Reflections on the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election

January 1, 2001

No work of fiction could have plausibly captured the extraordinary twists and turns of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. After mistaken television network projections on election night leading to a concession call by Al Gore to George W. Bush that was withdrawn an hour later, and the ensuing 36-day political and legal war over how to resolve what was essentially a tie, Bush ultimately garnered the presidency when a sharply divided and transparently political Supreme Court ended the manual recount in Florida that might have produced a different outcome. It was the closest presidential election in American history, with only several hundred votes in Florida determining the winner out of more than 100 million ballots cast nationwide.

George W. Bush moves to the White House under the most inauspicious of circumstances. He is the first president to lose the national popular vote since 1888, and only the fourth in American history. He won a bare majority in the electoral college, and only because of his contested victory in Florida, where the best evidence suggests that flawed ballot designs, confused voters, and antiquated voting equipment kept the plurality of citizens who intended to support Gore from having their verdict reflected in the official count. His election was effectively certified by five conservative justices of the Supreme Court, whose judicial activism, newfound disregard for states rights, and creative use of the equal protection clause of the Constitution to prevent “undervotes” disproportionately cast by minorities from being counted has left legal scholars of all philosophical stripes stunned. While he leads the first unified Republican government in almost a half century, it is built on the narrowest of majorities in Congress, with Vice President Dick Cheney required to break the partisan tie in the Senate. Bush faces a Democratic party unified and energized by the politics of the recount and cheered by their improved prospects for regaining control of both chambers in the 2002 midterm elections. He will also have to deal with informal recounts of the Florida vote by news organizations and lawsuits brought by angry civil rights activists.

The U.S. constitutional system bent but by no means broke during this trying period. The contest over the election was resolved in the courts, and Al Gore acceded to the ultimate decision of U.S. Supreme Court in spite of his strong disagreement with it. Most Americans accept the legitimacy of Bush’s election and are generously disposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. And President Bush has an opportunity—however daunting the obstacles—to reshape his agenda and coalitional strategy in Congress to reflect the new political realities and begin to forge a plausible program for governing. As riveting and historic as the weeks-long postelection struggle to determine the winner of the 2000 presidential contest was, and as fascinating as the ruminations on how George W. Bush might govern are, a prior question begs to be answered. Why didn’t Vice President Al Gore win easily? The nation enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. President Bill Clinton’s job approval ratings were consistently among the highest of any modern president. The Democratic party under Clinton and Gore had repositioned itself near the center of the ideological spectrum and championed policies at the top of the public’s agenda. Gore is a highly intelligent and experienced politician, whose knowledge of national and international issues dwarfed those of his Republican opponent. How did we get to the point where a few hundred votes in Florida would determine who would be the next president of the United States?

To be sure, many Republican activists, lulled by George W. Bush’s double-digit lead in trial-heat polls early in the election season, assumed that the Democratic hold on the White House would almost certainly end. Near the end of the campaign, Bush operatives were confidently predicting a comfortable victory—as large as 6-8 percentage points in the popular vote and 320 or more electoral votes.

While the models were unanimous in (correctly) forecasting a Gore victory in the popular vote—with predictions ranging from 52.8 to 60.3 percent of the two-party vote for Gore—the basis for confident forecasts is shakier than it seems. Many of the models had been reformulated after serious errors in forecasting the 1988 and 1992 elections. All are based on short time series. All are highly sensitive to particular assumptions and measurement decisions. All have wide confidence intervals around their point predictions.

Nonetheless, the forecasting models usefully identify the broad context of presidential elections and set a more reasonable baseline for viewing the campaigns than the breathless, ever-changing commentary from pollsters and pundits. And in 2000 that baseline expectation was that the election was Al Gore’s to lose. Why instead did we have a virtual dead heat? Any one of the following might have been decisive.

First, the economy might not have had the potency suggested by the forecasters. Some argue that its performance (as measured, for example, by real disposable income per capita) has been middling, not great. Others contend it has been too good too long to have any political bite and that the credit for good economic times is widely dispersed, not centered on the incumbent administration. And others believe that elections as referendums on the performance of the economy are diluted in an open contest, when no incumbent president is running for reelection. The exit polls lend little support to the first two of these arguments. Voters reported a buoyant national economy and markedly improved personal financial conditions. Those indicating that the economy mattered most in their vote choice gave Gore a 22 percentage point advantage over Bush. And yet this group was less than a fifth of the electorate, suggesting that the election was framed less as a referendum on good economic times than might have been possible. Second, Clinton’s high job approval rating may not have captured the public’s more nuanced assessment of his presidency. After all, he (along with his pursuers) subjected the country to a long, painful scandal and impeachment in 1998 and early 1999. Most Americans were appalled by his behavior; he never regained the personal standing he enjoyed before the scandal. Gore won 85 percent of the vote of those who gave Clinton high marks both on the job and personally; but among the fifth of the electorate who approved Clinton’s job performance but viewed him unfavorably as a person, Gore won only 63 percent of the vote. That difference alone could account for Gore’s subpar showing on election day.

Potentially even more consequential were the scandal’s indirect effects. Gore never felt comfortable running on the Clinton-Gore record. His obsession with separating himself from Clinton and running on the future, not the past, kept him from sharply framing the election as a referendum on good times. And Clinton himself, one of the most effective politicians in U.S. history, was perforce relegated to fundraising and selective forays into Democratic strongholds. The evidence was overwhelming that he would have done more harm than good with swing voters in battleground states. Imagine how different the Democratic campaign would have been had the words “Monica Lewinsky” never entered the political lexicon.

Another fallout from the Clinton scandal was the mobilization of social conservatives and the accentuation of the cultural divide in American politics. The evidence is to be found in Gore’s poor showing in states like West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, as well as in the striking differences in candidate support between urban dwellers and those who live in small towns and rural areas. Peace, prosperity, and the Democratic agenda on debt repayment, Social Security, and health care might well have trumped traditional values had the Clinton-Lewinsky affair not offended those who were torn between economic and cultural considerations. Progress made by the Democrats earlier in winning back social traditionalists was aborted.

This leads directly to a third possible explanation for Gore’s failure to win comfortably. Some argue that in his populist rhetoric, aggressive efforts to mobilize the party base of minorities and union households, and vigorous opposition to the partial privatization of Social Security he lost crucial support among moderates and new economy workers. But the evidence for this explanation is weak. Gore ran on a platform fully compatible with the Clinton agenda. Gore’s populist attacks were limited in scope, focusing on particular problems of great public concern—the high cost of prescription drugs, the arbitrary denial of treatment by health maintenance organizations. And he leavened those attacks with vigorous advocacy of new technology enterprises. He enjoyed a clear advantage over Bush among voters who identified health care or social insurance as the most important issue shaping their vote, who saw improving education or strengthening Social Security as a high priority, and who preferred using the budget surplus to pay down the national debt and shore up Social Security rather than to reduce taxes. He was viewed as a moderate candidate and had an 8 percentage point lead over Bush among moderate voters. He also made substantial headway among affluent and highly educated white women. And Democrats ran strikingly well in the new economy areas of the country, while Republicans prospered more in traditionalist, old economy counties and states. To be sure, Gore’s “fighting” rhetoric was jarring—starkly at odds with the good times. A softer touch might well have gone down easier with middle-class voters. But I see little evidence that Gore moved to the left ideologically and paid a painful political price for it.

A fourth set of explanations centers on the candidates and their campaigns. Political scientists, including election forecasters, tend to downplay presidential campaigns. Since most citizens ordinarily pay little attention to politics and public affairs, campaigns are essential mainly in mobilizing fellow partisans and capitalizing on the broad forces that shape the context of elections. A sharp divergence in the quality of the candidates and the effectiveness of their campaigns in exploiting opportunities or overcoming limits set by that context can make a difference at the margin. But opposing presidential campaigns usually neutralize one another.

This theory was put to the test in 2000. The Bush campaign did an excellent job portraying their candidate as a strong leader and an ideological moderate, blurring differences on issues with a natural Democratic advantage, reducing the perceived policy stakes in the election, and pressing a telling critique of Gore as an overbearing and untrustworthy candidate. In light of Bush’s striking inexperience in national politics and policy, the conservative party platform on which he was running, the absence of any real enthusiasm outside the conservative base for his large tax cut proposal and plans to restructure social insurance, and his lack of stature on the political stage, this was an impressive accomplishment Nonetheless, after the Democratic convention and in the weeks leading up to the first debate, the Bush campaign appeared to falter. Gore, like Vice President Bush in 1988, closed a large deficit in the polls and moved into the lead by Labor Day. But unlike 1988, Gore surrendered his lead after the first debate and thereafter played catch up. The relentless critique of his personal demeanor in the debates (rude, programmed, and prone to exaggeration) reinforced the personal case Bush had been making against him, one that was consistent with the story line developed in the press.

Judged by the standards of such past presidents as George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon, Gore’s shortcomings as a politician are not especially notable. None of these leaders would be considered “naturals” in the realm of politics. But in the context of 2000, and in the wake of the master politician Bill Clinton, Gore’s personal style might have made a critical difference. While Bush fell well short of Clinton on substantive knowledge and a capacity to use speeches, press conferences, and other public events to connect with millions of citizens, his affable and engaging personal manner, and reputation for bipartisanship and straight talk, drew a clear contrast with Gore and overshadowed his other personal shortcomings.

The impact of third party candidates on the relative standing of the major party nominees is another factor to consider. In 2000, it was decisive. While Ralph Nader, running under the banner of the Green Party, won less than 3 percent of the national popular vote, he drew disproportionately from those who would otherwise have voted Democratic. Nader clearly made the difference in Florida and New Hampshire. Had he not been on the ballot in either state, Gore would have been elected President. Nader also narrowed Gore’s popular vote margin nationally and in such hotly contested states as Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, and Oregon. Pat Buchanan, Nader’s conservative counterpart running as the nominee of the Reform Party, collapsed in spite of his $12 million in public financing and inflicted no measurable damage on the Bush candidacy.

Two additional factors round out the story of how the 2000 U.S. presidential election ended in a dead heat. America today is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic advantage in party identification shrank from more than 15 percentage points between 1952 and 1980 to less than 3 points since 1984. Partisanship in the electorate is strong—and reinforced by an ideological realignment that has sorted liberals and conservatives more decisively into different parties. The two parties are evenly balanced at virtually every level of elective office, including the presidency, Senate, House, and state legislatures.

Americans are also evenly divided in their appetite for continuity or change. Good times have fostered a level of comfort with present governing arrangements but unseemly behavior in the White House and acrimonious politics in Washington have generated a market for change.

Under these circumstances, no one should be surprised that the American election of 2000 ended in a draw. Nor should they be surprised if heated competition between the two major parties shapes politics and policymaking in the new administration.

An earlier and shorter version of this essay appeared in the Brookings Review (Winter 2001).