Twenty-five years ago this week, as election day was drawing near, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was enjoying a lead in the polls, but as he addressed reporters on Air Force Two he was on the defensive.
"There isn't any racism," Bush said, according to The New York Times. "It's absolutely ridiculous."
Bush found himself defending his campaign against accusations of "racial overtones" because of a television commercial produced by an outside political action committee. The ad labeled Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime for his support of a weekend furlough program that allowed Willie Horton--an African-American convict--to slip through the hands of prison officials and eventually rape and murder new victims.
Critics ripped the ad for prominently featuring Horton's mugshot and playing upon the fears of black crime. Horton's story became fodder during the presidential debates as well. GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater said, "By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."
Dukakis at one point led Bush by a 17-point margin. The ad didn't, on its own, cost the Massachusett's governor the election (he lost by eight points), but it clearly had an impact on the campaign.
"That ad alone changed the course of that race," Democratic strategist Jimmy Williams said on Monday's PoliticsNation. "It absolutely changed the course, and it made white Americans--especially white southerners--raise and eyebrow and think, 'We can't have a man from Massachusetts releasing quote black criminals all across the country and letting them rape our white women and children.' That was the point of that ad."
"It'd be one thing if none of these ads--if that was just a one-off, that the Willie Horton ad was just the one time that it happened," Williams added.
Williams believes the ad's legacy has lived on in the "southern strategy" adopted by Republicans. He points to the Jesse Helms "Hands" ad as another example. The ad blasted Helms' opponent Harvey Gantt, who would have become the only black man in the Senate if he won the race in North Carolina, for his support of "racial quotas."
Williams sees similar Horton-esque echoes in more recent ads, including one put together by the Republican National Committee in 2006 to bash Harold Ford Jr., which ended with a white women winking and saying "Harold, call me."
"That was nothing more than a way to strike fear in white men and women to say, 'Oh my gosh, he's going to take our white women,'" Williams said.
"They did it to Barack Obama--'the food stamp president,' I mean how much more explicit can you possibly get without actually using it?" he asked.
The New York City mayor's race got it's own Willie Horton ad this month, as Republican Joe Lhota unveiled a new ad attacking Democrat Bill de Blasio as soft on crime.
The 30-second message, entitled “Can’t Go Back,” points to then-councilman de Blasio voting to “take 5,000 cops off our streets”: in fact the vote was for a Mayor Bloomberg budget that led to that reduction, says Jamil Smith.
The ad warns that de Blasio’s “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime” will essentially return voters to the crime-ridden New York City of decades past, Smith said, complete with a montage of murder on the streets, riots, shootings in stairwells, and other assorted urban nightmares.
"The bad news for our politics has been that the tactics of our Willie Horton ad live on," Rev. Al Sharpton said.