Race for the White House Episodes

By exploring key themes, issues, turning points and strategies we aim to shed light on the changing nature of political campaigning, and reveal what impact these elections had on the course of American history.

Episode 1

1988: George H W Bush vs Michael Dukakis

Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, George H W Bush, ran against Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. For Vice President Bush the struggle was to escape the Iran Contra scandal and the more personal label of “wimp” that many in the media accused him of. Dukakis emerged through the scandals of Gary Hart’s alleged relationship with a model and Joe Biden’s apparent plagiarism in his political speeches. The election campaign was distinctive for the Bush campaign’s TV ads, many of which focussed on Dukakis’s record as Governor. The ‘Willie Horton’ ad, although not made by the Bush team, put crime at the forefront of the campaign – an issue that Governor Dukakis had to battle up to the final day of the election.


Episode 2

1828: Andrew Jackson vs John Quincy Adams

In 1828 Andrew Jackson campaigns against incumbent John Quincy Adams. The bitter race is fought in the wake of the 1824 election, which Jackson had won by popular vote – the final result was decided in the House of Representatives, after Jackson had failed to secure a clear majority. Jackson, believing the democratic voice of the people had been ignored, is spurred on to run again in 1828 and harnesses mass support. The campaign is notable for the organisation by the Jackson campaign at the grass roots. It is also known for the very personal attacks the candidates made on one another. The expansion of newspapers in the 1820s was the main source for these stories. Jackson’s military victories are spun against him and the attacks are personal as well as political, with Jackson’s wife becoming a target. Jackson’s resounding victory ushers in the beginnings of the Democrat Party as we know it today.


Episode 3

1960: Kennedy vs Nixon

This episode tells the story of the remarkable, nail-biting campaign between Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and the Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. The two men share similar political leanings, but have their own obvious strengths and weaknesses. Nixon is well-known, experienced, and admired for his foreign policy expertise but often lets pride cloud his judgement. Kennedy is youthful and handsome but inexperienced and hamstrung by his religion – no Catholic has ever won the White House before. This is the first fully televised presidential campaign in history, and as the candidates grace millions of TV screens around the nation, many voters come to focus on the two men’s contrasting personalities as much as their policies. Meanwhile Kennedy, who better understands the medium of television, exploits it to deftly address his weaknesses – drawing level with his rival before winning what is the one of closest presidential elections in American history.


Episode 4

1860: Lincoln vs Douglas

This episode tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable rise from political obscurity to president. In 1858 Lincoln faces Stephen Douglas – one of America’s most ruthless political operators – in a race for the Senate. Despite winning the popular vote, Lincoln loses thanks in part to Douglas’ underhand tactics and racist demagoguery. But Lincoln’s strong showing brings him national attention and encourages him to think about greater things. As Lincoln sets his sights on the White House, he deploys a crack team of wheeler-dealer strategists and aides who hustle his way to the Republican nomination – defeating front-runner William Seward in the process. Lincoln now faces off once more against his bitter Democratic adversary Stephen Douglas. As the Presidential election unfolds and slavery divides the country, Douglas wins some kind of redemption by campaigning across the South to save the Union. Lincoln then emerges victorious, surviving an assassination plot to reach Washington, enter the White House, and lead a nation on the brink of war.


Episode 5

1948: Truman vs Dewey

At the beginning of 1948, nobody gave Truman a chance but he somehow fashioned an unlikely victory, using all the tools at his disposal as the sitting President. He took on an unpopular Congress in Washington and set out across the country by train, taking his message to the people and coining the phrase ‘whistlestop tour’. Thomas Dewey, the professional, seasoned campaigner and bookies’ favourite, tried to rise above the fray but had no answer to the surge of popular support that Truman enjoyed.


Episode 6

1992: Clinton vs Bush

One episode will look at the remarkable election of 1992 between Bill Clinton and George Bush, with Ross Perot running as an independent. Clinton’s campaign, hit by scandals from the outset, became famous for its brand of fast-paced, aggressive responses to attacks, which allowed Clinton to keep on getting up after being knocked down. President Bush, meanwhile, was busy with the demands of the Oval Office and only got into full campaign mode a few months before polling day – too late to take on one of the most effective campaign machines in recent years.