Gun Control and the 1988 Election

by Dave Kopel

Gun World, 1990

Let's take a look back at the 1988 Presidential election. It was the greatest national election triumph ever for the gun rights movement -- although the ultimate meaning of that triumph has yet to be resolved.

During the summer of 1988, most political reporters were praising Michael Dukakis' "flawless" (cautious) capture of the Democratic nomination. With his double-digit lead in the polls over George Bush, Dukakis looked like a sure winner in November. A few astute reporters, though, foresaw trouble ahead.

Donald Lambro of the Pennsylvania's Easton Express caught on early. On July 14, he reported that local politicians were beginning to worry that Dukakis' gun control history might be "wounding his thus far error-free campaign."

Lambro was right; Dukakis lost Pennsylvania -- a must-win state for him -- by less than 2%. Nationally syndicated columnists Jack Germond & Jules Witcover attributed Dukakis' problems in Pennsylvania to gun control and other crime issues. Dukakis's 2% loss in Pennsylvania was smaller than the number of voters from NRA households. (And not all people who vote on the gun issue belong to the NRA.)

In Michigan -- another state that Dukakis had to win, but barely lost -- Bush's campaign coordinator told the New York Times that he had seen more NRA "Defeat Dukakis" bumper stickers than Bush campaign stickers.

Said Ted Mondale, Midwest political director for Dukakis, on the eve of the election: "If [rural voters] are talking about the pledge of allegiance and gun control, we lose."

Even in Maryland, where voters refused to overturn an anti-gun law on the ballot Dukakis was hurt -- because of the gun law. In September, political analyst Horace Busby put Maryland in the probable Dukakis column. In October, Busby reversed the call, correctly. Why? "[A] gun control vote there is forming a very conservative electorate in the state, to Dukakis's disadvantage." The state's voter registration coordinator observed a record surge in last-minute registrations. She said the gun vote had been "instrumental" in the surge. An official in Anne Arundel country attributed "the biggest last-minute surge we've ever had" to "mostly the gun bill." Officials in other counties told the same story. One eighty-year-old fisherman, who had never voted before, registered, he said so he could vote against the gun bill.

On election night, one of the networks called Maryland for Dukakis. But as the western, more rural part of the state came in -- with unexpected strength for Bush -- the call was reversed, and Bush won the state.

It wasn't just the Northeast where gun control crippled Dukakis. The Chicago Tribune reported, "Political analysts say the issue has been devastating Dukakis in the South and West. It may be one of the main reasons that Dukakis is trailing in Texas."

In Texas, Jeannie Stanley, a professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, explained that gun control had swung "Reagan Democrats, independent voters and rural voters" to Bush. Southern pollster Claibourne Darden observed Dukakis running even in Texas, until Republicans fanned out in rural areas, and told Texans about Dukakis and guns. "In two or three weeks, Texas was gone." Darden added that NRA members "vote the company line more than any other wide-based interest group." "The gun issue is how the Republicans broke Texas," he said. Even Time magazine noted that Texas was highly receptive to Bush's stand on gun control, and added "in Texas, rifle racks rank with the flag as badges of honor."

No Democrat has ever won a Presidential election in this century without carrying Texas. No Presidential candidate who is anti-gun can carry Texas.

The story was repeated throughout the South. At the Democratic Convention, Tom Murphy, the Democratic Speaker of the House in Georgia, called Dukakis "a right smart fellow." Later, he withdrew his support for Dukakis, because of his views on gun control and death penalty. Said Mr. Murphy, "My people are right opposite on those issues."

A Georgia pollster explained that because of the gun issue, "yellow dog Democrats" had deserted Dukakis. (Yellow dog Democrats are white, older, rural voters, who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ticket. While these voters had supported George McGovern and Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis finally drove them out of the party.)

Gun control ravaged Dukakis in the West as well. In California, Time noted the evaporation of Dukakis' lead in the polls. One reason, the magazine said, was that some of the social issues Bush was hammering on, including opposition to gun control, "have already been endorsed overwhelmingly by California voters in recent ballot initiatives." In 1982, California rejected a "handgun freeze" by a 2-1 margin.

The story was the same in the Rocky Mountain states. Suffering from economic depression, and resentful of Reagan-Bush environmental policies, these states all could have fallen into Dukakis' hands, but for the gun issue. After the election, Idaho's Democratic chairman complained about a nomination process that ignored issues important in the West. "No one paid attention to things like gun control -- silly things that beat us there and here." New Mexico Democratic leaders stated that Dukakis' stand on guns made it nearly impossible for him to carry the state.

NRA ads featuring Charlton Heston ran in 20 states. The NRA spent more on Presidential advertising than almost any group in the history of American politics.

In short, the gun issue may have cost Dukakis as many as 154 electoral votes -- enough to have won the election. Whatever the exact numbers, the gun issue turned what might been a very close election into an electoral landslide.

Unfortunately, George Bush betrayed his campaign promises, and now backs certain steps for federal gun control. But as bad as Bush is, Dukakis would have been far worse. Bush has no real convictions about the right to bear arms; his only convictions are a devotion to political expediency. The hundreds of thousands of letters, phone calls, and telegrams you sent the White House convinced him to back down, mostly, on gun control.

Dukakis, though, hates guns so much that he would pay a huge political price in order to enact gun control. As Governor, Dukakis supported a statewide referendum to confiscate handguns. At a "Domestic Disarmament Day" he told handgun owners to turn their firearms over to the police.

He told the New York Times he favored "stiff federal gun control," including national registration of concealable handguns, and licensing for handgun ownership. He favored much stricter federal control on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles; and he favored a bill to let the federal government ban any gun it wanted to. Last spring, he tried to ram a semi-automatic ban through the Massachusetts legislature.

Throughout his political career, Dukakis had repeatedly stated that the Constitution does not guarantee the right of an individual to own a gun. He even signed proclamation to that effect. Unfortunately for Dukakis, polls indicate that 88% of the U.S. population takes the opposite view.

In short, Dukakis radically miscalculated the American electorate. Outside of secure, suburban Brookline, many Americans feel that they must be ready to protect themselves and their families -- a desperate call to 911 will not suffice. Although Dukakis was attacked for his ACLU membership, he never understood that in many areas he was seen as the anti-civil liberties candidate. Most Americans are far more concerned with their right to own a gun for self-defense than they are about their right not to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

After the election, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen discussed the "incredible effect of gun control," and observed "we lost a lot of Democrats on peripheral issues like gun control and the pledge." Columnist Ernest Furgurson wrote that Bentsen believes "to win the parts of the country where he grew up and where he campaigned most this fall, any politician will do better without the baggage of gun control."

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