George H.W. Bush was in trouble. It was July 1988 and Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president, was on a roll after his party’s convention in Atlanta. A Gallup poll showed Mr. Bush trailing by 17 points.
But he had a road map to victory.
One month earlier, Mr. Bush’s top aides had gathered at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, deliberately out of sight and away from campaign headquarters, to review a thick binder of polling and focus group data. The campaign’s research showed that Mr. Dukakis’s record was not well-known and that some of his liberal positions, in particular supporting prison furloughs and opposing the death penalty, could swamp him in a general election.
Using the plan laid out in that room, the Bush campaign proceeded, as Lee Atwater, the campaign manager, put it, “to strip the bark off the little bastard,” beginning in force with Mr. Bush’s hammer of a speech at the Republican National Convention in August through Election Day.
Mr. Bush not only overcame Mr. Dukakis’s summer polling advantage, but defeated him handily: by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. He won 40 states.
In many ways, with Mr. Atwater as its dark prince of strategy, the Bush campaign of 1988 marked the birth of the modern-day negative campaign. Most memorably, Republicans plastered Mr. Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, with the case of Willie Horton, an African-American man who raped a white Maryland woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on a Massachusetts prison furlough program.
As President Trump faces similarly daunting poll deficits in his contest with Joseph R. Biden Jr., he is running one of the harshest campaigns since Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Dukakis, and Republicans are looking back at the 1988 race as a beacon of hope in a bleak political landscape. For all the differences between the Democratic nominees in 1988 and today, Mr. Dukakis’s collapse in the face of an onslaught by Mr. Bush has long stood as a lesson in how quickly public opinion can change, how summer polls can prove ephemeral, and how an artfully executed party convention can help turn around a struggling campaign.