THE CAMPAIGN OF 2000
The presidential race should have been a runaway, according to precampaign estimates. In the end, to be sure, the outcome came down to miscounting or manipulation of the last few ballots. Analytically, however, the puzzling question is why Gore did so badly, not why Bush won.
The economy, usually the largest influence on voters, had evidenced the longest period of prosperity in American history, over a period virtually identical with the Democratic administration. A second predictor, the popularity of the incumbent president, also pointed to a Gore victory, for President Clinton was holding to 60-percent approval of his job performance. In elaborate analyses just as the campaign formally began on Labor Day, academic experts unanimously predicted a Gore victory. Their only disagreements came on the size of his expected victory, with predictions of Gore's majority ranging from 51 to 60 percent of the two-party popular vote.
The academic models failed. It is simpler to explain Clinton's inability to transfer his popularity to his selected successor. Vice presidents always labor under a burden of appearing less capable than the sitting chief executive, and there is a normal inclination on the part of the electorate to seek a change. Previous incumbent vice presidents, such as the original George Bush in 1988 and Richard Nixon in 1960, had borne this burden in their own White House campaigns, but Gore's burden was even heavier, because he needed to avoid contact with the ethical stain of Clinton's affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
The limited impact of economic prosperity is more difficult to explain. Although the public overwhelmingly thought the economy was doing well and saw the nation as on "the right track" economically, Gore received little or no political advantage from this optimism. Only a fraction thought him better qualified than Bush to maintain the good times.
There are at least three possible explanations. First, because prosperity had gone on so long, voters may have come to see it as "natural" and unrelated to the decisions and policies of elected politicians. Second, voters might not know whom to praise and reward for their economic fortunes, since both parties in their platforms claimed credit for the boom. These explanations seem weak, however, because two out of three voters believed Clinton was either "somewhat" or "very" responsible for the nation's rosy conditions.
A third explanation, better supported by the opinion data, finds that Gore did not properly exploit the advantages offered by his administration's economic record. In his campaign appeals, Gore would briefly mention the record of prosperity but then emphasize his plans for the future. The approach was typified by his convention acceptance speech:
[O]ur progress on the economy is a good chapter in our history. But now we turn the page and write a new chapter.... This election is not an award for past performance. I'm not asking you to vote for me on the basis of the economy we have. Tonight, I ask for your support on the basis of the better, fairer, more prosperous America we can build together.
Rhetorically and politically, Gore conceded the issue of prosperity to Bush. The Texas governor, too, saw both a good present economy and a challenge for future improvement in his convention speech:
This is a remarkable moment in the life of our nation. Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid. But times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character.... Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short, to waste this moment. So tonight we vow to our nation: We will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals.
Gore lost the advantages of the strong economy he inherited when, reviewing the past, he did not tie himself to this record. In the public's evaluation of the present, the vice president won among those who considered the economy "excellent" and their own financial situation improved in the past year. But he did not reap votes from those who considered the economy simply "good," or their own situation unchanged.
Looking to the future, Gore led among those who thought the economy would improve in the next year, and trailed among the smaller number who expected an economic deterioration. The critical group, however, was the majority who thought the economy would remain stable--in this group, Gore trailed slightly (by 47 to 49 percent). Gore failed in the election because he failed to convince this swing group that continued prosperity depended on continued Democratic governance.
Gender may also have played a role in undermining Gore's inherited advantage on the economy. Although voters who emphasized this vital factor did favor the vice president (59 to 37 percent), he gained far fewer votes (a 15-percent gain) on the issue than Clinton had four years earlier (34 percent), even though the economy had strengthened during the period. Here, too, as on issues generally, Gore emphasized the "female" side of his policy positions, such as targeting tax cuts toward education or home care of the elderly. He offered little for men who would not benefit from affirmative action in the workplace or who would use money returned from taxes for other purposes. As a result, he gained far less from men (57 percent) than from women (68 percent) who gave priority to economic issues.
In theoretical terms, the vice president turned the election away from an advantageous retrospective evaluation of the past eight years to an uncertain prospective choice based on future expectations. Because the future is always clouded, voters often use past performance to evaluate the prospective programs offered by candidates, but Gore did little to focus voters' attention on the Democratic achievements. As the academic literature might have warned him, even in good times "there is still an opponent who may succeed in stimulating even more favorable future expectations. And he may win."
More generally, Gore neglected to put the election into a broader context--of the administration's record, of party, or of the Republican record in Congress. All of these elements might have been used to bolster his chances, but he, along with Bush, instead made the election a contest between two individuals and their personal programs. In editing his own message so severely, Gore made it less persuasive. If the campaign were to be only a choice of future programs, with their great uncertainties, a Bush program might be as convincing to the voters as a Gore program. If the election were to be only a choice of the manager of a consensual agenda, Bush's individual qualities might well be more attractive.
The Democratic candidate had the advantage of leadership of the party that held a thin plurality of voters' loyalties. His party was historically identified with the popular programs that were predominant in voters' minds--Social Security, Medicare, education, and health care--and the Democrats were still regarded in 2000 as more capable to deal with problems in those areas. Yet Gore eschewed a partisan appeal. In the three television debates, illustratively, he mentioned his party only four times, twice citing his disagreement with other Democrats on the Gulf War, and twice incidentally. Only Bush would ever commend the Democratic party, claiming a personal ability to deal effectively with his nominal opposition.
Gore neither challenged this argument, nor attacked the Republicans who had controlled Congress for the past six years, although promising targets were available. The vice president might have blamed Republicans for inaction on his priority programs, such as Social Security and the environment. He might have drawn more attention to differences on issues on which his position was supported by public opinion, such as abortion rights or gun control. He could even have revived the impeachment controversy, blaming Republicans for dragging out a controversy that Americans had found wearying and 17 The public had certainly disapproved of Clinton's personal conduct, but it had also steadily approved of the president's job performance. That distinction could have been the basis for renewed criticism of the Republicans. Yet Gore stayed silent.
Gore's strategy was based on an appeal to the political center and to the undecided voters gathered there. At the party convention and in his acceptance speech, he did try to rouse Democrats by pointing to party differences--and the effort brought him a fleeting lead in opinion polls. From that point on, however, moving in a different direction, he usually attempted to mute those differences, and his lead disappeared. If there were no important differences, then Democratic voters had little reason to support a candidate whose personal traits were less than magnetic. Successful campaigns "temporarily change the basis of political involvement from citizenship to partisanship." By underplaying his party, Gore lost a vital margin of votes, as more Democrats than Republicans defected.
Turnout may have made the difference in the election results. Nationally, there was only a small increase over the last election in voter participation, to 51 percent of all adults, although there were considerable increases in the most contested states, particularly by union household members and African Americans.
Usually, the preferences of nonvoters are not much different from those who actually cast ballots, but the 2000 election may have been an exception to that rule. CBS News polls immediately before and after the balloting suggested that, if every citizen had actually voted, both the popular and electoral votes would have led to an overwhelming Gore victory. The nonvoters, however, had less information about the election and less confidence in the political system, and they were less likely to see a difference between the parties. A stronger Gore effort to explain these differences and to bring those uncommitted citizens to the polls might have made the election result quite different. A greater emphasis on the economic record of the administration might have been particularly important in spurring turnout among lower-income voters, who voted in considerably lower proportions than in recent elections.
Issues and Character in the Campaign
In 2000 the campaign was sharply contested, but reasonably civil--until the postelection period. Attacks abounded, but they focused on real issue differences between Gore and Bush, as each contestant worried over the public's declared aversion to personal, negative campaigning.
Bush is credited with a skillful campaign, but this judgment may be nothing more than the halo effect of eventually being the winner. Actually, Bush was criticized for his campaign both at its beginning and when he faced defeat during the recount. Moreover, the exit polls indicated that those who made up their minds later in the campaign were more likely to vote for Gore, despite his defective strategy, than for the presumptively better campaigner, Bush. Overall, in fact, the campaign seemed to have had very little effect. Once the nominating conventions concluded, Bush and Gore were tied at the outset of the active campaign on Labor Day, and they remained tied on the day of the balloting--and beyond. The lack of substantial change is seen in the track or tne polls, in shown in Figure 2.
Specific events, such as the television debates, probably changed opinion from day to day, as indicated by the incessant polls, but they are probably given exaggerated importance. Bush made some errors in language, and Gore was not a model of etiquette. Gore could have been more vivacious in appearance, and Bush could have been more humble in demeanor. In the overall campaign, however, voters focused on the central decisions--the direction and leadership of their nation in the new century.
No single issue dominated the campaign. Education, health care, Medicare and Social Security, defense, the federal budget, and taxes were among the priority issues for the voters, but none focused the voters' minds in the way that the economy had done in the Clinton elections.
Both Gore and Bush talked about these issues and each gave considerable attention to the same issues, enabling the voters to make a reasoned choice between the two candidates. Bush apparently won on important elements of the issue debate. A slightly greater proportion found that he shared their general view of government (51 percent compared to 47 percent). More specifically, voters tended to prefer the Republican's plan for across-the-board tax cuts and his proposal to allow individual investment of Social Security taxes.
When voters evaluated the candidates on Election Day, they took two different approaches. On most issues, Gore was preferred. On seven possible issues, Gore won the votes of more voters who emphasized five of them. Bush was seen as better only among those who were primarily concerned with taxes and world affairs, the latter reflecting men's concern with military defense.
When it came to individual character traits, however, Bush was deemed superior on most traits, particularly honesty and strength of leadership. He was also viewed as less likely "to say anything to get elected" and less prone to engage in unfair attacks. These individual characteristics are relevant to the conduct of the presidency, and voters should not be denigrated because they used these standards at the ballot box. On the other hand, voters gave little stress to Bush's greater "likability," a criterion of little relevance to government. Ultimately, his perceived character traits carried the day for the governor.
The vote showed significant shifts from 1996, working to Bush's advantage. There was more party switching by former Clinton supporters than by former Dole supporters, and previous backers of Perot also moved more heavily toward the Republicans.
The Clinton scandal probably had some effect on these patterns, giving more prominence to character traits and providing more reason for party switching. Although most of the country gave little weight to the Lewinsky affair, a fourth did find it "very important." Majorities of voters continued both to praise Clinton's job performance and to disapprove of his personal behavior. A particularly important group was made up of those who combined these two attitudes, a fifth of the electorate. Although these voters strongly supported Gore (by 63 percent to 33 percent for Bush), that was still a smaller vote harvest than Gore might have reaped in an electoral field unsown with Clinton's wild oats. Among these ambivalent voters, Gore lost 15 percent of former Clinton supporters, not a large number but enough (2 percent of the national total) to be the decisive difference in the electoral standoff.
The election carried implications for the parties beyond the confusing and close results of 2000. Both could read the returns as encouraging portents for the future. The Republicans had won control, however narrow, of all branches of the government. The congressional revolution of 1994, which ended four decades of Democratic control, was maintained into a fourth Republican term.
They would hold the White House for four years, and could fill the three likely vacancies on the Supreme Court. The public was more conservative than liberal and more supportive of the party's call for reduced government. If prosperity held, the ranks of upper-income voters and the entrepreneurial spirit would grow.
Democrats could also find comfort. The taint of Bush's minority victory and the ballot recounts might enfeeble his administration and provide an immediate platform for the Democratic party's return to power in 2002 and 2004. The population was increasingly diverse ethnically, and the demographic growth among Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans was likely to bolster Democratic ranks. Its modernist cultural values, including gender equality, were increasingly shared throughout the nation. The union movement had revived and had demonstrated skill and unity in mobilizing its members. The nation was divided in 2000, but Democrats could hope to revive and thrive in the future.
Source: Gerald M. Gomber. 2001. "The 2000 Presidential Election: Why Gore Lost." Political Science Quarterly. Summer: 116/2, p, 201
Anonymous. 2000. "UAW Supports Al Gore and Joe Lieberman." United Auto Workers. Screenprint poster.
Anonymous. 2000. "George W. Bush For President." Paid for by Bush for President, Inc. Printed signage.
Anonymous. 2000. "Nader/LaDuke." Bumper Sticker.
Anonymous. 2000. "Protesters at the Supreme Court: Gore v. Bush." Color Photograph.