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September-November 1988: ’Horton’ Ad Campaign Controversial but Highly Successful, Political Observers Say

The “Willie Horton” ad campaign, a pair of ads launched by an “independent” organization on behalf of the Bush re-election campaign and by the Bush campaign itself (see June-September 1988 and September 21 - October 4, 1988), is considered an immediate success by veteran political observers, in spite of what many call its overtly racist appeal. Because the first ad, “Weekend Pass,” was the product of an ostensibly independent organization, the Bush campaign is able to keep a distance between itself and the ad. In the last weeks of the campaign, some polls show that voters blame President Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis almost equally for the negative tone of the campaign. While the ads only ran a relatively small number of times, news networks run the ads repeatedly, often adding their own analysis while the images of the ads run in the background. According to InsidePolitics, only once does any journalist challenge the “deceptive information from Bush’s crime ads.… By amplifying Bush’s claims, news reporters gave the ads even greater legitimacy than otherwise would have appeared. News accounts quoted election experts who noted that Bush’s tactics were effective and that Dukakis’ failure to respond was disastrous. Because these assessments appeared in the high credibility framework of news broadcasts, they came across as more believable than had they been aired only as paid advertisements.” The “Weekend Pass” and “Revolving Door” ads have a palpable effect on the electorate, energizing voters who cite “law and order” as one of their major concerns for the nation, and driving many of them towards voting for Bush. Less discussed but equally powerful is the racial effect of the ads. Polls show that many white voters feel fearful because of the ads, and feel that Bush, not Dukakis, will make them safer from crime. InsidePolitics notes that the Bush campaign “had picked the perfect racial crime, that of a black felon raping a white woman.” Later research will show that many viewers saw the Horton case as more about race than crime; many subjects exposed to news broadcasts about the Horton case responded in racial terms, with studies finding that the ads “mobilized whites’ racial prejudice, not their worries about crime.” InsidePolitics will write: “Viewers became much more likely to feel negatively about blacks in general after having heard the details of the case. It was an attack strategy that worked well on several different levels for Republicans.” [Inside Politics (.org), 1999; University of Virginia, Introduction to American Politics, 11/18/2009] After the election, a New York Times voter poll will rate the “Revolving Door” ad as the single most influential ad of the campaign. The ad was particularly effective among white women, many of whom said that after watching it during the campaign, they began to view Bush as “stronger on crime” and as the candidate who would keep them “safer.” In 1999, InsidePolitics will write that voters often conflated the two ads, and it is unclear from poll responses whether they differentiated between the independently produced ad and the Bush campaign ad. InsidePolitics also notes the powerful impact of the Horton ad’s clear reference to rape. Dukakis’s campaign manager Susan Estrich will say: “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.” [Inside Politics (.org), 1999]

Entity Tags: Michael Dukakis, William (“Willie”) Horton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Susan Estrich, InsidePolitics (.org)

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Elections Before 2000

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