Sabatos Crystal Ball

2000 Presidential Election

UVA Center for Politics January 1st, 2008


There have been many close presidential elections, but never before- and maybe never again- will there be one as excruciatingly tight as the election of 2000. A contest that attracted more than 105 million Americans to the polls essentially came down to a few hundred ballots in one state: a margin of less than one-thousandth of 1 percent of the national vote. Almost anything could have changed the outcome- a candidate staying in Florida to work the polls on Election day, a few more well-placed television ads, a last minute endorsement by some well-known local pol, or a thousand other plausible possibilities. But “would have, could have, should have” does not count in the harsh world of elections.

The Republican Establishment got its preferred candidate, just as it has done every four years since 1968. John McCain lost like all other GOP insurgents, including Reagan in 1976 and Jack Kemp in 1988. The party clearly learned from its landslide defeat in 1964 when it last nominated a pure insurgent Barry Goldwater. On the Democratic side, the incumbent party was also in no mood for insurgency, having finally regained the presidency in 1992 with a centrist-liberal Southerner. Gore was the logical Clinton successor, whether he thought of himself in quite that way or not. All things considered, it is remarkable that George W. Bush became the forty-third president. He was fighting the historically potent continuation of peace and near-golden prosperity. At the same time, voters gave George W. Bush the presidency but no real mandate. How could a candidate who lost the popular vote by more than half a million votes and barely secured an Electoral College majority in a disputed state claim otherwise? Surprisingly, though, the tight results predict nothing about Bush’s likely fate as president. Many “minority elected” presidents include some of our best (Lincoln and Truman) and some of our worst (Buchanan and Nixon). As the country and George W. Bush are already learning anew, a presidential election- even one as stunning as 2000- is far more a beginning than an end, not an omen but merely an opening to history yet unmade and undetermined.