually the nomination.
Dukakis picked as his running mate Senator Lloyd Bentsen. A Texan, Bentsen was firmly to Dukakis' right, and it was thought that this selection would help the Democratic ticket among moderate to conservative voters in the South. Bush picked as his running mate the 41-year-old senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle. This turned out to be a huge liability for Bush, especially due to concerns about Quayle's placement in the National Guard during Vietnam possibly being obtained through family connections. Quayle also seemed to many to be too young and inexperienced to be next in line to the presidency. In the Vice Presidential debate, Quayle defended himself against these charges, stating that he had been in the Senate for the same amount of time that John F. Kennedy had been when he ran for president in 1960. This prompted Lloyd Bentsen to retort famously, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
The Bush campaign worked to paint Dukakis as a big-government liberal who was out of touch with the people. Especially convincing were a series of ads condemning Dukakis for a program carried out when he was governor of Massachusetts. This program allowed prisoners, including first-degree murderers, to go on unsupervised weekend furloughs. The most famous ad aired during the 1988 campaign was the "Willie Horton" ad, which told of a murderer who was given one of these furloughs and used the opportunity to stab a man and rape his wife.
Dukakis attempted to counteract the impression that he was out of touch with the military by staging a photo op in which he drove a tank around a field. This ended up hurting his campaign more than it helped, as Dukakis seemed completely out of place, and was openly mocked for how he looked in the tank. The phrase "like Dukakis in the tank" has stuck with us to the present day to refer to situations in which politicians are completely out of their depth.
Final Popular Vote
George Bush/Dan Quayle - 48,881,221
Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen - 41,805,422
Final Electoral Count*
George Bush/Dan Quayle - 426
Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen - 111
*One elector from West Virginia cast his vote for Lloyd Bentsen.
Dionne, E.J. "Bush overcomes Dole's bid and Dukakis is easy winner in New Hampshire voting". New York Times. February 17, 1988, Wednesday, A1.
2004 World Almanac