The Closest Presidential Election Ever - Bush Won, Barely, by Offering a Slightly to the Right, Limited-Government Presidency

By Edwards, Lee | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

The Closest Presidential Election Ever - Bush Won, Barely, by Offering a Slightly to the Right, Limited-Government Presidency


Edwards, Lee, The World and I


A presidential election is usually a referendum on continuity or change, but in 2000 the American people seemed to vote for continuity and change.

The public's desire for change frustrated Vice President Al Gore, who should have been able to win the presidency by promising to continue the unquestioned peace and prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years. But President Bill Clinton was so personally unwelcome in the living rooms of most Americans that Gore kept Clinton at arm's length throughout the campaign, insisting again and again, "I am my own man." Gore strove to negate the wish for change by emphasizing the "dangerous" nature of his opponent's reforms, such as tax cuts for the "rich" and partial privatization of Social Security.

The desire for continuity hampered Gov. George W. Bush, who had to be careful not to criticize too harshly the popular record of the Clinton- Gore administration. He instead promised to solve the problems that had not been addressed by Clinton and Gore while using nonthreatening rhetoric such as "compassionate conservatism." Bush was unable to use the character issue as much as he had planned after Gore successfully decoupled himself from Clinton at the Democratic convention.

Closest contest since 1960

The ambivalent mood of the electorate produced the closest presidential contest since 1960 when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by only two-tenths of one percent of the popular vote--about the same margin by which Gore apparently topped Bush in 2000. But Kennedy won both the popular and electoral contests, while Gore narrowly won only the popular vote on November 7. Bush won the electoral vote and therefore the presidency, accruing 271 electoral votes (one more than needed) to Gore's 267. Or did he?

Bush was preparing to announce some of the more prominent members of his cabinet (Colin Powell as secretary of state, etc.) when Florida with its 25 electoral votes suddenly became too close to call. The nation was plunged into a protracted political and legal battle over whether a majority of Florida's voters had voted for Bush or Gore that ended more than one month later.

And yet, depending upon your measuring stick, the election was not close. Bush carried 29 out of 50 states and over three-fourths of the counties in America. The disparity is even greater when you note that the Bush counties covered some 2.4 million square miles of the country, the Gore counties only about 580,000 square miles.

On the other hand, according to National Review's Kate O'Beirne, Gore carried voters in the largest cities by a three-to-one margin. In cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000, Gore's margin was three to two. The suburbs split evenly between the candidates, and

Bush carried smaller towns and rural areas with 60 percent of the vote.

This geographic divide, says O'Beirne, "reflects a cultural split over the role of government." Federal subsidies and mediation are valued in the cities, but in less densely populated areas government and its benefits are "best kept at arm's length."

From the viewpoint of political science, the 2000 presidential race was amazingly close because the two aspirants were so evenly matched in the five essential areas of a campaign: money, organization, the candidates as campaigners, issues, and the media.

Money. A shrewd and successful politician once remarked, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." In our modern media society, a political campaign cannot survive without it. And because the stakes were high (control of the White House and the Congress) and the economy was booming, the 2000 federal elections were the most expensive in U.S. history, with analysts estimating that as much as $3 billion was raised and spent on the presidential and congressional races.

The two major presidential candidates each received $67.6 million in public funds. But that funding was easily exceeded by the soft money the two parties spent to promote their presidential contenders--an estimated $236 million.

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