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Why They Tied

How the election came down to the wire.


by James Leroy Wilson
November 10, 2000

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Why They Tied_James Leroy Wilson-How the election came down to the wire. Yes, there will be a winner of this Presidential election. There won't be a real tie. But when the difference between George Bush and Al Gore is one vote in a thousand - with even that in doubt until absentee ballots are counted - and when the Electoral College outcome depends on state recounts, there's no better way to describe it but that they tied. The eventual winner must be thankful not only for those who voted for him, but for those who intended to vote against him but did not vote at all on account of illness, accident, death, homework, deadlines, bad weather, or confusion over voter registration status.

Other factors may have helped cause the tie. The revelation of Bush's long-ago DUI arrest probably cost him very few voters. Maybe as few as one voter in a thousand, some of whom may have voted for someone else, some of whom stayed home. Which might be the difference in the popular vote. Then again, he might have gained votes, because when confronted with it he freely admitted it like a man, in contrast to alleged lies about wrongdoings associated with President Clinton and Gore. Who knows?

And then there are the inefficiencies, mistakes, and possible abuses in the voting and vote-counting process itself. Florida's mess is highlighted, but what went on in some counties or precincts there goes on all over the country. Only when the vote is close is national attention focused on errors and systemic problems with the electoral process, and only then is an exact, perfect count demanded.

Finally, the media may have played a role. Voters in the conservative Florida panhandle, located in the Central time zone where polls stay open longer than in the rest of the state, were told by television news anchors that Gore won the state, which may have discouraged turnout. And in the western states, potential voters told that Gore also won Michigan and Pennsylvania could have safely concluded that Gore won the election and may have stayed home.

These all appear to be quirky explanations, but in a tight race any reason to vote for one candidate instead of another gains importance. In other words, what would normally be statistically insignifcant factors are no longer so. What none of these explain, however, is why the vote was so close to begin with.

Certainly questions of personality, experience, honesty, and intelligence were influential. Lies and demagoguery designed to win votes of stupid people no doubt worked. The debates may have helped Bush make a comeback of sorts among people who hadn't made up their minds on substantive differences. But I think the Bush and Gore campaigns were helped and shaped by forces outside their control.

These forces were third parties. Particularly, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan.

If Gore is finally judged the loser, many of his supporters will blame Nader's candidacy. I think, however, that Nader helped Gore by forcing him to run to the left. Conventional wisdom says this is what hurt him, but think of the alternative. If Gore had ran to the center, greater numbers of die-hard leftists would have flocked to Nader in protest. More black voters and seniors would have stayed home. And Bush, a sunnier man running on moderate conservatism, would have appeared just as well suited to continue America's prosperity without the taint of association with Clinton's scandals and Washington partisanship. So Gore came out with the promises of free prescription drugs, hate crimes legislation, environmental protection, campaign finance reform, fighting Big Business, and more education spending. Gore's campaign ultimately diminished support for Nader, who garnered far less than opinion pollsters projected. Gore engergized the party base and hoped to keep enough independent voters who approved of Clinton's performance. Good call. Nader gave Gore a focus and a strategy, and it may have succeeded.

But Bush was helped even more by Buchanan. Buchanan's bolting of the Republican Party in favor of running on the Reform ticket solved a lot of problems for Bush. Buchanan, rightly or wrongly, was portrayed as holding racist views, which hurt the GOP's image. In any event, his isolationist foreign policy and ethnically discriminating immigration stance did not reflect the mainstream of the Party. With Buchanan bolting the GOP, Bush became independent of Buchanan's now non-existent wing; Bush would not be associated with extremists and racists. Not only would this reassure the American public, it would reassure the GOP's own moderate wing and play into Bush's image as a reasonable, bi-partisan leader willing to compromise.

This came in handy regarding the abortion question. If Buchanan stayed in the GOP and supported Bush, moderates would have put tremendous pressure on Bush to name a pro-choice running mate in order to soften the image of the party. Without Buchanan tainting the image of the party, Bush could afford to be smarter than that, reasoning that if protecting abortion rights is your single issue, you wouldn't vote Republican anyway. What could have hurt Bush among pro-lifers, however, would be to name a pro-choice running mate. Single-issue voters would have stayed home or support Buchanan. When Bush named fellow pro-lifer Dick Cheney, pro-lifers received a sign that they could trust and support Bush. Buchanan's disassociation with Bush could only help Bush, and when Bush picked Cheney, Buchanan was reduced to irrelevancy, with no issue that wasn't already trumpeted by some other party. As a result, no viable right-wing party threatened Bush's chances. Bush could afford to be the moderate conservative he is, earning the support of all wings of his party without catering to any. Bush had the image the Republican party needs to project to be successful. I doubt the GOP could have put up such a united front had the Buchanan Brigade stuck around.

Under the circumstances, Bush and Gore ran their campaigns about as well as they could given their own limitations. These campaigns were strengthened by the presence of third parties, which provided a framework for the electorate and influenced key decisions on both sides. In retrospect, every sigh, every mispronounced word, may have influenced somebody's vote and be cause for regret. But each could have done a lot worse.

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