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The Ghost of Mike Dukakis

Nightmares can be real.
July 30, 2020
The Ghost of Mike Dukakis
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

I woke up the other night in the midst of a godawful nightmare. I saw a terrible ghost.

As my eyes opened in raw fear, I could only scream a few horrible words:


Poll Lead!!

In July!!!

That’s the problem with having been in the campaign business for 30 years. You’ve seen a bunch, and actually remember a lot of it.

I recall the summer and fall of 1988 very well. I was on the Bush for President media team, working under Roger Ailes. I still remember sitting on the roof of a station wagon late one night as we rolled slowly through Boston’s then-infamous Combat Zone filming various irate creatures of the night screaming at us, and more importantly, at our cameras. Alex Castellanos and I were there, brimming with happy rascality as we collected footage for a long form television spot we were making for the Bush campaign about the Massachusetts “miracle” under Governor Mike Dukakis.

As a beer bottle flew past our heads, Alex and I ducked and traded a grin. These spots were gonna make a dent.

Of course, back then most expert observers in DC thought that the Bush campaign was hopeless. A Gallup poll of July 1988 had Mike Dukakis with an invincible 17-point lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush. Other early polls in June and July also showed Dukakis in front, by anywhere from 5 to 14 points.

But then, Mike Dukakis got defined.

Now, every campaign is different and the future is never the prisoner of the past . . . but I find myself a little worried as I see the growing level of grinning and winking and nudging the current crop of “Trump is finished” summer polling has encouraged.

No doubt Trump is in big trouble. And it is true that summer polling showing one candidate with a big lead in other presidential elections—1984 and 1972 for example—has held up and delivered a landslide. But in both those cases it was the incumbent president who held the commanding lead. For a challenger to be this far ahead, this early, and then hold that lead down the stretch? That may indeed happen, but it is rather new.

Now, have no doubt: I’d much rather be Biden than Trump. If the election were held next week I am very confident Trump would lose in a landslide. (And the R’s would probably lose the Senate, too.)

In fact, I’ve publicly predicted Trump is likely to lose reelection since the day he was sworn in, and the political news for the GOP has indeed been awful in every election since Trump was inaugurated. I have no doubt that, barring a big campaign reset, the American people have been ready to fire The Donald for a long time. The president’s COVID-19 fiasco and only made that urge even stronger and more urgent.

But the future—in politics especially—is never certain.

There are just enough loose bolts on the Biden Express to make wise Trump opponents wary and encourage them to not let up one bit.

First, Joe Biden is a good man and a patriot, but has so far has been an imperfect candidate. In Iowa and New Hampshire, facing a lot of fierce competition, he did poorly despite starting from a commanding position. Now, as a nominee who never quit and ultimately won the Democratic nomination with a lot of grit, I think Biden has significantly improved as a candidate. But we have not seen enough yet to know for sure.

Second, the three biggest defining events of the Biden campaign are yet to occur:

  • The VP choice
  • The Convention
  • And the Debate

Each could present an opportunity for the flailing and so far incompetent Trump campaign to seize a Biden misstep and wrench the campaign focus away from Trump’s bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic and onto a hostile examination of Joe Biden.

Biden is unlike Mike Dukakis in that he has been a major national figure for a long time. But he is like Mike Dukakis in that, at this point in the race, he is not yet very well-defined.

We’ll see how Biden does.

He has a far smarter, more professional operation than Trump’s clown academy. But as I learned as the camera rolled from the roof of that station wagon in 1988, the outfit that defines its opponent best in the last two months of the campaign has the decisive advantage on Election Day.

I think Biden will win. It could well be a landslide. But most of the real campaign has yet to be fought.

Biden supporters would do well to forget these summer polls.

Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy grew up in Detroit and has run four successful major statewide races in Michigan—which is 65 percent of all Republican senatorial and gubernatorial wins achieved in Michigan during the last 26 years. Murphy is also co-director of the Center for the Political Future at USC.