The 2000 Presidential Election: Why Gore Lost


Political Science Quarterly, Summer 2001, volume 116, issue 2, page 201


The presidential election of 2000 stands at best as a paradox, at worst as a scandal, of American democracy. Democrat Albert Gore won the most votes, a half million more than his Republican opponent George W. Bush, but lost the presidency in the electoral college by a count of 271-267. Even this count was suspect, dependent on the tally in Florida, where many minority voters were denied the vote, ballots were confusing, and recounts were mishandled and manipulated. The choice of their leader came not from the citizens of the nation, but from lawyers battling for five weeks. The final decision was made not by 105 million voters, but by a 5-4 majority of the unelected U.S. Supreme Court, issuing a tainted and partisan verdict.

That decision ended the presidential contest, and George W. Bush now heads the conservative restoration to power, buttressed by thin party control of both houses of Congress. The election of 2000, however, will not fade. It encapsulates the political forces shaping the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Its controversial results will affect the nation for many years of the new era.


The Geography of the Vote

Not only two candidates, but virtually two nations confronted each other in the election of 2000. While Gore and Bush received essentially identical support in the total popular vote, they drew this support from very different constituencies. The electoral map (Figure 1) illustrates the cleavage. In carrying the preponderance of states (30), Bush changed the landscape of American politics. He swept the interior of the nation, including great swaths of the nation's territory in the South, Border, Plains, and Mountain areas. Gore won in only 20 states (and the District of Columbia), almost all on the geographical fringes of the nation--bordering the Atlantic Ocean (north of the Potomac), the Pacific Ocean, and the Great Lakes.

Reflecting the sharp geographical divisions, which are detailed in the Appendix, the vote varied considerably among the nation's regions and states. While Gore won as much as two-thirds of the votes in New England, he won fewer than one in three in the Mountain states. These differences among the states were considerably more marked than in recent contests. [1]

The ballots also revealed a rare instance of the conflict between "big states" and "small states" that had been feared by the framers of the Constitution. [2] Gore almost won because he carried six of the nine largest states, an advantage of 165 to 78, while Bush carried thirteen of the nineteen smallest, a 54-23 lead. The Texan's dominance in these small states exactly compensated for his loss of the single largest state, California. Even though he accumulated a million fewer votes than Gore (as well as a smaller plurality) in the combined totals of these states, the inherent tilt of the electoral college toward the smaller states brought a draw in this particular matchup.

The geographical pattern of party support in 2000 was quite similar to that seen in recent elections, a correlation of .94 with the 1996 results. [3] Gore's support among the states was quite similar to that of Clinton--but it was critically smaller across the nation, a median loss of 5 percent. State size aside, the source of Bush's victory was his success in moving eleven states--including Gore's Tennessee and Clinton's Arkansas--that had supported the previous Democratic ticket into the Republican column, adding 112 electoral votes.

The close national division was reflected in some of the states. A shift of merely a quarter of 1 percent of state votes--an infinitesimal national total of 17,000 ballots nationally--would have reversed 55 electoral votes from five states (Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin). Only in these close states, particularly Florida, did votes for the minor candidacies of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan make a difference--but there they were still an immense influence.

Nader and his Green party won merely 3 percent (2,830,900) of the national vote, far below the 5 percent required to receive federal financial support in the future (his principal goal), even less than the support won by Ross Perot as a third-party candidate in 1996 (8 percent) and 1992 (19 percent), and vastly less than the extravagant attention Nader had attracted in the press. Buchanan did far worse, gaining less than half a million votes (.4390), even though he had over $12 million in federal money, inherited from the Reform party previously headed by Perot.

Despite their small numbers, Nader's and Buchanan's supporters provided the margin of victory for Bush. If Nader had not been on the ballot, Gore would have carried Florida and all of the other close states easily, giving him a comfortable electoral total of at least 292. [4] If Buchanan had not been a candidate, the Florida ballot might have been simpler to understand, giving Gore enough votes to win the national election simply by carrying the Sunshine State. Even without Florida, we might speculate--but cannot demonstrate--that an election without Nader would have enabled Gore to campaign in other winnable states (most obviously Tennessee and New Hampshire) and overcome his shortfall of only three electoral votes.

Parties and the Vote

The geography of the election reflected a changing pattern of party loyalties. As the nation endured this odd election at the beginning of the new millennium, major changes in the character of its political parties also emerged.

Two major divisions had structured American presidential elections for much of the twentieth century. [5] During the middle of the century, Democrats dominated, building successive victories on economic and welfare issues and on the heritage of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The major controversies between the parties centered on the role of the national government, particularly its distribution of taxes and benefits--such as jobs, Social Security, and health care--among different groups. Democrats won all but two presidential elections from 1932 to 1964, assembling a winning coalition of lower-income voters, Catholics, union members, blacks, and white southerners.

During the latter third of the century, new issues and new coalitions came to the fore. Cleavages on issues of race, morality, and lifestyle developed alongside the previous divisions on economic and welfare policy. The parties differed on such issues as civil rights and affirmative action, abortion, women's role in society, crime, and school prayer. Republicans reversed the previous pattern of presidential elections, winning five of the six contests from 1968 to 1988, assembling a different winning coalition composed of higher-income voters, white Protestants from both the North and the South, religious conservatives, and defecting Catholics and union members. Even when Democrats won--in 1976 and in the two Clinton candidacies-their victories were unconvincing.

The election of 2000 merged or obliterated many of these divisions. During the Clinton years, Democrats overcame their losing reputation on moralistic issues, as Clinton became identified with such stands as harsh treatment of criminals (including support for the death penalty) and welfare reform. The president maintained his popularity even after revelation of his sexual immorality, as seen in the failure of the Republican effort to impeach and remove him from office.

In 2000 Republicans also moved away from previous unattractive positions. On the economic dimension, no longer opposed to all government programs, the party under Governor Bush proposed new policies to improve education, expand health care, and add funds and programs to Social Security and Medicare. Still conservative, the Bush Republicans now modified their ideology by proclaiming a new "compassionate" outlook and reduced their emphasis on moral issues, particularly abortion. Without overt change in his pro-life stance, George W. Bush gave only fleeting attention to the previously divisive issue, promising no more than a ban on unpopular and rare late-term ("partial birth") abortions.

Differences remained significant, but the election campaign was notable for the similarity of the issues stressed by the candidates and for the disappearance of older conflicts. A generation earlier, in 1972, Republicans had accused Democrats of favoring "acid, amnesty, and abortion"; that bitter campaign would be later remembered for Richard Nixon's efforts to destroy his opponents and subvert the Constitution in the Watergate break-in.

The old controversies were gone or had become consensual policies. Drug usage was condemned, and abortion was ignored. Vietnam, the conflict that had defined a generation and its lifestyle, was now a country to be visited by Clinton, once a draft resister and now the U.S. commander-in-chief. Emblematic of the change was that the Democratic party, once the arena for the greatest antiwar protests, nominated Gore, a volunteer who had actually served briefly in the war zone, while the Republicans nominated Bush, who had found a safe billet in the Texas Air National Guard.

There remained a basic philosophic difference between the parties and their leaders. Republicans' instincts still led them first to seek solutions through private actions or through the marketplace, while Democrats consistently looked for government solutions. That difference was evident in such fundamental questions as allocation of the windfall surpluses in the federal budget: Bush sought a huge across-the-board cut in taxes, while Gore proposed a panoply of new government programs and tax cuts targeted for specific policy purposes.

Similar differences could be seen on other issues emphasized during the campaign. To improve education, Bush relied on state programs and testing, while hinting at his support for government vouchers that parents might use for private-school tuition; Gore proposed new federal programs to recruit teachers and rebuild schools. To provide funds for Social Security, Bush proposed that individuals invest part of their tax payments in private investment accounts, while Gore would transfer other governmental funds into the Social Security trust fund. This philosophical difference could be seen even in the most intimate matters, such as teenage pregnancy, where Republicans relied on individual morality, namely, sexual abstinence by adolescents, while Democrats supported sex education programs, which might include distribution of condoms in public schools.

By 2000 the parties' supporters had become philosophically coherent as well. Fewer than one of every thirteen Republicans considered themselves liberals, and fewer than one in eight Democrats were conservatives. Voters also responded to the ideological difference between the parties: four out of five self-identified liberals voted Democratic, and the same proportion of conservatives voted Republican, often giving greater weight to ideological preference than to traditional party loyalty (see Table 1). The partisan contest of 2000 was also an ideological conflict.

Social Forces and the Vote

In addition to geographical and party differences, the American electorate was polarized along social lines, as detailed in Table 1. [6] These cleavages can be seen in the difference in the Gore vote between the following paired groups (the first group being more Democratic):

Only age, of the major social categories, did not show significant differences between groups. [7] In 2000 the United States was not united.

Most prominent, although unfortunately not novel, was the "racial gap" between blacks' support for Gore and whites' for Bush (a 48-percentage-point difference in the vote of the two races). While the white vote for Gore was similar to that for Clinton, African-American support for the Republican candidate was lower than in any election since the 1960s.

Bush had made some efforts to gain more minority votes, giving blacks prominent roles in the party convention and arguing that some of his programs, such as educational testing, would particularly benefit this group. These appeals turned out to be fruitless, however, given the Republican's conservative position on welfare issues and affirmative action. Black groups, such as the N.A.A.C.P., mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign to increase minority turnout, expecting that the mobilized voters would be Democrats. Although the black proportion of the electorate remained essentially unchanged at 10 percent, these efforts probably were decisive in close northern states. It would require more than televised black faces to win black votes for the Republicans.

Other ethnic minorities also supported the Democrats. Both parties paid special attention to Latinos, knowing that they would soon be the largest nonwhite group in the population and that they already comprised a significant voting bloc in critical states such as California, Texas, and Florida. Despite Bush's command of Spanish and past Hispanic backing in Texas, the Republican fell short, prevailing only among Cuban Americans in Florida. Two-thirds of Latinos voted for Gore, a proportion similar to that won by Clinton. In a possible portent of the future, Asian Americans, still a small group among voters, changed to a pro-Democratic vote from 1996, when a plurality voted for Dole.

In recent elections, much attention has been paid to the differing attitudes and votes of women and men, the vaunted "gender gap" That gap should not be exaggerated, because much of the difference can be explained simply as a reflection of party loyalties--both sexes overwhelmingly voted for the candidate of their preferred party. Democratic women and men both voted for Gore (by 87 percent and 85 percent), just as Republican women and men both voted for Bush (by 90 percent and 92 percent). Sex differences became significant only among Independents, where Gore led by 12 points among women, offset by Bush's 9-point lead among men.

Still, the gender gap was evident again, but different from the past, in the presidential vote of 2000. While Bush won 53 percent among men, he gained only 43 percent among women. Gore's opposite advantage among women (54 percent to 42 percent) was insufficient to overcome the Texas governor. This "gap" between the sexes was the largest difference in the twenty years since it first became apparent.

The Bush advantage was even greater among whites. White women divided their vote evenly between Bush and Gore, eliminating any net effect on the total vote. White men voted 5-3 in favor of Bush. This Republican strength among white males was the overwhelming gender influence in the election, probably gaining Bush a net advantage of over 4 million votes. [8]

An explanation for this difference is not easy to find. The simplest reason would be issues with particular impact on one sex or another, with abortion the most obvious possibility. But there is almost no difference between men and women on their "pro-choice" or "pro-life" attitudes. Moreover, although attitudes on abortion were mirrored well in the vote, that issue was actually of very little importance in this election campaign.

Issues may have produced the large gender gap in more subtle ways. Gore's policy agenda was a more "female" agenda, in a political rather than biological sense: the vice president focused on questions likely to be of more concern to women because of their social situation. The social reality in the United States is that women bear a greater responsibility for children's education and for health care of their families and parents, and that women constitute a disproportionate number of the aged. This reality was reflected in political concerns, as women saw education, health care, and Medicare as the principal issues of the election. [9] For these reasons, Gore's greater readiness to use government to solve these problems might appeal particularly to women.

A gender gap has two sides, however, and in 2000 it reflected men's preferences even more than women's. Bush's appeal, too, can be found in particular issues. The social reality is that men are more likely to be the principal source of family income and to assume greater responsibility for family finances. This reality was again mirrored in issue emphases, with men making the state of the economy and taxes their leading priorities, with defense and Social Security of lesser importance.

The gender difference in issue focus was the foundation of gender difference in the vote. Gore was favored among voters who emphasized the "female" issues of health care (an advantage of 31 percent), education (8 percent), and Social Security (18 percent), and Medicare (21 percent). But Bush was favored far more strongly on taxes (a huge advantage of 63 percent) and on world affairs and defense (14 percent), as well as on lesser issues that brought male attention, such as the stereotypically gendered issue of gun ownership.


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. [10]

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 Perils of Prosperity

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. [11]

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. [12]

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 (see Table 2).

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. [13] Because the future is always clouded, voters often use past performance to evaluate the prospective programs offered by candidates, [14] 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." [15]

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. [16] 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." [18] 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, [19] 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. [20] 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. [21]

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. [22]

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 (see Table 3). 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 (see Table 4). [23]

The vote showed significant shifts from 1996 (see Figure 3), 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. [24] 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.


The long election of 2000 eventually settled the primary question, the identity of the new president. Yet it raised new issues, even fundamental questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of American institutions.

The Presidency

President George W. Bush enters the presidency without any mandate and with half of the nation questioning his legitimate title to the White House. He shares power with a Congress essentially evenly divided between the parties, and he will confront the bitterness of disappointed Democrats. The public, now more knowledgeable and more cynical about political maneuvering, provides no clear policy direction for governing a divided nation.

Still, the government will function. Even though the president had only half the votes, he has all of the executive power. His predecessor, Clinton, also lacked a popular majority yet managed effectively to use the powers of his office--appointments, executive orders, vetoes, budgets, and agenda-setting. The mail will be delivered, the diplomatic corps and the armed forces will be ready to defend American interests abroad, appropriations will eventually be passed.

Perhaps the new president will show unexpected skill in conciliating his opposition and bringing the citizenry together on a moderate agenda. Perhaps he will develop a personal magnetism to inspire public enthusiasm, a quality unseen in either candidate during the campaign. More likely is failure to innovate solutions to national problems and continued deadlock on such issues as health care, Social Security, campaign finance reform, and foreign policy in the post--cold war world. Most likely is a contentious election in 2004, when the incumbent president will try to defend his questionable title to office.

The election result will reinforce the recently diminished status of the presidency. With the ending of the cold war, foreign policy became less of an immediate concern for the nation. The institutional effect was to decrease the significance of the president, the principal officer of foreign policy. Economic prosperity has had a similar effect. With no apparent need for government intervention to maintain employment and growth, the economic leadership of the president has become less critical. Instead, the vital decisions seem to be those of the unelected Federal Reserve Board, whose chair, Alan Greenspan, is often given the most credit for the long-term boom.

In addition to these general impersonal influences, Clinton weakened the moral standing of the presidency by his personal conduct, and the office was further diminished by the Republican impeachment and its focus on Clinton's salacious affair. The presidency has been a powerful position because it combines the "dignity" of a head of state with the "efficiency" of a head of government. [25] Losing much of the majesty of the office also means a partial loss of its utility.

Because of the Clinton-Lewinsky-impeachment controversy, the personal traits of the next president became an important element in the 2000 election, and this was a principal source of Bush's appeal. The nation now may regain ritualistic "dignity and honor" in the White House, as both candidates pledged. It is less likely, however, to regain the political advantages of a strong presidency--national unity, policy leadership, and inspiration to great goals.

The Electoral College

The election vindicated the genius of the seemingly plodding institutions of the American republic, the Constitution, and particularly the electoral college. The Framers had devised the electoral system for an age in which transportation and communication were slow, but it served the country well in a time of jet planes and e-mail. By providing a long interval between the popular vote and the meeting of the electors, the system provided time to count and recount votes, to argue and settle lawsuits, to begin cooling passions, and to allow a degree of routine transition to a new administration.

Those advantages should be kept in mind in the inevitable consideration of changes in the electoral college. [26] If the present system were changed, politics would change, as campaigners altered their techniques and redirected their efforts, and we cannot predict all of the consequences. We can, however, make some estimates of the political impact.

The most obvious change would be to abolish the electoral college altogether and to choose the president by direct popular vote. In 2000 the result would have been a narrow Gore victory. Realistically, this change is unlikely to pass the difficult barriers to constitutional amendment, since the present system works to the advantage of small states, which could prevent an amendment from passing the Senate or the state legislatures.

If adopted, however, this new system would have its own problems. In a close election such as 2000, recounts would surely be demanded throughout the nation. The clumsy election administration evident in Florida is not unique; defects exist in every state and county. A difference of only a hundred votes per county-as little as one vote in every other precinct--would have reversed the results in 2000, so partisans would be mining every possible vein of new votes. A national recount would mean that the extended delays already experienced in the one state would be replicated everywhere, making it unlikely that America would have a president clearly accepted in time for the inauguration.

A frequently heard proposal for change within the electoral college is to alter the means of choosing the electors within the individual states, which could be done simply by state legislatures without amending the U.S. Constitution. Imitating the system presently used in Maine and Nebraska, one elector could be awarded to the leading presidential candidate in each congressional district (corresponding to the members of the House), and two (corresponding to the state's senators) could be awarded to the statewide winner. One immediate effect would be to extend the partisanship of congressional redistricting, known as gerrymandering, to the presidential election.

In 2000 the result of this system would probably be a clear Bush victory, despite his minority in the country. Assuming the presidential vote had followed that for the House, Bush would win 222 votes from the individual congressional districts where Republicans won House seats, and he would add 60 votes from the 30 states he captured. This total of 282 electoral votes would be an even greater distortion of the popular vote than the actual results in the election.

Another proposal has been to divide the electoral college vote of each state in proportion to the popular vote in each state, rather than awarding blocs on the winner-take-all system. In 2000, a proportional division would have led to an even closer result, in favor of Bush, than the actual count: Bush would have received 262.6 electoral votes, Gore 261.4, and Nader 13.8. [27] The proportional system would have made Bush the president with neither a majority nor a plurality of the popular vote. This result would again evidence the tilt of the electoral college toward the small states, but it would certainly not reflect the total electorate's preferences any better than the present system.

Any change other than direct popular vote would lack democratic legitimacy, but the direct vote would suffer such great problems in operation that it is unlikely to be adopted. Perhaps the only change that can be easily made is to abolish the actual position of elector--to avoid the possibility of "faithless" electors--and simply award the votes mathematically. A minimum and necessary statutory change would provide a better and uniform system of electoral administration under federal law.

Restoring Legitimacy

Beyond the presidency, the election of 2000 has raised troubling questions about the stability of American government generally. In the heat of the recount controversies, the integrity of the entire electoral process was questioned. Both the Gore and Bush camps saw the opposition as preparing a "legal coup d'etat." Party competition was denigrated as illegitimate opposition, directly contradicting the basic premise of a healthy democracy.

Democrats saw ballot manipulation in the actions of the Florida secretary of state--who was characterized as a "Soviet commissar"--and in the counting of overseas ballots. Republicans attacked the courts for "legalistic" interpretations of statutes, although courts are precisely designed for such work. Demonstrators attempted, with some apparent success, to disrupt the recount in Miami. A leading conservative intellectual found a "constitutional crisis...preferable to supine yielding to an imperial judiciary." [28] In keeping with this defiant attitude, the Florida legislature considered choosing electors regardless of the ballot count, and congressional Republicans prepared plans to count the electoral vote for Bush and Cheney whatever the reported tallies.

The institutions of American democracy were eventually vindicated, but the threats themselves are very worrisome. Safety came without much help from politicians who might have acted as statesmen. The art of politics, as eloquently stated by James Madison, is to reconcile the competitive "impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the right of other citizens" in a way that promotes "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." This vital task is entrusted to elected representatives, "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." [29] These qualities were not evident among American politicians in 2000. No major official in either party spoke for any interest other than his party's victory.

Safety came instead from the American public, who showed remarkable restraint and calm, even as it avidly followed events. Americans' "willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome reflects both a realism about the way we run elections and a lack of passion about either candidate." [30] Even as media pundits and partisan advocates became increasingly antagonistic, the public held to two goals--completion and accuracy--and reiterated two basic commands: get it done, and get it right. [31]

The concluding words on the presidential election were spoken long ago, by Benjamin Franklin at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When a spectator outside asked whether the Framers had created a monarchy or a republic, Franklin replied, hopefully, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." [32] After the tumult, division, and enmity born of the election of 2000, Americans will need to try harder if they still want to keep their republic.



(1.) The standard deviation of the Democratic vote was 9.1 in the 2000 election, compared to 7.0 in 1996 and 6.0 in 1992. Two-thirds of the states fall within this range, above or below the national average.

(2.) For an incisive analysis of the actual patterns of conflict at the Constitutional Convention, see Calvin Jillson, Constitution Making (New York: Agathon Press, 1988).

(3.) This figure is the simple regression of the Democratic percentage of the two-party vote in 2000 and 1996, excluding the outlying District of Columbia. The correlation with the three-party vote of 1996 is .95. Correlation of the 2000 and 1992 vote is .86 for the two-party vote and .79 for the three-party vote.

(4.) In the VNS exit poll, approximately half (47 percent) of the Nader voters said they would choose Gore in a two-man race, a fifth (21 percent) would choose Bush, and a third (32 percent) would not vote. Applying these figures to the actual vote, Gore would have achieved a net gain of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than needed to carry the state easily; increased margins in the other close states; and a net gain of nearly 6,000 in New Hampshire, bringing him to a virtual tie.

(5.) See Edward G. Carmines and Geoffrey C. Layman, "Issue Evolution in Postwar American Politics" in Byron E. Shafer, Present Discontents (New York: Chatham House, 1997), 89-134, and William G. Mayer, The Divided Democrats (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).

(6.) Support for Nader was low in all groups, too low for meaningful analysis, and varied little among social groups. He received 5 percent or more in the national exit poll only among 18-29 year-old white men, non-churchgoers, white liberal Independents, and former Perot voters.

(7.) This analysis is based on the VNS national exit poll, as published in the New York Times, 12 November 2000, supplemented by data provided by CBS News.

(8.) There approximately 39.4 million white male voters: 100 million persons voted, 82 percent are white, and 48 percent of the whites are males (100 x .82 x .48 = 39.4). There is no net candidate advantage among white women. Applying the 12-point white gender difference to the male vote, the net advantage to Bush is 4.7 million votes (39.4 x .12). Among blacks, there is overwhelming support for Gore among both sexes. The gender gap there results in a female advantage for Gore. There are approximately 5.2 million black female voters: 100 million persons voted, 10 percent are black, and 52 percent of the blacks are females (100 X .10 X .52). Black men voted 85 percent for Gore, black women 94 percent. Applying the 9-point gender difference to the black female vote, the net advantage for Gore is under half a million votes (5.2 X .09). Combining the races, the gender gap resulted in a Bush gain of over 4 million votes. Calculations are based on the VNS national exit poll.

(9.) Gary Langer, "New Republican, Old Issues," analyzing the ABC News poll, reported at (, November 2000.

(10.) Robert G. Kaiser, "Is This Any Way to Pick A Winner?" Washington Post, 26 May 2000. On the day of the election, the political scientists were less confident: David Stout, "Experts, Once Certain, Now Say Gore Is a Maybe," New York Times, 7 November 2000.

(11.) New York Times, 18 August 2000.

(12.) New York Times, 4 August 2000.

(13.) Morris Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

(14.) Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper, 1957), chap. 3.

(15.) Fiorina, Retrospective Voting, 198.

(16.) My thanks go to Marjorie Hershey, who provided this information from her computer search of the television debates' text.

(17.) Molly W. Sonner and Clyde Wilcox, "Forgiving and Forgetting: Public Support for Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky Scandal," PS 32 (September 1999): 554-57; and John Zaller, "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science," PS 31 (June 1998): 182-87.

(18.) Samuel L. Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 8-9.

(19.) Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone, Who Votes? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 108-14.

(20.) In the CBS poll released on 5 November, those expected not to vote favored Gore by 42 to 28 percent. In the CBS poll released on 13 November, as the electoral count remained undetermined, those who regretted not voting favored Gore by 53 to 33 percent.

(21.) Reported by the Vanishing Voter Project of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government (, November 2000.

(22.) A minority of the voters (47 percent) had annual family incomes below $50,000, compared to 61 percent in 1996 and 68 percent in 1992. This change is far greater than the growth in income during these years.

(23.) The calculation for the last columns is a simple multiplication of the percentage of all responses citing the specific issue or trait by the percentage in that group voting for a particular candidate. Since all respondents did not answer these questions, the resulting figures are then normalized to a base of 100. For example, 18 percent cited the economy and jobs as the most important issue, 59 percent of this group voted for Gore, and all responses summed to 88 percent. The contribution to the Gore vote then = .18 X .59 / .88 = .12. Nader's appeal was spread across many issues and traits, with some particular appeal on the foreign policy issues, probably trade, and his presumed caring quality.

(24.) Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998).

(25.) Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution [1867] (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), chap. 1.

(26.) See Judith Best, The Choice of the People? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996) for elaboration of the competing arguments and proposals.

(27.) Calculated, to three decimal places, from the vote totals in the Appendix table. The remaining 0.2 electoral votes would be cast for minor candidates such as Buchanan.

(28.) William Kristol, "Crowning the Imperial Judiciary," New York Times, 28 November 2000.

(29.) Federalist No. 10 [1787] (New York: Modern Library, 1941), 54, 59.

(30.) Andrew Kohut, "May Either Man Win," New York Times, 25 November 2000.

(31.) See, for example, the CBS News/New York Times Poll of 20 November and the Washington Post! ABC News Poll of 4 December 2000.

(32.) Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 3 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), 85.