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.

You Might Also Like

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
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • 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>