The death penalty used to be an important issue in presidential politics. In 1988, Vice President George Bush used his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty to portray him as soft on crime. Massachusetts had abolished the death penalty in 1984, during Dukakis’s second term as governor. Bush ran around the country, promising to execute drug dealers, a popular stand in the late 1980s, when the Crack Wars were turning the streets of American cities red with blood.
In the second presidential debate, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis the most outrageously impertinent question in the history of those events: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
“No, I don’t, Bernard,” Dukakis replied. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent. I think that there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my home state, and it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America, why we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state in America.”
It wasn’t just Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty that hurt him in that debate. It was the unemotional, wonkish answer he gave to a question about his wife being raped and murdered. It reinforced his image as a passionless technocrat.
Running against Bush four years later, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton didn’t make the same mistake. He flew back to Little Rock to ensure the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who had killed a police officer and then shot himself in the head. Rector was so brain damaged that he didn’t finish his last meal, saving his pecan pie “for later” before he was led to the execution chamber.
The death penalty also became an issue for Bush’s son, George W. Trying to establish that he was a friend to black voters, Bush boasted that the killers of James Byrd, a Texas man who had been dragged behind a truck by white supremacists, were “going to be put to death.” At a later town hall debate, a questioner accused Bush of “smirking” as he talked about the sentence. Bush, who approved 152 death warrants as governor of Texas, also mocked murderess Karla Faye Tucker’s plea for clemency in a print interview.
Capital punishment will not be an issue in this year’s campaign. For the first time, both candidates are from states that have abolished the death penalty. Which means that, also for the first time, we’re going to elect a candidate from a state that does not execute prisoners. (Illinois did not abolish capital punishment until 2011, three years after President Obama was elected. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney proposed a bill to restore the death penalty, but his legislature rejected it, denying him an achievement he could tout to conservatives.) Below is a list of such presidential candidates throughout American history. It’s hard to argue that any of them have lost specifically because they opposed the death penalty, but they generally came from states more liberal than the nation as a whole, so their stances were part of a political philosophy that voters did not accept.
Lewis Cass, Michigan, 1848
Robert M. La Follette, Wisconsin, 1924
Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota, 1968
Gerald Ford, Michigan, 1976
Walter Mondale, Minnesota, 1984
Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts, 1988
John Kerry, Massachusetts, 2004
Barack Obama, Illinois, 2012
Mitt Romney, Massachusetts, 2012