Candidate Ads: 1988 George Bush "Revolving Door"
Ad Text and Visuals
(Dissonant sounds are heard: a drum...music...metal stairs.) "As governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers." (A guard with a rifle climbs the circular stairs of a prison watchtower. The words "The Dukakis Furlough Program" are superimposed on the bottom of the prison visual.) "He vetoed the death penalty." (A guard with a gun walks along a barbed wire fence.) "His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole." (A revolving door formed by bars rotates as men in prison clothing walk in and back out the door in a long line. The words "268 Escaped" are superimposed.) "While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape." (The camera comes in for a closer shot of the prisoners in slow motion revolving through the door.) "And many are still at large." (The words "And Many Are Still At Large" are superimposed.) "Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts." (The picture changes to a guard on a roof with a watchtower in the background.) "America can't afford that risk!" (A small color picture of Bush appears, and the words "Paid for by Bush/Quayle '88" appear in small print.)3
Nothing illustrates the change in media orientation about attack ads than George Bush's 1988 commercial, "Revolving Door." Although there were many stories condemning the rise of negative ads in 1988, journalists have become over the years quite tolerant of these ads. A simple analysis of "Revolving Door" illustrates this change. Bush's "Revolving Door" ad received a courteous reception from the news media. CBS covered this commercial in its broadcast on October 7, 1988. News stories about Horton had been broadcast September 22. The story described the commercial as a crime ad that would highlight the prison furlough policy of Governor Dukakis. Clifford Barnes and Donna Cuomo, joint victims of an assault by a convict who had been released on a weekend furlough, were reported to be participating in a speaking tour with a pro-Bush group. Bush meanwhile was shown campaigning with police officers. This was followed on October 20 with another story, this time showing in great detail Horton's crime record and supplying background on the Bush ad. Bush was shown campaigning in New York City at a police union rally. It was not until October 24 and 25-almost three weeks after the commercial appeared-that opponents appeared on the news to claim that the "Revolving Door" ad had racist undertones. But in keeping with the horse-race mentality of the media, a second story on October 25 also quoted media consultant Tony Schwartz as saying that Bush's ads were successful and that the "Revolving Door" was particularly effective.
The contrast with the coverage of the "Daisy" ad could not have been more stark. Whereas the 1964 ad was immediately condemned and removed from the airwaves, reporters in 1988 treated the furlough ad as a typical news story. Its airing was reported. It was described as being quite effective. Criticisms came late and were never solidly addressed; the spot was not pulled off the air.
This subdued and delayed reaction was in keeping with the general tenor of news coverage about attack ads in 1988. A number of CBS stories and New York Times articles during the general election campaign emphasized the overall effectiveness of negative political commercials. A September 18 New York Times article, for example, discussed the role of advertising in contemporary campaigns. Former governor Brown was quoted, saying that media and professional campaign advisers think negative commercials work better. A number of politicians and consultants were cited as saying that Bush and Dukakis would be foolish to delve deeply into policy issues. This was followed on October 10 with an article that cited campaign officials who believed that the electorate had become accustomed to sharp-elbow tactics.
In addition, political professionals quoted on October 19 derided Dukakis's advertising effort. Several experts complained about the ever-shifting focus of his ad campaign and the fact that his commercials were not well timed. An October 13 story noted that 1988 was the first time candidates used more ads to criticize opponents than to promote themselves. A number of analysts even attributed Bush's lead in the polls to the success of his negative commercials and the lack of an appropriate response by Dukakis.
This tolerance of negativity, combined with the grudging respect reporters had for the effectiveness of the GOP ads, created a pattern of coverage that benefited Bush. Rather than condemning the ad, as reporters had in 1964 with the "Daisy" ad, the reporters of 1988 did not complain when the "Revolving Door" commercial stayed on the air. They even rebroadcast the ad repeatedly throughout the last month of the campaign. This behavior effectively erased the traditional difference between the free and paid media. It gave Bush more air time and therefore lent him more credibility than any campaign organization alone could have managed. This style of news coverage helped make Bush's 1988 advertising campaign one of the most effective of the past twenty years.
The Impact on Voters
In 1988, the CBS News/New York Times poll asked which ads made the biggest impression: "Tell me about the commercial for [Bush/Dukakis] that made the biggest impression on you." Viewers picked the "Revolving Door" as Bush's top ad.
Bush's "Revolving Door" ad was linked to mentions of crime and law and order as the most important problems facing the United States. Among those who had not seen the ad only 5 percent cited these problems, whereas 12 percent of those who had seen the ad named this area. This fits with longitudinal evidence cited by Marjorie Hershey, who found that "the proportion of respondents saying that George Bush was 'tough enough' on crime and criminals rose from 23 percent in July to a full 61 percent in late October, while the proportion saying Dukakis was not tough enough rose from 36 to 49 percent."
The spot produced a special effect among women viewers. In looking at the effects of this ad on agenda setting, fascinating differences arise based on the personal circumstances of viewers. I broke down group reactions to the ad in regard to agenda setting on crime. Among the people most likely to cite crime as the top problem after seeing Bush's "Revolving Door" commercial were Midwesterners and young people.
But most significant were the differences between men and women in regard to Bush's 1988 ads. One of Bush's strongest agenda-setting effects from his "Revolving Door" ad, for example, was among women on the crime issue. After seeing this commercial, as well as the widely publicized Horton ad produced by an independent political action committee, women became much more likely than men to cite crime as the most important issue. (Note: There often has been confusion between the Bush-produced "Revolving Door" ad, which did not mention Horton directly by name, and the Horton ad aired by an independent political action committee, which used his name and picture. It is not clear whether viewers actually distinguished the two, because both dealt with crime.)
The fact that the ads mentioned rape clearly accentuated their impact on women. According to Dukakis's campaign manager Susan Estrich, "The symbolism was very powerful ... you can't find a stronger metaphor, intended or not, for racial hatred in this country than a black man raping a white woman.... I talked to people afterward....Women said they couldn't help it, but it scared the living daylights out of them.
The "Revolving Door" case demonstrates how the strategies of campaign elites and the overall cultural context are important factors in mediating the significance of advertisements. The way in which this commercial was put together-in terms of both subject area and timing-was a major contributor to its impact on viewers. If Horton had assaulted a fifty-year-old black man while on furlough from a state prison, it is not likely that the "Revolving Door" ad would have affected voters' policy priorities as it did.
Darrell M. West, Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1996, second edition, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996
Kiku Adatto, "Sound Bite Democracy: Network Evening News Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1968 and 1988" (Research Paper R-2, Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy, June 1990).
Kiku Adatto, "The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite," New Republic, May 29, 1990, 20-23. Jack White discusses Horton in "Bush's Most Valuable Player," Time, November 14, 1988, 20-21.
Marjorie Hershey, "The Campaign and the Media," in The Election of 1988, ed. Gerald M. Pomper (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1989), 95-96.
"How He Won," Newsweek, November/December 1992 (special issue), 78.
David Runkel, ed., Campaign for President: The Managers Look at '88 (Dover, Mass.: Auburn House, 1989).