As riveting and historic as the weeks-long post-election struggle to determine the winner of the 2000 presidential contest has been, a prior question begs to be answered. Why didn’t Vice President Al Gore win in a walk? The nation enjoys unprecedented peace and prosperity. President Bill Clinton’s job approval ratings are consistently among the highest of any modern president. The Democratic party is near the center of the ideological spectrum and champions policies at the top of the public’s agenda. 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.
But the weight of scholarly opinion throughout the year suggested a Democratic victory. Election forecasting models developed and tested by political scientists over the past decade and a half underscored the advantage enjoyed by the incumbent party when economic times are good and the public approves the president’s performance in office. While the models vary in their measures of the economy and public opinion, all embrace a conception of presidential elections as referendums on the performance of the incumbent administration.
While the models were unanimous in forecasting a Gore victory in the popular vote (correctly, it now appears)—with forecasts 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. The exit polls lend little support to either argument. 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 and 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 is decidedly mixed. 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 these 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.
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 and paid a painful political price for it.
A final 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 in portraying their candidate as 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. 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 debate performances 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 obvious shortcomings as a politician are not especially notable. But in the context of 2000, and in the wake of the master politician Bill Clinton, they might well have made a difference.
Sorting through these explanations for the infamous dead heat of 2000 will occupy scholars for years to come, though likely fewer than the quest to determine who “really” won the election.