• U.S.

Congeniality Wins

6 minute read
Laurence I. Barrett

“How many of you thought I won?” a jaunty Michael Dukakis asked his audience in Peoria, Ill. Loud cheers made it unanimous; the Democrat had bested George Bush in their debate two days earlier. Even the Vice President’s aides privately agreed. A few of them came close to panic during the debate, fearful that Bush’s skittish performance would create a reaction that “could roll out of control,” as one adviser put it. Their sudden anxiety turned out to be as baseless as Dukakis’ new brio. By week’s end a TIME poll flashed a different verdict: the public credits Dukakis as a debater but leans to Bush for President.

The TIME survey, conducted by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, gives Bush a seven-point advantage. While that lead is neither large enough nor firm enough to predict the election’s outcome, its ingredients are increasingly difficult for Dukakis to overcome in the five weeks left. Bush is prospering in part because American voters feel bullish about the state of the country; 73% of those likely to vote feel things are going “fairly well or very well,” the highest proportion since October 1984. That sense of well being is boosting esteem for Ronald Reagan. His approval rating is 57%, higher than it has been for nearly two years. As the loyal crown prince, Bush benefits from the monarch’s standing.

The Vice President may fumble in debate, and some of his views are found elusive (51% say Bush is “avoiding the real issues” of the campaign; 41% say the same of Dukakis). Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle as his running mate also arouses opposition (47% say it reflects unfavorably on Bush’s ability to make important presidential decisions). But the electorate does not find these shortcomings decisive. Dukakis, meanwhile, has been unable to change the negative image of him created by Bush’s harsh attacks throughout the summer: 36% of probable voters have an unfavorable impression of him (vs. 48% favorable), a slightly worse number than a month earlier. Bush gets a sunnier score of 56% favorable, 34% unfavorable. On critical questions such as which candidate can better manage the economy or deal with the Soviet Union, Bush bests Dukakis by margins as large as he held immediately after the Republican Convention. Even on matters of style, Bush does well. Although voters judged Dukakis the “better debater,” they found Bush “more presidential” and “more likable” — qualities far more likely to guide them in the voting booth.

Democrats take some consolation from continued softness in the public’s commitment to either candidate. More than a quarter of the probable voters in last week’s survey said they were either undecided or might change their minds before Election Day. However, Bush’s support is firmer than Dukakis’: 88% of Republicans are committed to Bush, while only 73% of Democrats back Dukakis. The critical difference in party loyalty is among Democrats who voted for Reagan in 1984. In August’s TIME poll, they tilted toward Dukakis 49% to 35%, but last week Reagan Democrats supported Bush 48% to 40%. Unless Dukakis can recapture that group and increase his support among independents, who favor Bush 49% to 33%, the Governor will spend 1989 cleaning up Boston Harbor rather than negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Can it be done? Yes, but not easily. To begin with, Dukakis must find a way to reduce the age gap. While voters over 35 in TIME’s poll divide evenly between the two candidates, those between 18 and 34 go for Bush 60% to 33%. Many younger Americans know only Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as Presidents. The comparison tips them to the Republicans. Dukakis must exploit — with far more skill than he has shown so far — the latent anxiety among voters that today’s prosperity may be gone tomorrow. And he needs to arouse a higher level of indignation than now exists toward inequities fostered by Reaganomics. He has openings for such attacks: a majority of voters (52% vs. 40%) say they want the next President to pursue new policies rather than continue Reagan’s.

But for most of the campaign, Dukakis has failed to convey his economic message in vivid, kitchen-table terms. “He needs to make it more of a statement of principle,” says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “When he gets done speaking, voters have to think, ‘That’s what this election is all about.’ Time is very short, but there is some time.” Last week, juiced up by his favorable debate reviews, Dukakis waged class warfare with more gusto than he usually displays. He belabored Bush repeatedly for ignoring the concerns of ordinary families as they try to educate their young, care for their sick and provide for their own retirement. Dukakis depicted his opponent as a “Santa Claus to the rich and Ebenezer Scrooge to the rest of us.”

Bush, who has spent most of his energy shoving his opponent out of the mainstream, knows he must protect his middle-class flank with some positive programs. But he is still busy depicting Dukakis as a hopeless leftie out of touch with the instincts of Middle America. “The liberals hate it,” he chortled while touring rural Illinois by bus. “They can’t stand it. But I am right. I am with the American people, and I share your values.” Policy wonks and others who find Bush’s prattle about the Pledge of Allegiance and the American Civil Liberties Union irrelevant or offensive argue that the electorate will demand more substance from the Vice President before Election Day. Perhaps. But Bush doubtless remembers the way Reagan partisans smeared him during the 1980 primaries because of his prior membership in the Trilateral Commission. Bush has learned many lessons from Reagan. They have worked for him so far in 1988, and he needs to milk them only until Nov. 8.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: TIME Charts

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DESCRIPTION: Two charts: Voter preference for George Bush and for Michael Dukakis, August 1988 and late September 1988; percentage of voters who feel United States is in good shape, October 1984-September 1988.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: TIME Charts

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DESCRIPTION: Voters’ opinions on probable performance of George Bush and Michael Dukakis as President in several areas and opinions on several areas of debate performance.

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