|"It Basically Ended in a Tie"|
President Al Gore proved unable to ride the peace and prosperity of the
Clinton years into the White House. While Gore did finish over half
a million votes ahead of George W. Bush in the popular vote, and while
some Democrats will argue, as Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile did
in a post-election forum, that Gore did not lose but "failed to have all
the votes counted," on January 20, 2001, Bush took the oath of office.
In winning, Bush defied the predictions of most academics. Seven of seven models presented at the American Political Science Association annual meeting in early September 2000 predicted a Gore win by anywhere from 52.8 to 60.3 percent of the two-party vote. The Florida post-election debacle will be studied and debated for generations to come, but an understanding of the campaign itself and some of the factors that led to the closer than expect outcome is equally important. Here follows a brief overview.
Bush: A Likable Guy,
A Well-Run Campaign
Five numbers from Bush's 1998 campaign for re-election as governor of Texas summed up his appeal to Republicans looking for a winner. Bush's team routinely referred to exit polls showing that he had gained 65% of the women's vote, 49% of the Hispanic vote, 27% of the African American vote, 31% of Democrats' vote, and 73% of Independents / Others' vote. While some of those numbers may have been inflated--for example another exit poll suggested Bush obtained about 39% of the Hispanic vote--the message was nonetheless clear: Bush could attract support from groups that have not favored Republicans.
By February 1999 groups of legislators from a number of states were making the trek to Austin to encourage Bush to run; additional elected officials sent letters of encouragement. By the end of February, before he even announced his exploratory committee, Bush already had the support of 12 Republican governors. He announced his exploratory committee on March 7; in the first quarter of 1999, ending March 31, he raised $7.5 million. By mid-year he had amassed $37.2 million. In June Bush made his first venture onto the campaign trail, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trailing hundreds of media.
The were a few bumps on the road to the coronation. The question of whether he had ever used illegal drugs created a media frenzy in the latter part of August 1999. Bush deflected the queries, stating, "I've told the American
|people that years ago I
made some mistakes. I've learned from my mistakes and should I be fortunate
enough to become president I will bring dignity and honor to the office."
Sen. John McCain, riding the "Straight Talk Express," gave Bush a bump
in the February 1, 2000 New Hampshire primary, securing a resounding 48.4%-30.3%
victory. The Bush campaign was flexible when it needed to be; Bush
soon became the "reformer with results."
Having vanquished McCain on Mega-Tuesday March 7, Bush made effective use of the months leading up to the convention. During late March and April he introduced many proposals, including a reading initiative, a plan to clean up brownfields, a "New Prosperity Initiative" to help people move from poverty to the middle class, and a health care plan.
For his running mate, Bush selected 59-year old former secretary of defense Dick Cheney. It was something of a surprising choice, given that Cheney was heading Bush's vice presidential selection efforts and the Wyoming's three electoral votes were safely in the Republican column. Cheney did add "gravitas," however. Democrats were quick to paint Cheney as "a Jesse Helms Republican who has voted repeatedly against working families." Cheney got off to a rough start in early September, coming under fire for less than inspiring stump appearances and for not voting in recent elections; some Republicans even called for him to be dropped from the ticket. By the end of the campaign, in part because of his performance in the vice presidential debate, Cheney was perceived as an asset--a steady hand.
Bush's likable personality and his consistent, inclusive, "compassionate conservative" message allowed him to withstand Democrats' efforts to vilify him, as they had done to "Dole-Gingrich" in 1996. The central themes of the campaign were evident from the time of Bush's exploratory announcement in March 1999.
Bush promised to be "a uniter, not a divider." Throughout the campaign he made efforts to reach out, particularly to Hispanics. Bush often responded to Spanish-speaking audiences or questioners with a few sentences in Spanish. The campaign simulcast major announcements in Spanish. According to the Republican National Committee, Bush-Cheney, the RNC, and various state parties spent $14 million on the Hispanic effort. Republicans point to L.A. Times exit polls showing Bush received 38 percent of the Latino vote nationally as a measure of success; the Voter News Service exit poll put the figure at 33 percent. Bush also made a concerted appeal to women ("'W' Stands for Women") as well as to Democrats. The Republican National Convention in Philadelphia saw a triumphant display of diversity, at least on the stage if not among the delegates.
Education was a key theme from the outset. In his exploratory announcement Bush vowed to "make sure every child learns to read and no one is left behind." By Aug. 31, 2000 he was making his hundredth school visit of the campaign, at Springfield High School in the Toledo area. Pollster Stan Greenberg argues that Bush, by continuing to call for a federal role in areas such as education and a prescription drug plan, succeeded at "issue blurring;" he allowed Democrats and Independents to feel comfortable with him. Bush, for example, never called for abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, an idea favored by some in the GOP.
At the same time, however, Bush did advance a number of conservative ideas, notably his call for tax cuts and his aim of partly privatizing Social Security. He did not back down on these ideas despite a flurry of criticism from Democrats.
Finally, Bush presented himself as the opposite of Clinton. In speech after speech he would go through the motion of taking the oath of office, pledging, "Should I be fortunate enough to become the president of the United States...when I put my hand on the Bible I will swear to not only uphold the laws of the land, I will swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected so help me God."
Bush came out as the winner of the debates, despite all the spin, and despite Gore's better command of the facts, primarily because he went into them with such low expectations. In retrospect, the pre-debate wrangling redounded to Bush's benefit. Bush's team put an initial proposal on the table calling for three presidential and two vice presidential debates, including one on "Meet the Press" and on one "Larry King Live." The proposal fell flat, and Bush's team eventually accepted the Commission on Presidential Debates framework. These machinations created something of an impression that Bush was trying to avoid debates, and this had the effect of further lowering expectations.
In the fall, the Bush team waged an aggressive campaign, putting pressure on Gore in states which might be expected to fall into the Democratic column. Ultimately, Bush's wins in West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas proved critical. Bush even came within three percentage points of Gore in Minnesota. However, the campaign nearly overplayed its hand in California, where it made a major investment of resources that failed to produce results on Election Day. Although Gore and the Democrats resisted advertising in California, the pressure did prompt Gore to add a visit to Los Angeles on Oct. 31. Nonetheless, Matthew Dowd, Bush's director of polling and media planning, observed shortly after the election that, "It is not a good thing to write off 55 electoral votes." "The Governor made the commitment...he wanted to stick to that decision," Dowd said. Bush's "full court press" campaign kept many states in play, forcing Gore to add those extra visits and spread his resources widely.
Bush had to overcome one
final bump before Election Day. On the evening of Nov. 2, the story
broke that he had been arrested for drunken driving in Kennebunkport in
1976. The fact that Bush had already admitted making mistakes in
his youth and that the incident happened 24 years earlier mitigated the
damage caused by the DUI story, although it may have cost Bush some votes.
Gore: Difficulty Establishing
a Comfortable Persona
It can be argued that Gore failed to establish his own persona, or at least a persona that people could comfortably relate to, especially when compared with the more relaxed Bush. He was clearly not as nimble a politician as Clinton. Gore has always seemed a bit different, overly cautious and somewhat "wooden." By 2000 he was no longer performing his still-life version of the Macarena as he had done in 1996, but the stiffness was still there. When "leading a discussion," Gore hewed closely to the script. He could be pedantic, and at times he seemed to shout. If Clinton was a "likable rogue," able to improvise and empathize, Gore came across as a bit more programmed. Robert D. Deutsch, who worked at Evidence Based Research in the early 1990's, has studied leadership in primates and found that individuals are looking for leaders who are like them, who care for them as individuals, and who are more powerful than them, i.e. are able to solve problems. Gore had difficulties with the first criterion. As one Republican consultant put it, the major challenge faced by the Gore campaign was how to make Gore likable.
Gore did well in the pre-campaign period; his position as vice president, his fundraising strength, and the edge provided by the economy discouraged a number of potential Democratic challengers from running. Only former Sen. Bill Bradley mounted a challenge. Bradley was able to compete with Gore on the fundraising front, but he failed to win a single primary and bowed out on March 9, 2000. The Gore campaign had expected a more protracted battle with Bradley, and, lacking a game plan, they did not make as effective use of the months following the primaries as they might have.
Gore's campaign went through three campaign chairmen -- longtime Clinton aide Craig Smith started out, then came former congressman Tony Coehlo (announced May 11, 1999), and, finally, Commerce Secretary Bill Daley (named mid-June 2000 and took over in mid-July 2000). The campaign also changed addresses twice, moving from Washington, DC to Nashville, Tenn. at the end of October 1999 and later moving to a different space in Nashville. The first move was quite a shock as Gore uprooted his headquarters and staff from Washington, DC, vowing to take his campaign "directly to the grassroots." In the end, however, he proved unable to escape the DC mindset.
Some voters saw Gore as a tool in the hands of his advisors and consultants. A glaring example came to light in early November 1999 when Time magazine reported that feminist Naomi Wolf was advising Gore on such matters as his wardrobe and how to become an "alpha male." Further, the advice was costing the Gore campaign $15,000 a month, (later reduced to $5,000).
The consultant effect could be seen in Gore's television advertising campaign, which, taken as a whole, was formulaic and better suited for a Senate or gubernatorial race. His very first television ad, "Nuclear Test Ban," a 60 sec. TV spot from Oct. 14, 1999, was an exception in that it showed him talking directly to the camera on a single subject. The vast majority of subsequent spots were done in standard montage format, with short snippets of Gore speaking and many different cuts; the priorities identified in the ads often seemed right out of a focus group. ("Prosperity for all; improve education, with new accountability and smaller class size. Pay down the nation's debt. Strengthen Social Security. Cut taxes for middle class families. Save our environment."). Defending the spots, Tad Devine said, "We're not out to win creativity awards, we're out to win elections," while Bob Shrum noted that the ads tested well in focus groups. Although Gore's ads may have been effective individually, they did not present a portrait of a leader.
Analysts have debated whether Gore had the right message. One element was a call to "keep our prosperity going." Gore's message also had populist overtones, summed up in his "I want to fight for you" slogan. For example, in his convention speech, Gore listed his targets: "Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMO's." Prominent New Democrats -- centrists -- think this emphasis was a mistake. Meanwhile, for those on the left, Gore's populist talk paled in comparison to the prescriptions offered by Ralph Nader.
A major part of Gore's and the Democratic party's message was aimed at Bush. Gore warned repeatedly against "a huge tax cut for the wealthy." In his closing statement in the first presidential debate, for example, he asked, "Will we use the prosperity to enrich all of our families and not just a few?" Democratic issue ads hammered away at Bush's Texas record ("Texas is number three in water pollution, number one in air pollution.") and proposals ("George W. Bush: his promises threaten Social Security.") for about the last four months of the campaign. At times, Democrats portrayed Texas as a veritable hell; the "Texas Truth Squad" bus that traveled around Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention was wrapped in images of a flame and pollution-ridden landscape. In the closing weeks before Election Day, Democrats' automated phone calls recorded by Ed Asner warned that, "George W. Bush has a proposal that would undermine Social Security. Even threatening current benefits. George W. Bush proposes to take one trillion dollars out of the trust fund and give it to younger workers to invest." Some of the resources turned on Bush might perhaps have been better used to present a positive, big picture view of where Gore wanted to lead America.
The Clinton scandals, particularly the Lewinsky affair, were a drag on Gore. This episode had been an embarrassing national soap opera, and Gore, the loyal vice president, had stood alongside the Clinton. More generally, the constant spin and thirst for media attention that characterized the Clinton years led to "Clinton fatigue" among some in the electorate. For any vice president, establishing a unique identity can be difficult, but Clinton cast a huge shadow. During most of the campaign Gore opted to distance himself from the president. After a "passing of the torch" joint appearance in Monroe, Michigan on Aug. 15, and after the Clintons dominated the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the president was largely kept off the campaign trail.
Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman -- 58 years old, Senator from Connecticut, and an Orthodox Jew -- as his running mate drew plaudits. Lieberman hailed from the New Democrat wing of the party, having served as chair of the Democratic Leadership Council since 1995. He also represented a distancing from Clinton, since he had spoken out against the president's "immoral" behavior back in September 1998. When Gore announced the Lieberman choice on Aug. 8, there was discussion of Lieberman's religion and the impact it might have; Lieberman himself put the issue of religion and politics to the fore in a speech at the Fellowship Chapel Church in Detroit on Aug. 28 in which he called for "a place for faith in America's public life." "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes," he stated. His remarks prompted much commentary in the following weeks. Lieberman also drew some criticism for continuing his re-election campaign after being picked by Gore. Nonetheless, the presence of Lieberman on the ticket mobilized Jewish voters and others impressed with his integrity.
The convention in Los Angeles also provided a boost. One of the most noted moments was the kiss that Gore planted on wife Tipper before delivering his acceptance speech. In his speech Gore drew a clear line with his statement, "I stand here tonight as my own man." From the convention, Gore and Lieberman headed off on a "Set the Course for America's Future" riverboat cruise that went down the Mississippi River from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Hannibal, Missouri. The few weeks after the convention were among the best of the campaign for Gore.
Gore's personality problem came to the fore in the fall debates. In retrospect, the debates proved to be something of a disaster for Gore. Leading into the debates, the Gore team failed to counter the low expectations for Bush; Gore even did his debate preparation at a marine facility with a shark tank, reinforcing the notion that he would savage Bush. Gore was clearly more knowledgeable in the debates, but his body language and manner created an unfavorable impression among some viewers. Looking back on the debates one woman said, "He had a different persona in every debate." He came across as too "hot" in the first one, too "cool" in the second one, and, after the damage had been done, about right in the third one.
Many commentators noted Gore's loud sighing in the first debate in Boston (something which he had also done in a primary debate with Bill Bradley); he was also caught rolling his eyes at several Bush answers. Some critics thought Gore had too much make-up on. He seemed to have to get the last word in, which some observers saw as an attempt at bullying. Finally he was off on a couple of details, which fed in to Republican charges that he tended to exaggerate. In the second debate in Winston-Salem, Gore perhaps overcompensated. In the final debate in St. Louis, there was a strange moment where Gore moved close to Bush in a seeming attempt to intimidate him. Dan Amundsen of the Center for Media and Public Affairs likened the debates to a boxing match. Gore won on points, Amundsen said, but it did not matter; he needed to catch Bush out, and he did not.
After the debates, the Nader factor loomed larger. An argument can be made that Nader cost Gore the election. In two states, Florida and New Hampshire, the number of Nader votes exceeded Bush's margin of victory. Had Nader not been in the race or had he thrown his support to Gore, it seems likely that a fair number of his supporters would have backed Gore. Taking this argument further, some commentators like to simply add up the Gore and Nader votes and note that candidates backing left-of-center / progressive views obtained 51.1 percent of the vote.
Finally, the economy was not as strong as it seemed at first glance. A number of indicators showed slowing in the latter part of 2000 >. Bartels and Zaller (PS, March 2001) point to limited growth of real disposable income as being among the more important of these.
Despite the shortcomings
and hurdles outlined above, Gore made it a close race. Allied groups
including NARAL, the Sierra Club, Handgun Control, Inc. and the NAACP Voter
Education Fund put a lot of money into television advertising bashing Bush;
organized labor provided manpower for phone banking and other get out the
vote efforts. Effective Democratic turnout efforts in the last week
nearly pushed Gore to victory. He did especially well among African
Americans, obtaining 90 percent of the black vote according to Voter News
Nader: Shut Out
Running his campaign with a fraction of the resources of the Democratic and Republican campaigns -- he spent a total of $8.5 million -- Nader addressed many issues that the two major party candidates would not speak to, particularly the dominant impact of corporations in society today. He spoke of "deep democracy" and of building "a progressive political movement." "[A] society which has more justice is a society that needs less charity," Nader said in his acceptance speech. Between his candidacy announcement on Feb. 21 and the Greens' nominating convention June 24-25 Nader visited all 50 states. His running mate, Native-American activist and mother Winona LaDuke, added a unique perspective to the presidential race. In the fall, Nader held a series of "super rallies" which attracted large crowds. In almost every speech Nader decried the "two party duopoly," but he tended to focus his most extensive criticism on Clinton and Gore, while simply dismissing or ignoring Bush.
Nader only became a factor in the closing weeks when it appeared he might play the role of a "spoiler." A number of critics, including even some former allies, accused him of engaging in an ego trip. Gore surrogates and allies mobilized to discourage support for Nader, arguing that "vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." The closeness of the election no doubt caused many thousands of potential Nader supporters to cast their ballots for Gore.
Nader was on the ballot in
43 states and DC. In four other states -- Georgia, Idaho, Indiana,
and Wyoming -- he obtained thousands of write-in votes. In North
Carolina, Oklahoma and South Dakota voters were denied the opportunity
to vote for the Green Party candidate. Nader finished with almost
2.9 million votes (2.7 percent), falling short of the five percent needed
to qualify the Greens for federal funds in 2004. Despite the disappointing
finish, Greens were pleased with the effects of the Nader campaign.
According to Green Pages, a publication of the Association of State
Green Parties, the number of states with organized Green parties increased
to 35 after the 2000 election, the number of states with Green party ballot
status increased from ten after 1998 to 22 after 2000, and Green party
registration increased by 35 percent during 2000 to almost 200,000.
More Third Party Candidates:
Three repeat candidates all
fell short of their 1996 totals. Libertarian Harry Browne, on the
ballot everywhere except Arizona, finished with 384,429 votes (0.37 percent)
compared to 485,798 (0.50 percent) in 1996. The Constitution Party's
Howard Phillips, on in 41 states, gained 98,020 votes (0.09 percent) compared
to 184,820 (0.19 percent). Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin
lost some of his focus and resources in his unsuccessful attempt to gain
the Reform Party nomination. He appeared on the ballot in 38 states
and won 83,500 votes (0.08 percent) compared to 113,670 (0.12 percent)
Close By Any Measure
More Post-Election Analyses
Larry M. Bartels and John Zaller. "Presidential Vote Models: A Recount." PS, March 2001.
Democratic Leadership Council. "Why Gore Lost, And How Democrats Can Come Back." Blueprint, Jan. 24, 2001.
Stan Greenberg for the Institute for America's Future. "The Progressive Majority and the 2000 Elections." Dec. 15, 2000.
David A. Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "The Black Vote in 2000: A Preliminary Analysis." Dec. 2000.
Pippa Norris. "U.S. Campaign 2000: Of Pregnant Chads, Butterfly Ballots and Partisan Vitriol." Kennedy School of Government Working Paper RWP00-017, Dec. 18, 2000.
Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonist Index-"Campaign 2000"
The Book Page
John F. Harris. "Clinton and Gore Clashed Over Blame for Election." Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2001, page A1.
Copyright 2000, 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.