Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who lost his 1988 White House bid, is warning Joe Biden not to take election polls too seriously, citing the evaporation of his double-digit lead over his presidential opponent, George H.W. Bush, before his election defeat.
A recent Fox News poll has Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading President Trump, 50-38, as concerns grow over the coronavirus pandemic, racism and unemployment. He also leads Trump by 8.8 percentage points in an average of the latest national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Trump has repeatedly touted polls that show him behind as "fake," most recently saying: "I am getting VERY GOOD internal Polling Numbers."
Months before his election defeat, Dukakis held a 55-38 lead over Bush, according to a July 26, 1988, Newsweek/Gallup poll, cited by the Boston Globe.
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Other polls also had him leading by double digits.
In a statement to the newspaper, Dukakis said “particularly this year, [polls] should be studied cautiously. Biden can and should win, but being at 50, no matter how weak your opponent is, is no guarantee of success.”
Dukakis, a Democrat, knows from experience. His numbers took a nosedive following a series of public relations gaffes and a debate performance that came off as dispassionate when asked by CNN anchor Bernard Shaw if he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
Dukakis said "no," in what many viewed as a cold answer, citing his belief that capital punishment isn't a deterrent to crime.
“It was a question about Dukakis’s values and emotions,” his campaign director, Susan Estrich, later recalled, according to Politico. “When he answered by talking policy, I knew we lost the election.”
Dukakis' numbers further declined following a Bush campaign attack ad over Willie Horton, a black man who raped and killed a white woman and stabbed her fiance in a 1987 home invasion in Maryland. Horton had escaped from a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison when the killing occurred.
The furlough program had been in place while Dukakis was governor.
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The ad portrayed him as soft on crime and was widely condemned as stoking racial divisions.
Ronald Reagan, the incumbent president at the time, also referred to Dukakis as an "invalid," prompting questions over the governor's mental state. Reagan later claimed he was joking.
“I think I dropped eight points in the week Reagan called me ‘the invalid,’” Dukakis recalled in a recent e-mail to the Globe. “I never took those early polls seriously.”
In a similar manner, Trump and his supporters have frequently questioned Biden's mental acuity. He did the same with Hillary Clinton in 2016, calling her "unhinged" and suggesting she was not up for the job of being president.
"I think Biden now is weaker than Dukakis in 1988," Globe columnist Alex Beam wrote. "Biden is battling an incumbent president who can wield the levers of power to his own benefit almost any time he wants. And Biden, you can argue, is no Dukakis."
Meanwhile, longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove, who informally advises the Trump campaign, said the Trump needs to hit the reset button ahead of the Republican National Convention.
He pointed to Bush's win over Dukakis after trailing in the polls months before his election.
"When you are in the barrel, when you’re getting a lot of bad press and the polls are going against you, you need to do something that says, ‘We’re moving in a different direction.’ That’s what I mean by a reset," he said during a Friday appearance on "America's Newsroom."
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Beam noted that Dukakis had turned 55 days before Election Day in 1988, while Biden is 77 and prone to "cringe-worthy gaffes." Dukakis also presided as governor of Massachusetts over a sustained period of economic growth, he said.
"What can Biden take credit for?" Beam said. "A serviceable stint as a small-state senator, eight years of unremarkable vice-presidential yeomanry, and — lest we forget — an unblemished losing record in presidential campaigns."