The Role of Issues in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election

Article excerpt

What was the impact of issues in the 2000 presidential election? Does an examination of the issues shed any light on why the election ended in a virtual tie between the two candidates, with a very narrow popular victory by half a million more votes nationally for Al Gore but with George W. Bush winning the electoral vote (223 to 217)? In this article, we will consider the potential impact that issues and broad policy concerns articulated during the 2000 election campaign had on the outcome of that election.

Some scholars suggest that election outcomes are the result of long-term factors such as the state of the national economy and that short-term factors that appear during the election campaign, such as issues, lack relevance to the election outcome (see, for example, Lewis-Beck and Rice 1992; Fair 1988; Abramowitz 1996; Campbell 1996). Using prediction models based largely on measures of the national economy, these scholars claim they can accurately predict presidential election outcomes six months or more in advance of the general election, thereby suggesting that campaign activities and issues are superfluous. However, the prediction modeling approach suffered a major setback in 2000. Virtually all of the models predicted that Gore would handily win the presidential election in 2000. The fact that the prediction models were in error gives greater emphasis to the potential impact and role of issues in the outcome of that election contest. Yet to raise this consideration is not to imply that we should take a narrow view of the role that issues play in elections and voting behavior more generally.

In the broader literature, issues have come to be seen as more than just one of the factors influencing the candidate choice in an election. For example, democratic theory raises the ideal of an informed dialogue between candidates and citizens that guides subsequent policy decisions made by the elected officials. Even if scholarly works such as The American Voter (Campbell et al. 1960) raise doubts about the reality of the democratic ideal, issues are seen as playing other important roles in elections and election campaigns.

A cataloguing of the issues addressed by the candidates and the prevalence of various issues on the minds of the public convey a portrait of the concerns confronting the nation at the time of the election. Knowing what issues and themes are discussed in the campaign tells us a great deal about the public agenda, even if the election outcome does not act as a policy mandate for the newly elected officials.

The candidates use their issue messages as a means of creating an image illustrating not only the future direction their decisions may take but the manner in which they may carry out their duties once in office. The issue messages articulated by the candidates no doubt convey subtle cues regarding the differences in the style of the candidates, but presumably they also convey more cognitive information that voters can employ to determine if there are meaningful policy differences between the candidates. Regardless of whether the preferences citizens have on issues influence their voting decisions, it is important to know if the public even perceives a policy difference between the contending candidates. If no differences emerge on particular issues, it is obvious that those issues could hardly have an impact on the voter's candidate choice. Yet perceived differences between the candidates also tell us about the extent to which various issues were contentious during the election campaign. Knowing what issues are worthy of public debate at the time of a presidential election is itself a noteworthy piece of evidence about social evolution.

Likewise, the very issue preferences articulated by the citizens present an elaborate self-image of the American electorate. Elections provide an important moment in history when citizens have an opportunity to express their values and deep-seated beliefs through a dialogue with presidential candidates. …