In the 1988 Presidential election, one of the most enduring political ads of all time was put on the airwaves
Andrew Card was the one who had informed Bush about the potential vulnerabilities of Michael Dukakis on the issue of the death penalty and potentially Willie Horton. Lee Atwater has always maintained that the first time he heard of Horton was because of Democrats and Al Gore. When Roger Ailes first heard the story of Willie Horton, he immediately thought of a campaign ad. “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.” The blame was placed on Gore for having injected the idea of furloughs into the conversation.
This was more or less true. Gore went after Dukakis about a prison reform program of furloughs in Massachusetts. Gore asked if there would be a nationwide programs of furloughs. But little was talked about how the prison reform program was already put into play. More than 53,000 inmates in federal and state prisons received over 200,000 furloughs in 1987. The furlough program existed in every state. Thirty-six state programs allowed murderers and others who were serving life sentences with parole to be able to have furloughs. Massachusetts and South Carolina were the only two states that allowed furloughs for those who were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Furlough programs were supported by a number of people including Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association, which represents corrections officers. ”The furlough program is a good program,” Mr. Travisono said. ”It’s neither liberal nor conservative. Furloughs boost inmate morale, and we need every morale boost we can get. They are ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent successful.”
Early in the campaign, Bush had been open to the furlough programs in general. It was possible this support was because federal prisons also allowed furloughs. Ronald Reagan also supported furloughs. Even though, there were two murders that occurred on the furlough program. After one of the murders, Reagan said,” More than 20,000 already have these passes … and this was the only case of this kind, the only murder.”
Like the Swiftboat ads of 2004, the advertisement lived on because of its incessant views on the news media throughout the election. George H.W. Bush began to talk about Willie Horton in speeches in June of 1988 but there wasn’t a lot of name recognition for Willie Horton or any real news coverage. The first ad aired on September 7 but only on cable television networks with less than 1 percent of market share. They focused on a newer ad on October 3 but it did not mention Horton. Finally, they had a third ad run later in October featuring Horton’s victims but not Horton.
In one study of the election, there were 19 separate evening news broadcasts between October 7 and Election Day that mentioned Horton. Bush’s campaign team knew what they were doing by constantly bringing up furloughs and Willie Horton. Baltimore Sun reporter Roger Simon wrote, ”mention furloughs in a speech and that got reported. Keep mentioning it, give the press a name, and you set the press in motion.”
It seemed to work. Bush’s popularity was higher for those interviewed between October 3- October 21 among people who had unfavorable views of blacks. Jesse Jackson was the first one to call it out as a racist ad and made the racism in the ad explicit. Vice President nominee Lloyd Bentsen joined Jackson in calling it racist. Bush denied the racism in the ad. He called the charges “some desperation kind of move. There isn’t any racism. It’s absolutely ridiculous.” During the campaign, Atwater told Roger Simon, “the Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South. And if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win.” Atwater would later deny that there was an racial animus in the ads. Since Atwater is one of the more vocal proponents of the idea of “the Southern Strategy”, it’s rather hard to believe him.
The Willie Horton ad was probably not needed to be used to be able to defeat Dukakis. Bush held a lead after the convention and did not relinquish his lead the rest of the campaign. However, his campaign’s use of the ad and their constant talking of the now infamous ad hammers the point of what fear drives the electorate. The initial support of the program by both Bush and Reagan is not surprising nor is the abandonment of this support. Why is it important for them to need to abandon this support? To show that they are the ones who can stop this fear.