The history of the American political system has been neither pretty nor neat. From the Corrupt Bargain of 1824 to Harry Truman’s miraculous win over Thomas Dewey in 1948, contentious elections have been a mainstay of American democracy. Although, throughout this history the 2000 election stands out as the crown jewel of the confusion and controversy which can embody an election. The contest, between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush, did not produce a victor for over two months, and only then after a decision by the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the election came down to a single Florida county, which decided the President by a margin of 537 votes. Although I was too young to understand the complexities and machinations behind the 2000 election, I can still remember watching the outcome on Television. When the results poured in, a furor erupted as the assured predictions of the news outlets turned out to be castles built upon sand.
Eventually Bush won the election, but citizens were left shocked, confused, and dismayed at the mishandling of the voting process. Over a decade later and with no definitive answers, people are still left wondering: “Why did George Bush win the election?” After studying the campaign and utilizing the novel development of extensive web based sources for this election, I rejected the influence of the Supreme Court decision and recount as an important overall factor; I concluded that despite a good record to run on, Gore made numerous public missteps, which then allowed Bush to capitalize on those mistakes without having to focus on policy.
As noted earlier, the election seemed to come down to a single county in Florida. However, it is necessary to realize that this county was not the “deciding” factor because it was the most populous, but because it was the last county to report chronologically. The interest this county generates in our minds can correctly be attributed to our experience of living through the event. The situation is relatable to a puzzle. To complete the puzzle, every piece is needed, in other words, to complete the election every county must report. The unreported Florida county is then analogous to a missing puzzle piece. The fixation citizens have on the unreported county is the same as a fixation we would have on the missing puzzle piece. In our minds, the missing puzzle piece has become the most important. In the election, a great importance was placed on the last county, although, like puzzle pieces, all counties played an equally decisive and important role. Thus, the importance of this county is only that of which the votes it delivered to the Electoral College, and nothing more, despite the dramatic emphasis we ascribe it in the end.
When the controversy over who won that Florida county was taken to the court system, it eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In essence, the Supreme Court ruled that any recount was illegal under existing law. In effect, this made Bush the winner because the recount Gore desperately wanted never materialized. While a critic of this event may believe that the Supreme Court just “picked” Bush as the winner, in actuality it is anything but that. First off, it is imperative not to generalize by saying the Supreme Court decided the election because the Supreme Court only enforced existing law, they did not write it. Also, when the most comprehensive and thorough review was done by a combined venture between the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and other major news outlets, they determined Bush would have won the recount Gore was demanding in court anyway (Jackson). Many critics have been quick to point out that the review’s analysis could not prove the winner with 100% certainty. If I were required to affirm or deny that criticism I would have to say it is true, but I would also add that it does not mean the outcome was wrong. The best researchers in the nation did the analysis, and even liberal media outlets like the New York Times accepted its accuracy, which is a testament to its validity. Since the Supreme Court decision did not actually influence the election’s outcome, this case may be historically important for the history of law, but for the actual determination of who won the election, it had surprisingly little bearing.
Regardless of the Supreme Court decision, the fact that the race turned out to be so close indicates that it was incredibly hard fought. Lost in all the hub-bub of the election day chaos was the emphasis we normally put on what happened in the campaign. Lets not forget that what the candidates did and said actually mattered in 2000. The most accurate way to derive what mattered from a past election is by using polling data. Assembled below is a chart that shows the support each candidate received before and after the debates, which is the most reliable way to gauge the debates’ effectiveness. Notice that the chart does not show who won the debate; it only gives data to how voter’s choice for President has changed.
Despite a Gallup Poll headline in 2008 declaring “Presidential Debates Rarely Game-Changers”, in the article, Gallup concluded that the 2000 election was a game-changer, and highlighted the visible connection between the debate performances and a rise in Bush’s support with a simultaneous decline in Gore’s support (Saad). In fact, by using a correlation function for the data before and after the debates, there is a -.92 coefficient between Bush’s gains and Gore’s losses. This means that any change in the polls for one candidate directly coincided to an opposite change for the other candidate because of the debates. To simplify that into layman’s terms, almost every voter Bush gained in the debates came directly from Gore’s totals; this suggests that the debates played a huge statistical role in changing voters’ minds between candidates.
What exactly was the impetus during the debates that caused these massive shifts in voter support? In the first debate Gore was seen consistently sighing during Bush’s responses (Rothschild). This intentional display of contempt by Gore backfired because instead of highlighting the poor answers Bush delivered, he portrayed himself as rude and disrespectful. This violation of social standards not only made Gore look bad, but it focused media attention away from policy discussion in the new 24-hour news cycle, which only amplified the negative effects for his campaign. Likewise, in the third debate, Gore approached Bush as he was answering a question in a clear attempt to intimidate him, yet with a congenial nod, Bush turned Gore into a laughingstock (Third Presidential Candidates Debate). For the second time in a debate Gore was publically humiliated. However, this time Gore came off looking awkward and strange, instead of rude. Once again, the 24-hour news cycle jumped on the error, using airtime to discuss the tactic while relegating more substantial information to the fringe. Although, Gore supporter Tad Devine argues “Bush wandered and waffled and defended the wealthy. He didn’t benefit from his own body language” (“Bush, Gore stage and each other in final debate”). While I concede that there is some aspect of truth when Devine says Bush did not benefit from his own body language, that statement stealthily fails to acknowledge that Bush benefited from Gore’s poor body language. In short, Bush’s success in the third debate was more a product of Gore’s failure than his own accomplishment. Another critic may contend that the resulting gains for Bush in the polls are not attributable to the debates, because Gore was seen to actually perform slightly better in the debates. Nevertheless, political commentator and author Jeff Greenfield explained why that proposition is false when he said, “yes, the instant polls showed a narrow Gore victory. But it was the kind of victory the villainous wrestler scores with a questionable chokehold. A lot of voters were saying, ‘Yeah, he won— but I don’t like that guy’” (194). Greenfield essentially holds the position that likability played a more important role in shaping voters minds than any policy or plan put forth. As a demonstration of Bush’s likability, in the second debate Bush literally admits he has conflict of interests in the Middle East, and gets people to laugh it off with him (Second Presidential Candidates Debate). Compare that rosy scene to the 2012 election, in which Mitt Romney’s investments in foreign countries was made out to be almost treasonous, and Bush’s likability and popularity truly seem to shine more than ever. Robert Watson, professor of American Studies at Lynn University, sums up the lesson of the three Presidential debates by writing, “the 2000 race was one of the closest in history. We learned that it was possible to ‘win’ the debates from a technical standpoint yet ‘lose’ by coming off looking smug and overly confident”. In other words, Watson is saying that Gore had the better debate performance purely listening to his ideas and proposals, but when watching the performace on Television, his body language drove people away.
While an important part of the election played out in the debates, the campaign trail also proved to be equally decisive in the long run. Foremost in the highlights on the campaign trail is the catchphrase “compassionate conservative”. Tim Goeglein, one of George Bush’s longest serving aides, elaborated on the slogan when he said, “compassionate conservatism was not a euphemism or code. It represented, and represents, precisely who [Bush] was and is, as a result of his faith” (Dalrymple). With such a devout leader at the head of the political philosophy, it is no wonder why the slogan spread like wildfire. Compassionate conservatism brought out a nicer, more caring side of the often-hardline stances Bush took, which soothed voters’ worries and increased his likability. On the other hand, Gore continued to make public missteps on the campaign trial. First and foremost of these mistakes was the exile of Bill Clinton as a member of the campaign team. Fresh off of his extra-marital affair scandal, Gore deemed Clinton a political liability and someone who should be separated from at all costs. Gore simply did not want to be stained by the allegations being heaped at Clinton from the right. The decision to blacklist Clinton was a huge error for Gore, and it was one that would come back to hurt him. Clinton left office post-scandal with a 68% approval rating, the highest of any President (Cosgrove-Mather). Gore wildly underestimated Clinton’s popularity, and when he cut Clinton off, Gore alienated the moderate voters who supported Clinton. These voters would have helped Gore ride Clinton’s coattails into office, but they did not have an opportunity to because of Gore’s choice. Furthermore, throughout the election, Gore infrequently and uninspiringly stated the record job growth, GDP growth, and debt reduction he accomplished with Clinton. In an attempt to separate himself from Clinton, Gore impulsively decided not to focus on these past accomplishments, which inevitably hurt him by shifting the national conversation away from his strong record.
Another major election factor came down to the choice of vice-presidents. Bush’s pick, Dick Cheney, did not provide much demographic appeal, but he was an intelligent, experienced, and aggressive politician. Likewise, Gore’s pick, Joe Lieberman, did not provide much demographic appeal, but was also intelligent, and experienced. The key difference between Cheney and Lieberman was their antagonistic passive and aggressive styles. Cheney made sharper points of criticism on Gore’s failures and stronger denunciations of Gore’s accomplishments than Lieberman could compete with. In this election, aggressiveness made Cheney the better pick. When the time came for the Vice-Presidential debate, Cheney trounced the lackluster Lieberman (Langer). First off, it is important to realize that both vice-presidential candidates were not household names at the beginning of the election. This proved to be an important factor because the debate helped the candidates make first impressions on voters. Therefore, since Cheney handily won the debate, Lieberman became less of an asset with voters. In fact, political columnist Mark Shields even goes so far as to blame Gore’s 2000 election defeat on his choice of Lieberman for Vice-President. Obviously, the flat-lining voter support for Lieberman stemming from the poor debate performance hurt Gore, but to suggest that the Lieberman pick was the main cause of defeat, as Shields contends, flies in the face of other evidence like Gore’s poor debate performances. Explaining the effects of when Gore chose Lieberman for Vice-President former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said, “I think this is saying ‘screw you’ to Bill Clinton” (Shields). Lockhart’s analysis of the Gore picking Lieberman truly elucidates just how bad a decision it was, because it links the continuing alienation of Clinton supporters to the inadequate candidate Lieberman then turned out to be.
The 2000 election may be remembered as the most contentious, heart-wrenching democratic election for possibly all of history. In the end, the election was a messy one; it came down to the debates no one thought mattered, the campaigning no one focused on, and the vice-presidential candidates no one cared about. Gore consistently sabotaged his own campaign through careless errors that ruined his public image, which then allowed the confident and charming Bush to pick up votes without having to actually have the right policies or ideas.
“Bush, Gore stalk stage and each other in final debate.” CNN. CNN. 18 Oct. 2000. Web. 1 Dec 2012.
Cosgrove-Mather, Bootie. “A Look Back at the Polls.” CBSNews. CBS. 11 Feb. 2009. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Dalrymple, Timothy. “Reconsidering Bush’s ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism.” Patheos. Patheos.com. 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Greenfield, Jeff. “Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow!” New York: G.P Putnam and Sons, 2001. Print.
Jackson, Brooks. “The Florida Recount of 2000.” FactCheck.org. The Annenberg Public Policy Center. 22 Jan. 2008. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Langer, Gary. “Poll: Cheney Beats Lieberman in Veep Debate”. ABCNews. ABC News. 6 Oct. 2000. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Rothschild, Lord. “Bush Vs. Gore 2000 Presidential Debate 10/3/00.” Youtube. Youtube, 2 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Saad, Lydia. “Presidential Debates Rarely Game-Changers.” Gallup. Gallup. 28 Sept. 2008. Web. 25th Nov. 2012.
Second Presidential Candidates Debate. 11 Oct. 2000. C-SPAN. C-SPAN Video Library. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Shields, Mark. “If You Could Change One Thing, Al Gore.” Creators.com. Creators.com. 2009. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Third Presidential Candidates Debate. 17 Oct. 2000. C-SPAN. C-SPAN Video Library. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Watson, Robert. “Watson’s Top Ten Debate Moments.” Lynn University. Lynn University. 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.