The Contenders: When Super Tuesday Was Not So Super

The Contenders: When Super Tuesday Was Not So Super

Senator Al Gore celebrating his victory in the Super Tuesday Presidential Primary.

SourceCynthia Johnson/Getty

Why you should care

Because Super Tuesday sounds a lot better than giant election clusterfuck.

Learn more about Michael Dukakis’s doomed 1988 presidential campaign by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

Super Tuesday seemed like a good idea in theory. It was believed by the Southern Democrats who came up with the mammoth election event in the early 1980s that having a dozen-plus Southern and border states vote on the same March day would drown out the results of the traditional bellwethers, Iowa and New Hampshire, and drive the selection of a nominee with a broader appeal — and who was not too liberal for Southern tastes.

Reality had other ideas. The first full Super Tuesday contest, held on March 8, 1988 (a smaller version had been attempted in 1984), in which voters in 20 states went to the ballot, defied its creators’ expectations on almost every level. Not only did the one-day extravaganza dilute support for the more moderate Southern candidates in the race and anoint a Northern liberal as the Democratic front-runner, but its split-decision results also led to a protracted nomination battle that paved the way for one clear victor on the Democrats’ “super” day: Republican nominee George H.W. Bush. And, as OZY explores in a new episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, airing every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, would face a rested, armed and well-funded Bush that November.

Super Tuesday was invented as a “grand and futile prophylaxis against a liberal nominee,” writes Richard Ben Cramer in his account of the 1988 election, What It Takes. As Cramer chronicles, the two centrist Democratic candidates best suited in theory to benefit from the mega-contest, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who had won in Iowa, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., were in actuality the two least situated to feast on the the Southern electoral smorgasbord. For one thing, they had to battle each other for every white, middle-income, blue-collar moderate in the region. For another, there was the wild-card factor of Jesse Jackson, whose base among Black voters — 25 percent of Southern Democrats at the time — could launch his own candidacy, or at least handicap Gore and Gephardt’s efforts.

More than anything, however, the sheer size and scope of the Super Tuesday battlefield — stretching from El Paso to Key West to Cape Cod and spanning 140 congressional districts and 70 million Americans — made the contest daunting. “They created a monster, which no candidate can control,” the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato told the Los Angeles Times.

Gephardt began to realize just how futile conventional campaigning would be while flying between campaign stops in Texas and Florida. In Texarkana, where he did a photo shoot with one foot in Texas and one in Arkansas, he joked to his aide Joe Trippi, “Is this our idea of covering two states?” The run-up to Super Tuesday “had the feel of a mass airplane hijacking,” Hendrik Hertzberg reflected in the New Republic, “as planeloads of desperate candidates and their journalistic hostages flew from tarmac to tarmac, stopping only to refuel and blink into television lights.”

Southern leaders had hoped Super Tuesday would force candidates to broaden their message to reach a cross-section of voters, but instead it rewarded, as Cramer put it, “pure movement and muscle.” Campaigns had to target their resources to narrow demographics and geographies and, if they could afford it, blast the airwaves with costly ad blitzes. The candidate best positioned to do both was Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts who had triumphed in New Hampshire and had the largest cash reserves and ground organization. Still, Dukakis largely avoided campaigning in the Deep South, focusing instead on the “crown jewels” of Texas and Florida and spending twice as much as Gephardt on ads in 11 of the 20 Super Tuesday states, including a devastating commercial in which an acrobat dressed in a suit and Gephardt wig performed flips while the Missouri congressman’s alleged flip-flops were enumerated.

The winner? Nobody, at least on the Democratic side. That Tuesday night, television news anchors “had a hard time picking the ‘winner,’ ” says Cramer. “In time, they gave up.” Dukakis won six primaries, including Texas and Florida, Gore took border states like Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky, Jackson swept the Deep South and the sinking Gephardt won his home state of Missouri.

The unexpected beneficiary of Super Tuesday was Vice President George Bush, who had the muscle to push aside his Republican rivals on the big day…

The mega-contest may have dealt a harsh blow to Gephardt and forced long shot Gary Hart from the race, but it utterly failed to produce a Democratic front-runner. The unexpected beneficiary of Super Tuesday was Vice President George Bush, who had the muscle to push aside his Republican rivals on the big day, spending more than $3 million on regional ad blitzes depicting him with farmland, flags and soldiers while his opponents slugged it out in the trenches. Bush won 16 out of 17 contests, accomplishing precisely what many Democrats had hoped Super Tuesday would do for them: identify a moderate, establishment candidate with an aura of invincibility.

In the general election, Bush handily beat Dukakis, winning 40 out of 50 states, including the Super Tuesday South, giving his party its fifth presidential victory in the past six cycles — and sending the Democrats back to the election drawing board.

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