There are attack ads, and then there are Willie Horton-type attack ads.
It’s a name given to political advertisements that blatantly stoke racial fears and stereotypes. They’re a tried-and-true way to paint a political opponent as being soft on crime. And a lot of time they work.
President Trump is hoping that he gets similar results for a web video, produced for his campaign, that he tweeted out Wednesday. Many are already calling it the most racist national political ad to come out in 30 years — since Willie Horton.
What was in the Horton ad
The “Willie Horton” campaign ad was produced by supporters of George H.W. Bush for his 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis.
Horton, an African-American man, was a convicted murderer who raped a white woman and stabbed her partner while furloughed from prison under a Massachusetts program in place when Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, was governor.
The TV ad is now considered one of the most racially divisive in modern political history because it played into white fear and African-American stereotypes. In it, an off-screen narrator tells the story of Horton’s crimes while pictures of Bush and Dukakis and a menacing mug shot of Horton flash across the screen. The narrator notes that Bush supports the death penalty for murderers.
“Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” the narrator says.
The ad ends with this tag line: “Weekend prison passes, Dukakis on crime.”
A potentially explosive attack
Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater knew talking about Horton could be devastating to the Democratic nominee.
“Lee knew that it was powerful. Lee knew that it fit a liberal stereotype that would make a larger point about Dukakis,” Bush deputy campaign manager Ed Rogers said in the CNN documentary “Race for The White House: George H.W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis.”
“Lee also knew that he could be radioactive with Bush. That if it weren’t handled right, Bush wouldn’t use it. Bush would declare it off-limits.”
After the independent group’s ad aired, Bush’s campaign later produced a related spot called “Revolving Door” that showed convicts walking in and out of prison as the narrator explained Dukakis’ liberal positions on issues like mandatory sentencing for drug dealers without showing or mentioning Horton by name.
Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich later said the ad featuring Horton succeeded in achieving the GOP’s goal, “which was to make Willie Horton into Dukakis’ running mate.”
The two ads tarred Dukakis with a soft-on-crime label that he couldn’t shake. Bush went on to a landslide victory that November.
The current Trump ad
The new ad from the Trump campaign features Luis Bracamontes, a Mexican man who had previously been deported but returned to the United States and was convicted in February in the slaying of two California deputies.
“I’m going to kill more cops soon,” a grinning Bracamontes is shown saying in court as captions flash across the screen reading, “Democrats let him into our country. Democrats let him stay.”