For a good part of 1987, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Hart was a moderate centrist Democrat that faired [sic] fairly well in the 1984 Democratic primary and to many, his nomination the second time around seemed obvious.
But rumors of extramarital affairs dogged the campaign. Hart responded to them by daring the media. “Follow me around,” Hart told the New York Times. “I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored.”
Hart proved to be very wrong. In May 1987, the Miami Herald published a story that accused the presidential frontrunner of having an affair with 29-year-old model Donna Rice. Hart’s approval began to plummet and he dropped out a week after the story broke, leaving the door open for a more liberal Democrat, Michael Dukakis, to eventually win the party’s nomination.
But Dukakis went on to be trounced by the Republican nominee, former Vice President George H.W. Bush, who both cashed in on the popularity of Ronald Reagan, his predecessor, and highlighted a strong economy. Bush went on to carry 40 states and 426 electoral votes, compared to Dukakis’ 10 states and 111 votes.
But suppose Hart’s campaign hadn’t imploded. What if Gary Hart had wised up about his tomcat ways and kept his pants zipped at least until after the election - or at least been discreet enough to not get caught fooling around?
Would a moderate democrat [sic] had faired [sic] better against Bush? Or would Bush have trounced Hart like [sic] he crushed Dukakis? Who would have won a Hart/Bush matchup in 1988?The answer: Bush would still have won. Why?
First, the in-party benefits when the economy is strong, which was the case during the campaign. Real GDP grew by 4.1 percent in 1988
Second, the Cold War was waning, so the GOP had the peace card. But it wasn't quite over, so it also had the "red phone" card. That is, people were still very concerned that the president should be able to respond to an international crisis. As a military veteran, former ambassador and CIA director, and as incumbent vice president, Bush had sterling credentials. Hart had no military or government executive experience, and he faced character questions even before the scandal. In the 1984 Democratic nomination campaign, Walter Mondale explicitly used the red phone in an ad:
Third, the premise of the question is dubious. Even if he had avoided this particular scandal, Hart's judgment was so poor that some other incident would almost surely have occurred. The CNN post errs about his voting record, which may have started in the center, but was firmly on the left by the end of his Senate tenure. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave him a 100 percent score in 1985 and 95 in 1986.
By the way, Bush's 1988 victory was bigger than most people remember. He got a greater share of both the popular and electoral vote than Obama did 20 years later. He was the last Republican to date to carry these states:
- New Jersey