Mitt’s unlikely role model: Michael Dukakis

His fellow Bay Stater's slow, painful and at times humbling path to his party’s 1988 nod should comfort Romney now

Topics: Opening Shot,

Mitt’s unlikely role model: Michael DukakisMitt Romney and Michael Dukakis (Credit: AP)

Barring a stunning turnaround in the next 24 hours, Newt Gingrich is going to lose the Florida primary, potentially by a very wide margin. Polls released over the weekend showed him falling behind Mitt Romney by margins of eight, 11, 15 and 16 points, suggesting that Gingrich’s slide in the middle of last week accelerated in the wake of his dismal Thursday night debate performance.

Not surprisingly, the former House speaker is already trying to spin away the significance of a lopsided Tuesday defeat. He’s vowing to stay in the race through the convention and playing up his lead – and Romney’s modest level of support – in national tracking polls.

“You just had two national polls that show me ahead,” Gingrich said over the weekend. “Why don’t you ask Governor Romney what he will do if he loses since he is behind in both national polls?’

His statement is true enough. As of Sunday afternoon, Gallup’s daily numbers gave him a 28 to 26 percent edge over Romney, and other national surveys over the past week have put him up even more. But Gingrich is suggesting that this means the national momentum is on his side (“We are pulling away from him,” he said Sunday) and that taking a hit in Florida won’t slow him down, and here there’s reason to be very skeptical.

For one thing, Gallup’s Sunday data actually indicated that Gingrich’s lead had slipped by four points over the previous 24 hours (he was up 32-26 percent on Saturday) – not that he was “pulling away” from Romney. It’s likely that the abuse Gingrich has taken from the Romney forces and from many opinion-shaping Republican voices over the past week is taking a toll at the national level, too – just not as dramatically as in Florida, where the abuse is also being doled out in 30-second attacks ads. Within a few days, Gingrich may not have a national lead to brag about.

This is especially true when you consider the likely impact of a clear Romney win in Florida, which would dominate political headlines and re-establish a Romney-as-inevitable-nominee press narrative. We saw this happen earlier this month, when Romney posted a microscopic victory in Iowa* and a solid victory in what is essentially his home state – two feats that might not have seemed very impressive but that nonetheless sent his national support soaring to new heights. Romney’s supposed 25 percent national ceiling was a dominant theme for all of 2011, but by the middle of this month Gallup had him nearing 40 percent, and opening a 23-point lead over his nearest foes. Expect something similar if the story coming of Tuesday night is: Romney wins big.

Granted, Gingrich can draw hope from what happened after Iowa and New Hampshire, when he caught fire in South Carolina, recaptured the right’s imagination, and parlayed the momentum into the national lead he’s now pointing to. It’s been a zany enough GOP race that the possibility of Gingrich retrenching in a post-Florida state and recreating this magic can’t be excluded, especially with most of the Old Confederacy yet to vote. (For that matter, there’s also the possibility that he’ll defy the current trends and fare much better in Florida than everyone now expects.) And the fact that so many national Republican voters were so quick to abandon Romney when Gingrich made his South Carolina move is yet another reminder of what a weak front-runner Romney has been throughout this entire campaign.

But the longer this process goes on, the more Romney’s struggles call to mind those faced by another major party nominee from his home state: Michael Dukakis. Obviously, this isn’t a comparison the Romney campaign would care to embrace, but Dukakis’ slow and painful march to his party’s 1988 nomination should be a source of some optimism for them.

Like Romney, Dukakis was an unusually vulnerable front-runner in a race defined by some wild polling fluctuations. Even when he broke through with some early successes, Dukakis had an excruciating time running away with the race. He endured several shocking and embarrassing setbacks in key primary tests, results that cast doubt on his viability and stoked the kind of deadlocked convention talk we’re now hearing in connection with the GOP race. Well after Iowa and New Hampshire, he found himself polling under 30 percent in the national horserace.

Dukakis’ problems stemmed from his status as an accidental frontrunner. The campaign began with Gary Hart as the overwhelming favorite, but Hart quickly crashed in a sex scandal. Dukakis caught another break when Joe Biden, who demonstrated real potential in the spring and summer of 1987, dropped out in another scandal (in which Dukakis’ campaign manager played a crucial role). By the end of ’87, Dukakis was generally seen as the party’s most likely nominee, but his national support lagged. He then finished respectably in Iowa, prevailed easily in New Hampshire, and won some big states (Texas and Florida) on Super Tuesday. This was enough to put him in first place nationally, but with only 29 percent.

And then the bottom almost fell out, when Dukakis finished a distant third in Illinois (behind favorite son Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson) and was crushed by Jackson in Michigan. The latter result gave Jackson a slight lead in the national delegate race – and sent the party’s establishment into a panic. They closed ranks behind Dukakis and worked to marginalize Jackson, and it paid off with clear Dukakis victories in Wisconsin, Connecticut and New York. That vaulted Dukakis into the clear national lead that had eluded him, and he was never seriously challenged the rest of the way.

There were two keys to this for Dukakis. One was that he was always a broadly acceptable nominee for his party: Polls consistently gave him high favorable scores among Democratic voters, who also indicated to pollsters that they didn’t consider Dukakis uniquely objectionable among their primary season choices. The other was Jackson’s emergence as his chief rival and a (seemingly) serious threat to win the nomination, which gave party leaders and opinion-shapers an urgent reason to rally around Dukakis.

Those two factors seem to be at work in the current GOP race. For all of the talk of the party base’s resistance to Romney, he’s consistently racked up strong favorable and “acceptability” scores among Republican voters. And as his post-Iowa/New Hampshire bounce showed, there are circumstances under which national Republicans will move his way in big numbers; the 25 percent ceiling doesn’t really exist. Romney may not be the dream choice of the average Republican, but he can be an acceptable choice. And Gingrich clearly unnerves GOP elites, who have tended to react to his South Carolina victory with the same panic that marked the Democratic response to Jackson’s Michigan landslide 24 years ago.

The GOP calendar seems to set up favorably for Romney after Florida, with a series of winnable contests in February followed by Super Tuesday in early March. This race has been wild enough that another Gingrich surge remains possible, even if he does lose Florida badly. But it’s also a good bet that the GOP elites who’ve been bashing him for the past week won’t let up this time (like they did after Iowa and New Hampshire). And the more successive victories Romney posts, the more inevitable his nomination will seem.

So while it’s true that his national support isn’t much to write home about now, Romney may actually be in position for the same kind of nomination-clinching roll that Dukakis enjoyed just after his candidacy hit bottom.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>