Freshman Seminar Presentation: 2000 Election

Maxine Isaacs
Freshman Seminar Fall 2010

To produce my presentation, I relied on Gerald M. Pomper’s book, “The Election of 2000,” a collection of New York Times articles about the post-election crisis, entitled “36 Days,” the Wayne text, various online resources, the film “Journeys with George,” and a combination of facts and anecdotes picked up over the course of the semester.

On Election Day, November 7, 2000, America was thrown into an unparalleled electoral purgatory, one which has existed at no other time in history. This followed a surprisingly close campaign, with an unusual political environment for both tickets. Many lessons can be learned from what occurred before, during and after. A chronological examination is in order: first, I’ll discuss the events of Bill Clinton’s second term; second, the primaries and general election campaign; third, the story of Election Day and the nightmare that followed; and lastly, the many things any student of American politics should learn from this singular electoral event.

When Clinton was reelected in 1996, there were no signs that he would face one of the most complicated presidencies ever. He maintained his governing success, reinforcing the American economy and balancing the federal budget, but he made the mistake that too many midlife-crisis-experiencing men do. His affair with Monica Lewinsky had him lie to the American public on January 26, 1998, when he announced that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton soon came to regret this fib; that year, the media whipped up a furor about morality and his behaviour, and the Republican-controlled Congress began politically disastrous impeachment proceedings that December. While Clinton was acquitted on all charges, and stayed President, the damage had been done.

After the trial, the electorate began to focus more on morality in politics. Clinton’s approval ratings fell nearly ten percent in the wake of his impeachment nightmare. This dip was among “values voters” – a constituency which would be crucial in 2000. Clinton had originally appealed to socially conservative yet otherwise moderate voters by creating a new environment of moderation and partisan compromise in government, his hand forced by the Republican Congress. Voters expected to find a supporter of his legacy in the Democratic nominee; and the reshaped political climate meant that whoever won the GOP’s nomination would need to be more moderate.

The run-up to 2000 was interesting on the left, with Senators like John Kerry and Paul Wellstone, the House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and sitting Vice-President Gore all exploring runs. In the end, Al Gore, the presumptive front-runner, faced only minor opposition from former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. However, this token fight wound up changing Gore’s tone from a Clintonian one of moderation in policy and on social issues to one grounded solidly in liberal values. Bradley ran to Gore’s left, and managed to rise from 25% in early 1999 to almost 40% that December. Gore compensated by appealing to core constituencies on issues like healthcare reform, education policy, and gay rights. After winning the Iowa caucuses decisively, and New Hampshire slimly, Gore coasted to the nomination on a Super Tuesday wave. Bradley didn’t win a single contest, and dropped out two days later, on March 9. Gore’s connection to the Clinton legacy ensured his nomination, but in the general election campaign, this began to change. He distanced himself from Clinton, holding few events together and plotting an independent policy course, which in the end was fairly ill-advised.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, there was a battle of the relative moderates. Senator John McCain entered a race with the Governor of Texas, George W. Bush, and outsider billionaire Steve Forbes (who dropped out early without winning anything), in addition to many minor candidates who had little impact. Clinton’s influence on the two leading candidates was clear: McCain distanced himself from the Christian right, took more moderate views on social issues, and relied on his strength with Democrats and Independents to survive the campaign; Bush labelled himself a “compassionate conservative,” who would uphold moral dignity and cut taxes while compromising on education and prescription drugs, and had a coherent message for the entire campaign. Bush was the frontrunner; McCain didn’t campaign in Iowa, giving Bush a sweep. But McCain pulled out a massive win in New Hampshire, leaving Bush scrambling for a new foothold. McCain went on to win in Michigan, Arizona, and several New England states, but Bush led among Republicans and was able to control things with a South Carolina win and most of Super Tuesday’s delegates. McCain, unable to win, dropped out the same day as Bill Bradley, on March 9. Bush maintained his clear, strong prose and pointed, Mark McKinnon-engineered messaging, right through the general election. This was a huge part of his success.

Going into the general election campaign, the climate appeared at first to be on Gore’s side. The Clinton legacy of a strong economy, after all, should have guaranteed him the job. He was the candidate who was best linked to improving Americans’ personal situations and a new era of prosperity. But because of his disorganized, reactionary campaign, and partly due to Gore’s appearance as overly robotic and unapproachable, he fell behind. Bush, who had run an efficient, careful, well-planned campaign with a popular tax-cutting agenda, and who people liked personally, stayed ahead of Gore for most of 2000. Before Labour Day, the campaigns were relatively quiet, with both teams trying to stretch their public financing. Bush selected former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney for his VP pick in July, with consideration for perceived inexperience on security and in Washington. Cheney wasn’t a revolutionary pick, but wasn’t bad. The Republican Convention, which took place at the end of July in Philadelphia, was quiet, pushing the image of an inclusive GOP, but failing to push Bush up in the polls.

Soon after, Gore announced his VP pick, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The first Jewish candidate, he helped Gore’s floppy campaign, although his support of privatizing Social Security and legislating corporate protections didn’t help with the base. The Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, in mid-August, contributed a bounce to Gore. For the first time that year, Gore was ahead of Bush, after giving a rousing speech featuring economic populism and making a big show of kissing Tipper in front of the cameras. This supposedly set him apart from the immorality of Clinton, one of his primary goals in the campaign (to appeal to values voters). But things swung back toward Bush in following weeks. 

Gore maintained a slim lead into September, but October was the month of the debates, and things tightened up significantly. Held in Boston, Winston-Salem and St. Louis, the debates had both candidates perform well, but Gore’s less-approachable personality – his fakeness problem – shone through his polished exterior. There was a tizzy about the way he scoffed at Bush, for example. While Gore was judged to win both the first and third, he didn’t receive any polling benefit. Bush won the debates overall by appearing presidential and demonstrating his command of the issues, and his lead in the polls grew. But with only two weeks before Election Day, things were very tight.

Third party candidates grew important in the last days. The Reform Party, which was a Perot vehicle in 1992 and 1996, nominated Pat Buchanan. He received more than $12 million in public financing thanks to Perot’s success, but got less than 0.5% of the vote. Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, had originally run with a goal of reaching the 5% threshold for public financing, and polls had him around 4% in late October. Realizing that the smallest difference could win or lose the election, Gore’s people began advertising to poach Nader supporters; GOP groups ran ads supporting him to split the liberal vote. In the end, Nader won almost 2.7%, including almost 100,000 votes in Florida. 

This was, of course, extremely important. Election Day was fairly straightforward at its outset. States were called early by the press, mostly with good reason, but NBC made a mistake when it called Florida early for Gore, before polls had closed in the Panhandle. They had to rescind this, and then called it for Bush; Gore conceded; the networks then uncalled this; Gore unconceded; Bush got angry; they recalled it for Bush at 2 AM; newspapers were printed declaring Bush’s win; they had to be called back when the total narrowed to under two thousand votes. Meanwhile, Bush had swept the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West states; Gore had been relegated almost entirely to the West and East Coast states. Both campaigns had anticipated a complex electoral calculus beforehand, with Bush advisor Karl Rove including one scenario which came down to the floating vote in Maine. But things were worse than anyone expected. The next morning was the first day of thirty-six in which the election result was entirely uncertain. Gore had won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, but the electoral college was unclear, thanks to Florida. The total then was 267-246, with 25 outstanding in Florida. What unfolded was a mess: counties conducted recounts and Bush’s lead shrank, until the Florida Secretary of State (and Bush’s state campaign co-chair) Katherine Harris ended them abruptly, certifying Bush as the winner, by a margin of 537 votes. 

Issues of ballot design put Buchanan in a position to receive Gore’s supporters, created an “overvote” problem harming Gore to the tune of tens of thousands of votes, and meanwhile the Green vote for Nader took thousands of votes away, arguably from Gore. “Hanging Chads,” ballots with semi-punched or dimpled voting holes, only served to confuse things further. Soon, the Democrat-appointed state Supreme Court invalidated Harris’ action, and began further recounts; the federal, majority Republican-appointed Supreme Court intervened and forced the state Court to adjust its ruling; the recounts continued, with Bush’s lead dropping to just more than 150 votes; and on the 12th of December, in the landmark Bush v. Gore case, the Supreme Court effectively decided a presidential election for the first time ever. Establishing the 12th as a final day by a 5-4 vote, they ended the recounts and certified the 537-vote (or 0.0009%) win for Bush in Florida, guaranteeing him the presidency by an Electoral College vote of 271-267.

Such a wild and unusual election definitely has a set of lessons to be learned. A candidate can’t just depend on his predecessor’s legacy, even one as strong as Clinton’s. Distancing oneself from a popular figure, even one with a damaged reputation, can hurt. The electoral college can survive severe challenges (and broad calls for its reexamination, which appeared all over the media and in political circles afterward). Political appointees to the Supreme Courts, both state and federal, can directly influence elections in partisan ways. America’s political climate is more evenly divided and brazenly partisan than ever before. The system of elections is resilient, even in the face of insane crises. The press has to show restraint and not call elections early. Third party candidates, even minor ones, can have major effects on national elections, especially when they’re as close as 2000 was. Close attention must be paid to ballot design and recount procedure to prevent accidental disenfranchisement and ensure legitimacy. What America, both its political elites and the public, must realize is that nobody can let this electoral freakshow ever occur again.

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