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Memorable Presidential Elections

The campaign and election of 2000

George W. Bush was elected the 43rd President of the United States after prevailing in the Florida recount and winning the Electoral College by a margin of 271 to 266. Bush lost the popular vote, however, becoming the first candidate since Benjamin Harrison to do so and still make it to the Oval Office. His final total of 50,456,062 was more than half-a-million votes short of Al Gore's total of 50,996,582. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, running on the ballot of the Green Party, received nearly 2.9 million votes, and Patrick J. Buchanan, running as a conservative populist, garnered about 439,000 votes. Such a mixed result has happened four times in American history, but the most recent was in 1888, and the 2000 result generated calls in some quarters — though not a serious political movement — to abolish the Electoral College.

George W. Bush

Bush ran for the presidency vowing to be a "compassionate conservative," but by the time Al Gore conceded and Bush made his acceptance speech from the Texas statehouse, the trait of Bush's that Americans were most familiar with was his competitiveness.

Although new to national politics, Bush was practically anointed as the Republican standard-bearer by the GOP establishment in early 1999 after he proved to be a one-man fundraising machine that scored a record $68.7 million the year before the election. There was a speed bump on the way to Bush's coronation in the form of one John Sidney McCain III, a Vietnam war hero and senator from Arizona who used New Hampshire's open primary to soundly thump Bush. This upset made the South Carolina contest all-important. There, Team Bush was able to upend McCain, but the roughness of its tactics ruptured the relationship between the two candidates' respective loyalists and staffs — and strained relations between the senator and the governor as well. "I want the presidency in the best way," a bitter McCain said after he lost South Carolina to Bush. "Not the worst way."

McCain stayed in the race, winning primaries in Michigan and Arizona, but Bush's vastly superior organization, war-chest, and list of surrogates — McCain only had four of his GOP colleagues aboard the "Straight Talk Express," while 37 Republican senators signed onto Team Bush — made the outcome seem inevitable. Yet by the time the Republican convention was held in Philadelphia that summer, McCain was on board. He forcefully endorsed Bush in a prime-time convention speech and appeared on stage with the nominee on the convention's last night. In 1992, Bush's father had been hurt by a convention portrayed as intolerant, right-wing, and too-white. Rove and the other architects of the 2000 campaign did not make that mistake. Polarizing preachers from the Christian right were kept away from the podium. Prominent speaking roles went to blacks, Latinos, and women. In his acceptance speech, Bush vowed to "extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country." Signaling his intention to set a new tone in the nation's capital, which had been the scene of an acrimonious impeachment fight during Bill Clinton's presidency, Bush indicated that he would behave neither like Clinton nor the House Republicans who attempted to hound Clinton out of office.

"I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years," Bush said in his nomination acceptance speech. "I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

Al Gore

For the next three months, the race between Bush and Al Gore see-sawed back and forth. In three debates, Bush was consistent and steady, projecting a reasonable persona and not flubbing any questions. Gore's staff had inexplicably raised expectations for their candidate by publicly disparaging Bush's intellect prior to the debates. Certainly, Gore also knew his brief and, particularly on foreign policy, was able to demonstrate his experience and expertise. But Gore lost points with the public with his impatient and patronizing attitude toward Bush, and public opinion polls going into the last weekend showed that Gore's one-time lead had evaporated, with Bush slightly ahead. A story of a long-ago Bush drunk-driving arrest surfaced over the weekend, but pollsters detected only a slight drop in Bush's support. On November 7, Americans went to the polls with the same uncertainty about the outcome as the candidates. They — and the nation — would remain in the dark for another six weeks.

Gore initially conceded to Bush on election night, then later rescinded his concession in a terse phone call to Bush when it appeared that Florida was too close to call — and that victory in the Electoral College depended entirely on Florida. This set the stage for a no-holds-barred recount in Florida that went to the Florida Supreme Court (which ruled 4-3 for Gore) and the U.S. Supreme Court (which ruled 5-4 for Bush.) A strange-looking "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County resulted in more votes for third-party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan than was expected, while partially punched voting cards with their infamous "hanging chads" made the job of recounting tense and uncertain. In the end, a recount paid for by news organizations showed that Bush indeed won Florida by 537 votes, but many Democratic activists remained unconvinced of Bush's legitimacy even after he was sworn in. Partly, this was because of Gore's victory in the popular vote. In addition, the presence of Ralph Nader on the ballot almost certainly cost Gore the win in Florida — and in tiny New Hampshire, which also would have given Gore the presidency.

2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS

CANDIDATE PARTY POPULAR VOTE (% of total)* ELECTORAL VOTES

Al Gore Democrat 50,999,897 (48.38%) 266

George Bush Republican 50,456,002 (47.87%) 271

Material provided courtesy of AmericanPresident.org at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Copyright 2003. The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.