FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Essays for the Presidency

The 1988 Election

Inauguration of George H. W. Bush, 1989.

In 1988 a Republican won the presidency for the fifth time in the last six tries, and for the seventh time in the last ten. In the past six presidential elections-over a quarter-century-Democrats have averaged approximately 43 percent of the national popular presidential vote. Over the past forty years Democrats have managed to exceed 50.1 percent of the popular vote only once, in 1964, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.

The American public is sending a message with its voting behavior. Is it a profound message about what Americans want in their government at home and how they want America represented and projected abroad? Or are they separate messages for individual elections, unique reactions to specific circumstances that happen to mesh into a pattern of Republican hegemony? The answer is not at all clear, but which answer is correct matters less than which answer prevails in the interpretation of the 1988 vote.

The approach that each political party takes toward governing during the new administration comes down to whether the 1988 election is viewed as a seminal event involving a significant choice between two well-matched opponents, or a predictable and narrow victory for continuity over change. The more significance each party assigns to the outcome of the election, the more aggressive that party will be in the branch of government it controls.

Even before the results were in, the media seemed to decide the election was not important: "issueless," "personal," "trivial," "negative" were the usual expressions of disgust. There was a good deal of overstatement here, and it will take some time before we can fully understand the significance of 1988. In this essay we will try to put the election into context, examining the issues discussed and ignored, using the election to frame an analysis of the policy battles, options and outcomes ahead.


The analysis of American elections has become a cottage industry. Politicians, psephologists, pundits and press vie with one another first to predict election results and then to interpret them. One large school

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.