Check election records from 1988, and the numbers will tell you that New Jersey voters re-elected Democrat Frank Lautenberg to the U.S. Senate by a comfortable margin of 8.4 percentage points.
But the numbers don’t tell the full story of Lautenberg’s victory over Republican challenger Pete Dawkins. The contest profoundly impacted the nature of future electoral campaigns by setting a disturbing tone for political discourse, which continues to play out across America today.
The negative ads and personal attacks employed by both sides in 1988’s Dawkins-Lautenberg race brought the level of campaigning to a new low. For example, in an unusual move for an incumbent, the Lautenberg team started its campaign with an attack ad. Dawkins responded in kind, and the sparks flew back and forth for several weeks, culminating when the candidates engaged in a post-debate verbal brawl because Dawkins had called Lautenberg a swamp dog.
The race showed just how effective negative campaigning can be. Dawkins entered the contest with a 14-karat resume. He had a degree from West Point, where he graduated in the top five percent of his class and excelled on the football field, winning the 1958 Heisman Trophy. Dawkins also was a Rhodes Scholar and earned a Ph.D. from Princeton. He served in Vietnam, where he earned two Bronze Stars, and he spent 24 years in the military, retiring as a Brigadier General. After leaving the military, he had a successful career on Wall Street.
The story Pete Dawkins brought to the campaign was even more remarkable because he survived polio as a child. But he was unable to leverage his impressive credentials because of the aggressive campaign the Lautenberg team waged against him. The strategy contrasted sharply with the top of the Democratic Party’s 1988 ticket. In the race for president, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis failed to counter the vicious ads directed against him, and he lost the election by a landslide.
The Dawkins-Lautenberg race also showed that if campaigns feed the press a steady stream of attack pieces and gimmicks (“Swamp Dogs for Dawkins” T-shirts), reporters will cover them – and voters will read the stories – while public policy and substantive issues take a back seat. As Dawkins lamented during a debate with Lautenberg: “He attacked me and I attacked him and he attacked me, and the result is the people of this state are confused, and they don’t know where either of us stands on the issues.”
But it was the actors — not just the actions — that made New Jersey’s 1988 senate race so influential in American politics. The consultants and strategists who worked with Lautenberg and Dawkins are individuals who have played major roles in shaping the tone of politics over the past 30 years.
On the Democratic side, the campaign was one of the first major races for James Carville and Paul Begala. The victory put their names on the map, and four years later they crafted the strategy that put Bill Clinton in the White House. The Dawkins team included Roger Stone, who has worked on campaigns for many key Republican politicians, including Donald Trump. The late Roger Ailes, who was hired by Rupert Murdoch to start Fox News in 1996, also worked on the Dawkins campaign.
The 2018 election season has shown us that the political divide in America is greater than it has been in years. Cable television, the internet and social media often are cited as reasons for the divide – and rightfully so because they have created echo chambers that enable voters to only see and hear from like-minded individuals.
But a U.S. Senate race that took place in 30 years ago in New Jersey also played a role in shaping today’s political landscape.