Michael Dukakis Was A Better Candidate Than John Kerry

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Nov 05, 2007 at 18:00

How complicated are electoral politics, really? For political writers like myself, it certainly is a help to act as though it is an extremely complicated business, since otherwise we would not have as much to write about. However, consider the following:

Michael Dukakis is widely viewed as having lost by a major landslide, while John Kerry is widely viewed as having lost a narrow election. However, looking through exit poll data, it appears that the two candidates performed almost identically among one of the larger demographic groups in the electorate: white voters. The only real difference between the outcome of the 1988 and 2004 elections does not seem to be that Kerry did any better among particularly demographic groups, but rather that demographic groups more favorable to Democrats formed a larger share of the electorate. In fact, Kerry actually did worse than Dukakis among Latinos. If John Kerry had won Latinos by the same 70%-30% margin that Dukakis did, then he would have at least pulled to within less than a percentage point on Bush, and possibly even won the popular vote. Further, whatever small gains Kerry made on Bush within white voters were possibly entirely due to sharply increasing secularism within the white electorate. Overall, it seems quite likely that Kerry would have won the 2004 election had he just performed as well as Dukakis among every ethnic and religious demographic in the electorate. Since he did not, it seems reasonable to assume that John Kerry was not a better candidate than Michael Dukakis.

Broad demographic changes that rendered the electorate both less white and less Christian had a significantly greater impact on the changing outcomes of the 1988 and 2004 election than did the quality of the candidates running, the issues of the time, or the strategies employed by the campaigns. Outside of these demographic shifts, everything else was pretty much a wash from 1988 to 2004. As I have repeated numerous times in the past, this trend will only continue. By 2012, when self-identified white Christians will probably only make up about 55-56% of the electorate (down from their current 63-64% total), unless ethnic and religious demographic groups start voting differently, the electorate will have shifted roughly another 3-4% in favor of Democrats. With that electorate, even a Democratic candidate with the skill of Michael Dukakis or John Kerry could win, and no Iraq war or economic downturn would be necessary.

This massive, underlying shift has a Republican precedent. Despite virtually no change in ideological self-identification among the electorate over the past forty years, Republicans were able to rise to electoral power basically just by swinging the once solid Democratic south into their column. More than half of all Republican gains in the House, Senate, Governors and electoral votes from 1964-2004 came from the eleven states that once formed the confederacy. Consider, for example, that after the 1964 elections, there were only 32 Republican Senators, but only one southern Republican Senator. After the 2004 elections, there were 55 Republican US Senators, and 18 southern Republican Senators. Only six of the twenty-three seats that shifted over those forty years came from the thirty-nine states outside the south, and even that small difference was wiped out in the 2006 elections. After 2008, Democrats will probably be doing even better outside the South than they were after the 1964 elections. Overall, apart from white southerners switching their partisan voting habits at the statewide and federal level, and the relative high population growth in the south compared to the rest of the country during that time period, not much else really changed in American electoral politics to cause the Republican rise to power. Pretty much the rest of the Republican gains can probably be chalked up to the collapse of union density in the American workplace.

Whenever I think about the southern shift of 1964-2000, and the more recent non-white and / or non-Christian shift from 1996 and on into the future, I wonder how much more there really is to say about American electoral politics. Or, at least, I wonder how much more there really is to say about American electoral politics in general elections for federal and statewide office. Outside of these mega-trends and major events that are localized either in time (such as a war or the economy) or in a given region (such as a corruption scandal or a favorite son candidate), everything else sometimes seems as though it might be playing with very, very narrow margins. In the end, what is actually really the agent of change, broad demographic shifts or strategic use of political machinery? For us activists and writers, we really want to think it is the latter, but in all likelihood it is probably the former. It is certainly somewhat disturbing and disempowering to think about politics this way, but in a country of this massive size, how can a small industry of only $10 billion a year--aka, the political industry--really make that much of a dent in our collective political attitudes? Politics makes up les than one-tenth of one percent of our national economy. I'm going to guess that the other 99.9% has slightly more impact on how we understand the world.

All of this makes me wonder sometimes if the most useful role the political activist can take is to do whatever possible to bring the broad trends that favor your coalition to fruition, while making sure that you don't do anything to increase your opponent's chances of the doing the same. In other words, just don't spit into the wind by, say, running electoral campaigns specifically targeting rising demographic groups like Latinos, Asians and non-Christians with negative, bigoted messaging. Perhaps, as I have wondered in the past, the more transformative, ideological activist is always working to change the culture of our schools, our workplaces, our media, and our modes of religious practice. A smart strategy might be to go along with the trends at the top, while always working to change the institutions that cause the trends at the foundation. None of this is probably as simple as I am making it out to be, but for those progressives out there who are disheartened by the 2008 presidential primary, or by the meager legislative consequences that seem to have come from the 2006 elections, perhaps it is useful to remember that there are other areas where it is possible to make a bigger impact on the ideological makeup of this country than in elections or even issue advocacy. Instead of playing in the electoral margins, perhaps it is more effective and stimulating to take direct aim at our larger cultural and ideological institutions. After all, if changes within those institutions can make an even less effective Democratic candidate than Michael Dukakis come within one state of the Presidency, they can't be simply shrugged away.

Chris Bowers :: Michael Dukakis Was A Better Candidate Than John Kerry

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I think in general you may be right... (4.00 / 1)
But there are turning points. There are times when the tides are turning quickly and outcomes are uncertain.

Have you ever been sailing on a mid-size boat, and when you came about, you had to turn the tiller hard and push the boom across the boat? Otherwise you sit there drifting, with your bow into the wind.

Those are the times when small margins mean something. Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee

Really Interesting (4.00 / 1)
It would be interesting to apply these numbers to 2000 as well.  I've always been interested in the differences between Gore's and Kerry's vote.  I know Gore did better with Hispanics, but I think there were a few groups Kerry did better with, such as those with post-Grad education.

idle musing about community (4.00 / 1)

You're doing a very good thing to ponder what grassroots progressives need to do to gain lasting influence in politics.  I've read more than a few posts on it.

Something I've struggled with as an activist is the election triangulating that takes place to maximize GOTV.  Using the statistics of past voting patterns and changing strategy in response - all for the ultimate goal of getting the right people elected.  Work is only done every 2 years seemingly.

I lead a small group of Pasadena DFA'ers and we've settled on filling a niche that election strategizing Democratic Party clubs don't.  We see ourselves as an all-year-round group attempting to create a broader sense of community and empowerment among progressives.  We believe in doing the walking to help get our candidates elected but our stretch efforts are hopefully about filling that niche.

This brings me to your posts.  What we need in order to get lasting progressive change in this country must be made up of more than a few important actions, not the least of which is efficient GOTV efforts.  One significant one that doesn't lend itself to statistical study is creating that sense of community and empowerment.  It's amorphous and hard to get a clear strategy to implement but it's somethign worth thinking about.  It's something that I think would be interesting for you to write on.

Perhaps this effort to try and create empowerment and community is largely rooted in my faith perspective.  That or I just have a thing against efforts that aren't more holistic and involve connecting with people than numbers.

I realize that everything we do must play into the mix of activist work which creates progressive change.  I'm not even saying that community work is superior (might suit some more than others).  I just think it might be worth writing about too as you consider how we are going to make this a better country to live in.



oh, come on (4.00 / 2)
I have a problem with the way you isolate factors and apply rules abstractly.  Do you really think that, Swift Boating regardless, that Kerry was less able to convince voters in 04 than Duke would have in 04 that he could have been commander in chief post 9-11?

It was an entirely different issue landscape.  I'm guessing you were too young to remember the 88 campaign.  IMO Dukakis' aversion to *any* hardball tactics made Kerry (whose chief strategic fault was never consistently defining Bush) seem like a flamethrower. 

Strategically they both were weak....but tactically, Kerry was a superior candidate. He positioned himself (however inconsistently) with respect to the issue of the day.  Kerry also cannily came from behind in the primaries against some competition, while Duke's field was much weaker.  Also, Kerry won some tough Senate races.

Dukakis message was muddled...he frittered away a lead in the spring, and didn't cast himself enough as an agent of change.  However, you could argue that he had no money to respond on TV to attacks. But I think Dukakis was awful - he did no rapid response of any kind.  He was atrocious in the debates.  He had the Kerry/Gore disease of intellectualism....but much more so than Kerry, if you can believe that.  You can be intellectual in a blue state, and running for Prez, of course, is very different than Gov or Senate.

Only in the closing weeks of the campaign when Dukakis started using populist messaging did he close the gap.  I think Atwater said that if the election was a month later, Duke would have won.  Or, if he hadn't changed course, and the election were a month earlier, he would have been creamed by 10+ points.

Dukakis came back, too (0.00 / 0)
Michael Dukakis is the only Democrat to contest Iowa and lose (he finished third) and go on to win the Democratic nomination since Iowa became a big thing in 1976.  He specifically targeted hispanics and made his own family's immigrant background a centerpiece of his campaign (the theme song was "Coming to America" taken from a remake of the Jazz Singer).

Atwater/Bush ran an incredibly dirty camapign yet were really unable to put him away.  The key moment, I think, was when he shelved his "tough" campaign manager in the primaries for putting Joe Biden away by catching him in plagiarism.  Susan Estrich was inexperienced and lacked the ability to face the Bush hardball head on.

[ Parent ]
Who was Duakis' original campaign manager? .. (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
Orifginal campaign manager (0.00 / 0)
John Sasso was the original campaign manager.  He was brought back at the end and credited with halving the Dukakis deficit vs. Bush.

[ Parent ]
IA did go for Dukakis in the general (0.00 / 0)
Just wanted to point that out.

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.

[ Parent ]
Simple (4.00 / 1)
One other thing with which progressives can take heart.....I'll be real simple.  There really, truly is NO way you can figure out how or why a candidate won or lost.  There is only guessing, because no single strategic choice in a campaign is all upside and no downside. 

And another thing....we have no freaking idea what kind of President anybody would be from their campaigns.  It's all guesswork.  Nobody thought FDR would be who he was.  People thought Truman was not up to the job.  Etc.  So whoever is elected could easily surpass expectations or disappoint.

and there's luck (0.00 / 0)
Final point...even more important than "broad demographic shifts" is external circumstances.  The state of the economy in an election year, events like 9-11...etc. 

So much is out of the control of candidates, only some of whom are a good fit for the times. 

Right on! (0.00 / 0)
The Employee Free Choice Act and more legal immigration + amnesty are probably the two single most politically important things we could pass.  To me, they rival health care and global warming as top priorities for the next Congress and President.

I wrote a diary a while back responding to your post on feedback loops which compiled Open Left users' suggestions for policies that will take advantage of / enhance these demographic gains.  Each one is good policy in its own right, and brings Mike Dukakis a little closer to a landslide victory.  http://openleft.com/...

If we accept the framework that demographics dominate electoral outcomes, then we have to be prepared for external events or blunders by the Republicans. When those moments arise and give us a chance to expend serious political capital (hopefully in 2008) we must push decisively not just for one of a thousand great policy proposals we've been sitting on, but for those that will enhance the future electoral prospects of progressive candidates.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.

Yes, yes, yes (0.00 / 0)
"the most useful role the political activist can take is to do whatever possible to bring the broad trends that favor your coalition to fruition..."

And one of the things that means in progressive electoral politics is helping communities of color activate themselves in every electoral cycle. Communities vote when voting and all the participation that surrounds it becomes habitual behavior for a significant number of their influential members. This take accumulated expertise and campaign willingness to expend resources in emerging voting blocs.

It also take imagination. Take a look at this electoral training tool developed for this purpose.

Demographics are currently moving the electorate our way but we can help move it faster.

Can it happen here?

I'm not buying this (0.00 / 0)
Kerry was running against an incumbent whose media coverage had mostly looked like hero worship for three years.

Dukakis was running against a pseudo-incumbent who was widely portrayed as a wimp by the media.

And Dukakis had a big lead, which he frittered away by taking Mario Cuomo's bad advice (not to respond to attacks).

Anyway, I think Kerry really did win Ohio and the presidency, while Dukakis lost by a big margin.

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.


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