American Elections and Campaigns – 1988 to 1996: Twilight of the 20th Century

As the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan neared its end, Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush faced competition from both Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Virginia televangelist Pat Robertson for the Republican presidential nomination. While Bush trailed behind the two other candidates for a while, he had a stronger base of financial and political support to rely on, ultimately allowing him to win the nomination. Now the Republican’s presidential candidate for 1988, Bush selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle to serve as his running mate, famously making the pledge, “Read my lips: No new taxes” at the party’s convention. After the withdrawal of both Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis was selected with running mate Lloyd Bentsen as the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket. For the campaign, Bush highlighted his previous eight years of experience as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. The prosperity of the United States in the 1980s helped to curry favor for Bush, as he promised to maintain the conservative policies that had defined the “Reagan Revolution.” In spite of the successes enjoyed by the Reagan administration, a massive increase in the national debt, an economic downturn, and the Iran-Contra scandal helped the Democrats take control of the Senate in the 1986 midterm elections. Many of the pertinent criticisms levied against Reagan largely pertained to economics and diplomacy, which the Democratic candidates frequently railed against in their efforts to earn the party’s nomination.

Top: Vice Presidential portrait of George H.W. Bush, 1988. (Naval Photographic Center)
Portrait photograph of Michael Dukakis, c. 1988. (City of Boston Archives)

Compared to the previous two elections, the 1988 election season returned to a more combative campaign approach similar to those of the 1960s. Bush frequently criticized Dukakis in both his public remarks and in campaign advertisements. One remark that was considered ironic in hindsight was Bush calling Dukakis a “Massachusetts liberal,” whose positions on foreign policy were “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique.” This was an example of anti-intellectual campaigning in politics, where candidates presented themselves as figures who were “down-to-earth” and familiar with the concerns of “common people,” and in so doing criticized upper-class educated figures for being “out-of-touch” with the people’s needs. The mainstream media highlighted the irony of Bush criticizing Dukakis for being Ivy League-educated, as Bush himself was an alum of Yale University. A notable soundbite that circulated among the Democratic Party was Lloyd Bentsen’s criticism of Dan Quayle. During the vice presidential debate, Quayle attempted to dismiss concerns of him lacking experience by comparing his career to that of John F. Kennedy. In response, Bentsen remarked that he was a friend of Kennedy, and told Quayle that he was “no Jack Kennedy.” The remark was widely-publicized, with many people focusing on the phrase itself rather than the larger context surrounding it. Despite the political lead that the Democrats hoped to achieve with the vice presidential debate, Bush remained largely in the lead throughout the campaign season, owed in large part to the Republicans’ use of television commercials. Produced by the Bush campaign, four major television ads highlighted and criticized certain elements of Dukakis’ policies and proposals: “Boston Harbor” criticized Dukakis’ failure to adequately handle pollution in the eponymous city while he was the Governor of Massachusetts. The commercial duet of “Revolving Door” and “Weekend Passes” accused Dukakis of being too soft on crime, forewarning that he would extend his loosened criminal justice policies on a national level if elected president. Regarding defense spending, “Dukakis in the tank” pointed out the irony of him riding in an M1 Abrams tank for public relations purposes, while listing a series of military and defense related bills in Congress that he vetoed and campaigned against. The television ads were effective in undermining Dukakis’ campaign and public outreach efforts, as Bush was portrayed by the Republicans as a figure who was consistent in his policies. Bush ultimately won the 1988 election with 426 electoral votes against Dukakis’ 111. Similar to the Reagan years, Bush managed to secure support throughout the American suburbs, the Sun Belt, and through the majority of the Southern and Midwestern states.

Screenshot from October 5 vice presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, 1988. (C-SPAN)
Campaign photograph of Michael Dukakis riding in an M1 Abrams tank, 1988. (Merlin Archive)

For several decades, television had enjoyed the position as the dominant medium of political advocacy in the United States. With the advent of consumer-grade personal computers towards the end of the 20th century, the next major step in communications technology would not only see its first use by the general public, but also for the advancement of political dialogue in the 1990s. The 1992 presidential election was the earliest point in U.S. history that saw the use of the Internet for electoral purposes. At the time, the “Big Three” internet service providers (ISPs) were CompuServe, America Online (AOL), and Prodigy. Each of the services hosted – or in some cases created their own – online resources for internet users to access information regarding the presidential candidates vying for public office in 1992. In cooperation with the League of Women Voters, Prodigy created an online database that archived all the political platform goals of the major candidates in the election season. CompuServe was used extensively by Jerry Brown in his efforts to earn the Democratic nomination. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) registered the “” domain to provide detailed information about each presidential candidate on request. MIT’s service proved to be popular, as the website received over 2,000 email requests on a daily basis in the weeks before Election Day. Bill Clinton – the Democratic candidate who would go on to win the 1992 election – published complete transcripts of his public speeches, his campaign schedule, and his party positions online. These were easily accessible via CompuServe and Prodigy, and were groundbreaking for allowing voters to read a complete copy of a politician’s speech without it being edited or filtered through the major news media networks. Clinton himself would also become the first president to activate an email address, “” Out of all the major candidates in the 1992 election season, Ross Perot had the most ambitious efforts to use digital information technologies for politics. Before his foray into politics, Perot founded the eponymous Perot Systems, a company that provided information technology services for major private industries. For his presidential campaign, Perot commissioned WAIS, Inc. to create an online information system. The name “WAIS” referred to “wide area information server,” a client-server text searching system designed for users to conduct general searches in index databases. The protocols used in the WAIS system were originally created by the Thinking Machines Corporation, and were adopted by several of the major computer operating systems of the time period, including Microsoft Windows, Apple Inc.’s Macintosh, NeXT, and Unix. Other companies and government agencies made use of this indexing system as well, such as the Wall Street Journal, Encyclopædia Britannica, and the Library of Congress. Although Perot did not win the election, WAIS, Inc. received a major service fee for creating the system, giving them their first major notch of experience in contracted software development. Brewster Kahle – a co-founder of WAIS, Inc. who worked on the system for Perot’s campaign – would later found the Internet Archive, an online digital library that has since amassed millions of books, films, images, and billions of web pages from the Internet’s history. These early steps in online political networking would gradually increase throughout the decade, as the 1996 presidential election was the first one that had both major political candidates create their own websites with full collections of speeches, audio and video recordings, images, and campaign platforms.

Document outlining Brewster Kahle’s proposed design for Perot’s “wide area information server” system, 1992. (Internet Archive)
U.S. Marines marching across Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon during the National Victory Celebration after the Gulf War, 1991. (Associated Press)

Running parallel to the major technological advancements of the era, the 1992 presidential election saw the incumbent Republican George Herbert Walker Bush be challenged by the Democratic Bill Clinton, as well as the independent Ross Perot. Dan Quayle returned as Bush’s running mate, while Al Gore was selected as Bill Clinton’s prospective vice president. The Democrats had a stronger platform in this season, as the country was still recovering from a 1991 recession, which caused many to criticize President Bush as a let down from the economic successes of the Reagan administration. Meanwhile, foreign policy was far less of a pertinent issue than it had been in decades. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought with it the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. military’s victory with its coalition allies in the Gulf War reaffirmed American confidence in international affairs. Clinton maintained a consistent lead over Bush throughout the season, highlighted in large part by the campaign’s focus on bringing about progressive “changes” to the country. One of the more notable phrases to emerge out of the Clinton campaign was the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The phrase itself was one of three internal campaign strategies created by political consultant James Caville, as the three were put on display in Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Arkansas. Although it was originally designed to be an internal phrase for the campaign workers to strategize by, the phrase has long since become one of the most popular American political phrases. Choosing to focus on the economy proved to be advantageous for the Clinton campaign, as the general public’s perception of President Bush significantly declined in response to the 1991 recession. While the victory in the Gulf War gave the administration a surge in positive reception, the more immediate impact of the national economy quickly inverted the positive sentiments. In contrast to Clinton’s frequent advocacy for “change” and “progress,” Bush highlighted his age and experience. This strategy backfired to a certain degree for Bush, as his remarks about his military service in World War II did not resonate as strongly with younger generations. The Bill-Gore ticket ultimately prevailed against both Bush and Perot. Securing 370 electoral votes against 168, the Democrats had won the presidency for the first time since 1976.

Then-President George Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot engaged in the first presidential debate of the 1992 election season. (George Bush Presidential Library & Museum)
Bill and Hillary Clinton celebrating the former’s victory in the 1992 presidential election. (LIFE)

The election of 1996 saw the incumbent president Bill Clinton answer a challenge by the Republican Bob Dole and the returning Ross Perot. After a fairly-prosperous four years, Clinton and his running mate Al Gore enjoyed near-unanimous party support by the Democrats. Clinton’s first term in office saw the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and a massive expansion of the peacetime economy. While Clinton was able to start campaigning early due to his nationwide support, Bob Dole was forced to compete against several other prospective Republican candidates, forcing him to shorten his potential time spent on the campaign trail. Many of Clinton’s television ads were shown in swing states throughout the country, attempting to convince prospective voters that Dole’s advanced age would be a setback as a sitting president. Emboldening the age arguments against Dole were his frequent gaffs on the campaign trail, including his use of incorrect names of certain figures and groups when making references and jokes, as well as him falling off the stage at a campaign stop in California. In a near-perfect repeat of Bush’s attempts at framing his age as experience, Dole proudly proclaimed the accomplishments of his generation in both the Great Depression and World War II, once again failing to fully resonate with the younger constituents that Clinton enjoyed near-unanimous support from. In a direct response to Dole’s age invocation, the Clinton campaign took his common phrase of being a “bridge to the past,” and rephrased it to describe Clinton as one who would “build bridges to the future.” While the Republicans faced several difficulties in their campaigning, Clinton and the Democratic Party were not without their intervals of controversy. In a 1996 investigation, the Department of Justice discovered that several agents from the People’s Republic of China funneled money to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. The funds were then transferred to the Democratic National Committee and Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign. Seventeen people were convicted of fraud, as it is a federal offense for foreign individuals and groups to provide funding to American politicians and political parties. Another controversy in the same year emerged when the Buddhist Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple in California was the site of a DNC fundraiser. In addition to the illegality of foreign officials funding American political figures and campaigns, it is illegal for religious organizations to provide finances for the same purposes. Clinton won the 1996 election with 379 electoral votes against Dole’s 159, marking the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt that a Democratic nominee won two consecutive presidential elections.

Bob Dole and then-President Bill Clinton engaged in the first presidential debate of the 1996 election season. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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