Thirty-Six Days of Turmoil: George W. Bush and the 2000 Election

By Eric J. Alves
2010, Vol. 2 No. 07 | pg. 1/4 |
This article is part of the compilation, Years of Tumult: Retrospective Analyses of the George W. Bush Presidency, composed by a class of Northeastern Political Science students and edited by Chris Federici and Nicole Wilkins.

During his first term in office, President claimed that he had a clear political mandate from the voters of the United States to achieve his political goals. However many refuted the claim that President Bush had a political mandate considering he had lost the national popular vote and only gained the White House with a razor thing victory of the State of Florida, which took thirty-six days and the United States Supreme Court to decide. Nevertheless, the political environment of elected officials in Florida and in the U.S. Supreme Court gave Bush confidence that he would win Florida, thus allowing him to look at other victories during the Election of 2000 to defend his claim of a political mandate.

November 7, 2000: All Eyes on Florida

On November 7, 2000, the nation woke up on Election Day not knowing the historical significance this day would eventually hold. To many it was just like any election of years past, the only significance would be that at the end of the night the nation would learn who their forty-third president would be. However the Election of 2000 would be anything but ordinary.

To understand the importance of the events that took place on Election Day, observations must begin in the daysprior to Election Day itself. Weeks prior to November 7th observers of had been telling the nation that the Election of 2000 appeared to be one of the closest elections in . “On October 21, for instance, an ABC News poll showed Bush with a slight lead of 3 to 4 percent. Three days later, a merging of the major daily tracking polls showed a statistical dead heat (Bush 46 percent, Gore 44 percent, with a margin of error between 3 to 4 percent). This dead heat would remained in effect a week later, with Bush and Gore each drawing 45 percent of the “likely vote” according to the New York Daily News.”1 With the presidential race nearing its end the campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush both began to statistically map out the states that needed to be won to ensure they would win the White House, but one thing was evident between both camps, Florida’s 25 electoral votes were needed to reach the magical number of 270.

At the nomination conventions, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of George Bush, and his son George P. Bush made speeches at the Republican Convention and Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth made speeches at the Democratic Convention. Both candidates also ensured money in their campaign war chest would be made readily available. “As the election got closer…both candidates spent liberally on advertisement. Bush spent $14,471,491 on ads in Florida alone. Gore spent less- $10,063,322- but this was his second highest total nationwide spending in a single state.” 2

The biggest advantage George Bush had in the state of Florida was the connections he had to the state. As it was stated above, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was younger brother of George Bush, and he was a co-chair for Bush’s Florida campaign. Secretary of State Katherine, who was in charge of overseeing all elections and election processes in Florida, was the second co-chair for the Florida campaign for George Bush. Jeb Bush’s son George P. Bush spoke to the Latino and youth voters. Lastly, ensure the Bush campaign would have a presence in Florida, while the campaign spoke to voters of other states, former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, parents of both George and Jeb Bush, spoke with voters. Without any similar family and political tie to the state of Florida, Al Gore tried to win voters through his choice of running mate, Joe Lieberman. “Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, not only appealed to Florida’s large Jewish population, but his moral stance against Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair reached out to social conservative Florida, a region that Democrats feared might be susceptible to poaching by Bush.”3 With the campaigns coming to a close, both Gore and Bush went into Election Day unsure how the state would fall.

Both the Gore and the Bush campaign would experience a bit of foreshadowing to what the nation would experience. At 5:30 a.m., Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign director of polling, reviewed poll results before he completed his Election Day ritual of golfing. Three days before the election, Dowd commissioned a poll that showed Bush leading Florida by five points, Michigan by four, and Washington by four. “History, he knew, showed that when there is no incumbent president running, the election always breaks in favor or the party out of power in the last days.”4 But on that morning, Bush’s leads had all disappeared. In a poll conducted the Sunday and Monday before Election Day, had Bush dead even with Gore in Florida and Washington, and down one in Michigan. In the Nashville, TN, Rob Klain got a similar alarm that something was going wrong in Florida. At 8 a.m in Nashville, Rob Klain, the former chief-of-staff for Vice President Gore, received a call in the Nashville campaign headquarters from Lester Hyman. Hyman told Klain that his daughter Liz, a Washington attorney and a former colleague of Klain at the Department of Justice, was a poll volunteer at a polling station in Palm Beach County, Florida, a Democratic stronghold, and voters were panicking in confusion that they may of voted for Patrick J. Buchanan and not Gore as they wanted to because of the ballot format.

As the day went along both campaigns were making final election pushes and kept a close eye on Florida, both camps were being to become uncomfortable by how close the internal polls were. Then the unthinkable occurred for both campaigns, networks had made a decision as to who won Florida. By 7:45 pm, the network polls had showed Gore would have a substantial margin of victory by 6 points and claimed they were 99.5 percent sure Gore would win, meaning there was only 1 chance in 200 that they were wrong. “At 7:48 pm, NBC became the first network to call Florida for Gore. By 8:02 pm, all five networks and the AP had placed Florida in the Gore Column.”5 It appeared that Gore had won and was the new president of the United States, even though many of the polls in Florida remained open. Then the unthinkable happened. At 10 pm, every network had removed Florida from a Gore victory to once again too close to call. It had appeared that the tracking polls of the networks did not match the actual results coming in. It appeared that with 24 percent of the precincts of Florida reporting, Bush appeared to have a 3-point lead.

At 10 p.m., Volusia County elections supervisor Deanie Lowe was told by the county attorney, that she had just witnessed Gore’s total go backwards in the poll. Lowe quickly dismissed the claim and wrote it off as the attorney being tired from the long day. Then her phone rang. “A staff member was calling from an election night party across the street. ‘Gore just went backwards, Deanie,” she said.6 Quickly realizing two people could not have made the same mistake; she ordered the computers in her tabulation room to stop as she called the vendor of the software. The vendor’s troubleshooter informed Lowe to print out the tabulation, and there the error was realized. “In Precinct 216, home to a couple of hundred voters, Gore had been credited with minus 16,000.”7 The data card appeared to have give Bush 2,800 votes and 10,000 votes to the candidate of the Socialist Worker Party. “Lowe got busy removing the offending information from the county tally, then entered the correct numbers, which were: 193 votes for Gore, 22 for Bush, one for Nader, and none for the socialist.”8 Accounts of Gore losing votes mysteriously were occurring all over Florida, not just in Volusia County. Another faulty reporting error in Brevard County reduced Gore’s total by another 4,000 votes. 9

At 2 a.m., the polling results for the Fox News Network had George Bush leading Florida by 51, 433 votes, with only 179, 713 votes remaining to be counted. John Ellis, election analyst for Fox and cousin of George Bush, realized that for Gore to secure victory in Florida, he would need to win 63 percent of the remaining votes. Ellis made a decision and Fox took a leap of faith. At 2:16 a.m., anchor Brit Hume declared Bush the victor of Florida and thus the next president. As Fox was declaring Bush the winner of Florida, NBC analysts were observing their polls and were confused and were unable to make a decision. Not wanting to trail in coverage, NBC called Florida for Bush at 2:17 a.m., followed by CBS and CNN, and then ABC at 2:20 a.m. The momentum had shifted to Bush. Prior to the decision, Gore had 255 electoral votes and Bush had 246, with only three states remaining undecided- New Mexico, Oregon and Florida. The 25 electoral votes were key because no matter what happened in the other two states, it was impossible to cover the difference of Florida’s 25 electoral votes, 25 that was now in the Bush Column. 10

Feeling that momentum was now with the Bush campaign, Al Gore and campaign chairman William Daley made the decision to concede the race, a decision that was made without checking in Klein and the rest of the staff at the campaign headquarters. At 2:30 a.m., Daley called Bush’s campaign chairman Donald L. Evans that Gore would soon concede to Bush and then make a public statement.

However, both campaigns’ numbers were not matching the networks, in their minds Florida was still too close to call. In Austin, TX, Both Rove and Dowd had doubts. Their results had Florida at its best heading toward an automatic recount. Karen Hughes, the director of communication for Bush informed Jeb Bush that her poll numbers were no were near that being reported by networks, they were much closer. In Nashville, TN, Michael Whouley, a Gore strategist, remained skeptical as well. “The margin of victory wasn’t 50,000 in favor of Bush- it was more like 30,000.”11 Also, Whouley knew Palm Beach County wasn’t nearly as close to vote completion as people believed. There were still 100,000 votes to be counted there and it was a strong Democratic part of the state.

Then to everyone’s surprise the networks announced Gore had called Bush to concede and was now on his way to Nashville to make a formal announcement. Florida Attorney General Butterworth quickly called the Nashville headquarters to state that Gore had to be stopped from giving that speech. Butterworth informed Whouley the election was going to automatic recount. According to Florida law, “if the returns for any office reflect that a candidate was defeated or eliminated by one-half of a percent or less of the votes cast for such office…the board responsible for certifying the results of the vote on such a race or measure shall order a recount of the votes cast with respect to such office or measure.”12 With this new information, Whouley quickly got into contact with Daley and informed him about the true results and the Florida law. With Florida too close, Daley called Evans back and informed him there was a problem and not to let Bush make his victory speech. After informing Gore, the vice president called Austin back. Gore informed Bush that the original concession was to be retracted and he is no longer conceding the race due to Florida being too close to call, much to Bush’s surprise. Florida was now back in the undecided column.

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