Eight Sighs, Four Exaggerations|
And One Hell Of An Election
By Charlie Cook
This is truly a fascinating time in American politics. The entire political landscape has changed over the last decade and a half. We've gone from virtually a Republican hegemony over the presidency and Democratic domination of the Congress to a partisan equilibrium on almost every governmental level, save governorships. National elections are supposed to produce definitive winners and losers, but this election resulted in a tie. As Michael Barone so ably stated it in his introduction to this book, "The 49% Nation," America is split right down the middle. Fifteen years ago, the "Republican lock on the Electoral College" theory popularized by the late Horace Busby, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, seemed firmly in place, as was a Democratic stranglehold on the House and, to a lesser extent, the Senate. Today both notions are a distant memory.
Additional race-by-race analysis from Charlie Cook is available in profiles throughout the 2002 Almanac.
Equally divided as this election was, it was also the most partisan election we have seen in many years. Of the 39% of the electorate who called themselves Democrats in 2000, Gore pulled 86% of the vote, which was not only higher than Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 but also the highest percentage for any Democratic nominee in at least the last seven presidential elections. Of the 35% who considered themselves Republicans, Bush won 91%, second only to Ronald Reagan's 92% performance in his 1984 landslide victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale, and tying Bush's father's party support against former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. The partisans almost canceled each other out in 2000. The larger base of Democrats gave Gore a narrow advantage over the even more solidified, but smaller, group of Republicans for Bush. As Barone points out, we have seen a substantial increase in straight-ticket voting in recent years, a reversal from a previous pattern of more ticket splitting.
While partisans largely stayed loyal to their parties, independents split straight down the middle, with Bush edging out Gore by just 47%-45%-not quite enough to overcome Gore's small edge among partisans. This was the closest split among independents in modern history; the second closest was in 1992 when Bill Clinton beat President Bush among independents 38%-32%.
Forces at Work
While some have characterized the 2000 election as a freakish election, the political equivalent of a hundred-year flood, it actually may be the confluence of a number of dynamics that will keep this equilibrium in place until some dramatic event gives one party a majority.
The Great And Growing Cultural Divide
The divisions among the electorate went far beyond the simple equation of Democrats backing a Democrat, Republicans supporting a Republican, and independents splitting down the middle. From 1968 through 1988, Republicans won four out of five presidential elections, losing only in 1976 after the Watergate scandal. During that period a clear pattern emerged. Democrats routinely carried the big cities by huge margins and won moderately sized cities and towns by somewhat smaller margins. At the same time, Republicans won small towns and rural areas by wide margins, and carried the suburbs by comfortable 10-22 point margins. The Republican recipe of winning big in rural, small-town and suburban America was almost always sufficient to overwhelm the Democratic vote in the cities.
That pattern changed in 1992, however, when the political divide between urban and rural voters began to increase rather dramatically. Clinton's 58% in 1992 in the big cities (population over 500,000) grew to 68% in 1996. Gore took a whopping 71% in these areas in 2000. Although Gore improved only a half-dozen points over Clinton's 1992 number in the overall vote, he doubled that margin in the big cities. While Gore received one percentage point less than Clinton did in 1996, he ran three points ahead of Clinton in those big cities and seven points better among voters in cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000. Much, but not all, of that increase came in increased Democratic performance among African-American voters. Gore beat Bush among black voters by 90%-8%, the worst performance by a Republican in modern history. Though Bush did better among Hispanic voters than any Republican has since Ronald Reagan in 1984, it did not offset the impact of that strongly Democratic, African-American vote, resulting in Bush getting buried in the cities.
At the same time, Bush easily bested recent Republican performances among voters in rural America, winning 59%. By comparison, Dole pulled only 46% of the rural vote in 1996. The elder Bush only took 40% and 44% in 1992 and 1988, respectively. Bush's performance was second in recent times only to Reagan's 1984 landslide. While Bush outperformed Dole by seven percentage points this year in the national vote, he bettered Dole by 13 points among these rural voters and surpassed him by 18 points among those in communities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000.
In short, there is a huge and growing divide between the voting patterns of the 29% of Americans who live in big and medium-sized cities and the 28% living in small-town and rural America. Urban America is getting more Democratic, while rural and small town America is getting more Republican. This was very true on the presidential level and fairly accurate on the congressional level. For Democrats, as veteran Democratic media consultant David Dixon said, "If you didn't have a Starbucks in your district, you were hurtin'."
What remains, of course, are the suburbs, which in 2000 made up a whopping 43% of the total vote. The Republican recipe of running up the score in suburban, rural and small-town America fell apart this year due to their drop in performance in the suburbs. In 1980, 1984 and 1988, Republican presidential nominees pulled between 55% and 61% of the suburban vote, running between four and 10 points better in the suburbs than in the nation as a whole. But in 1992, 1996 and 2000, the GOP nominees ran between one and three points worse in the suburbs than nationally, with Clinton actually carrying the suburbs by two points in 1992 and five points in 1996. Bush edged out Gore in 2000 by 49%-47%. Importantly, Bush's scant two-point victory in suburbs this year was driven by carrying Southern suburbs by 20 points, while losing non-Southern suburbs by about 15 points.
Why has this happened? A good guess is that social and cultural issues have contributed to these divisions. As Republicans increasingly become identified with conservative and/ or moralistic positions on social and cultural issues, such as abortion and gun control, their fortunes have improved in the heartland of America-small towns and farms and in the South. But those same issues are hurting them badly among urban and previously Republican leaning, non-Southern, suburban voters, turning the suburbs into a battleground. The environment and education were additional factors motivating many of these relatively affluent suburban voters to begin voting Democratic-particularly after Republicans sought to abolish the Department of Education during the Contract with America days, which was seen by voters as the federal government trying to divest itself of any responsibility for education. After their 1994 electoral debacle, Democrats generally moved to the middle on economics, emphasizing federal debt retirement-not withstanding Gore's turn to the left in his convention acceptance speech-and so became more acceptable to middle-class and upscale suburban voters outside the South. But Bush so successfully emphasized the education issue that for the first time in memory, Republicans are now seen as better on education than Democrats. But while Republicans captured the education issue in the 2000 election, abortion, gun control and the environment remained problem spots for them with swing suburban voters.
Another factor in the new competitiveness of the suburbs is that the nature of them has changed. The image of suburbs used to be lily-white communities as seen in Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. In more recent years, however, closer-in, older suburban communities have become much more racially and ethnically diverse as more city-dwellers have crossed the line, bringing with them their urban-Democratic voting patterns. But as suburbs reach farther out into places that were once rural countryside, these new areas are remaining very conservative.
In short, these profound changes in the suburbs and in suburban voting patterns, though seen far more in areas outside the South, has had a dramatic impact on the political balance of power in this country. Old patterns are gone. The size of the suburban vote is increasingly dramatically, while simultaneously becoming more of a swing, rather than Republican, vote. These changes are profoundly impacting the nation's political landscape. The population shift from the Democratic urban and Republican rural areas to the suburbs has only accelerated this trend.
Continuity Versus Change
Historians and political scientists are fond of saying that our presidential elections usually amount to a contest between the desire for continuity and the competing desire for change. Normally, one sentiment easily outweighs the other. In this election, though, Americans were deeply divided on this idea as well.
When Americans went to the polls in November 2000, the economy seemed solid and was in its 73rd consecutive month of economic growth since April 1991. Americans seemed to think that the economy and maybe the country were on cruise control, needing a minimum of attention. As a result, they gave political leaders very little credit for this extraordinary period of economic expansion, awarding some to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, with Presidents Bush and Clinton and congressional Republicans and Democrats alike sharing a little. To the extent that Americans attributed a cause to this prosperity, they pointed to technology, a more productive workforce and streamlined management. While not giving Vice President Gore much credit for the strong economy, they certainly were not looking for change or showing concern about their jobs.
On matters relating to policy, Americans were also very content. After Clinton and congressional Democrats veered too far to the left in 1993 and 1994-and as a result suffered devastating electoral losses in 1994-they moved toward the center and, generally speaking, have occupied a center-left position ever since. After their huge 1994 victory, Republicans veered off to the right, losing seats and another presidential election in 1996, and then started to move back toward the center, though they took a detour to the right in 1998 for impeachment. Since then, however, both in policy and style, Republicans have toned down and moved to a center-right position.
With a center-left Democratic president being kept in check by a center-right Republican Congress, and vice versa, neither party strayed too far from the middle. To the extent that Democrats and Republicans, Clinton and Congress, agreed on very little, little happened. They couldn't agree on much on spending, so big budget-busting spending packages did not pass. They couldn't agree much on taxes-which ones to cut, for whom and by how much-so taxes did not get significantly cut. The end result: Big spending increases and deep tax cuts alike were kept to a minimum. The economy was expanding at an explosive pace and federal budget deficits evaporated; surpluses soared and the national debt stopped growing for the first time since the beginning of the Vietnam War. Voters looked and said, "This is good." While individual voters and constituencies fretted over a lack of action on many specific issues, on balance, Americans were on a policy level as contented as we have seen in many years.
On another level, though, there was a desire for change. Americans had grown weary of eight years of scandals, embarrassment and controversies. While many of these ended up being petty or inconsequential-the president, first lady and their staffs and supporters were less culpable than critics suggested-they still took a toll. It all culminated with the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998. That scandal and the ensuing impeachment trial rank among the most unsavory periods of American political history. While polls showed that a majority of Americans opposed removing President Clinton from office, opinion of him as a person plummeted. National polls typically gave Clinton 60% positive job approval ratings, but also usually gave him a 60% negative personal rating. Generally speaking, about 40% approved of Clinton's job performance and of him as a person. This group, not surprisingly, was made up almost entirely of Democrats. Another 40% disapproved of him in both categories, these being almost exclusively Republicans. The remaining 20%, including very few Democrats or Republicans but a lot of independents, approved of the job Clinton was doing but disapproved of him as a person. Indeed, in only two of eight polls conducted last cycle with a hypothetical matchup between Bush and Clinton did Clinton lead the Texas governor. Interestingly, earlier in the year, Bush typically beat Clinton by high single digits in similar match-ups, while as the election drew nearer Clinton took a four-to-five point lead.
While it can be argued that the marginal difference between how Clinton and Gore would have performed might have made the difference between victory and defeat for Democrats, this data says a lot more about just how conflicted the American electorate was by November of 2000. Voters wanted the scandals and controversies to end and wanted some of the luster that once surrounded the presidency to be restored. So instead of making a choice between either continuity or change, voters wanted both: continuity in policy-a middle-of-the-road approach to governing-and an end to scandals and controversies.
Voters then were confronted with questions about the presidential nominees. Did Al Gore represent enough change from what they had not liked about the Clinton presidency over the last eight years and did George Bush represent too much? While it is easy for Gore supporters to say that he represented all that was good in the Clinton years, Gore's role in campaign fundraising controversies and his unflinching support of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, reinforced by his exaggerations, likely created questions in voters' minds. Undoubtedly, some wondered whether a Gore win might not end the era of half-truths and parsed statements that defined the Clinton years.
The Perceptions Of Bush And Gore
In many ways, voters knew whom they were voting for before the identities of the two nominees became known. Most Democrats were going to vote for the Democrat no matter what. Even before the GOP convention in Philadelphia, Bush had already coalesced most of the Republican base. For Gore, many of the possible defectors came back into the fold after his pick of Senator Joe Lieberman to be his running mate. After the Democratic convention, Gore's support within his own party was nearly comparable to Bush's already high support among Republicans. It was the weakest of Democratic and Republican voters, and independents, who determined this election.
One key factor in determining how these voters would break was to look at how they perceived the two candidates. Neither candidate came into the contest with the political equivalent of a full set of tools. Gore entered the race with voters seeing him as very intelligent, knowledgeable and experienced, and better prepared for the job than Bush. Bush was appealing to voters on a different level. People liked and trusted him, felt more comfortable with him, and saw him as an antidote to the partisanship and finger pointing that has wracked Washington for so long. But in many cases, Gore's advantages of expertise and experience were offset by a feeling that he was aloof and untrustworthy. Gore effectively addressed many of his problems with the Lieberman selection and the Democratic convention, pulling ahead with a lead that would continue until the first debate. The warmth and trust that many felt for Bush, on the other hand, was undercut by reservations about whether he was smart and knowledgeable enough and whether he had the right kind of experience to be an effective president. Whether it was due to Gore's repeated, sarcastic sighs during the debate or the heightened scrutiny of every thing he said, attacks on Gore's honesty effectively reminded swing voters of the truthfulness problem that had surrounded the White House for eight years. This perception caused Gore to drop behind for most of the next month, only to come back during the final 72 hours before the election.
The Late Shift
In a superb post-election analysis, Bill McInturff, Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse of the highly regarded Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies (POS) argue that while Bush was ahead for much of October, the race tightened up considerably in the final weekend before the election. In the end, late deciders (those voters who made up their mind during the last week to the day of the election) moved very heavily in favor of Gore, which helped Gore win the popular vote, 49%-48%. Other factors that allowed Gore to surge ahead at the end were the heavy shift in the issue agenda toward Social Security and the movement toward Gore in the final days among voters who believed that the country was headed in the right direction.
In a pre-election survey, conducted October 16-19 by POS for the Health Insurance Association of America, Bush led Gore by six points, 45%-39%. Those numbers were consistent with what most other quality polls were showing at the time. But the post-election POS analysis cites Voter News Service exit poll numbers that had Bush leading by four points among the voters who said they made up their minds prior to September-50% of the eventual electorate. Among the 13% who made their minds up during the month of September, Bush also led by four points. But among those who said they made their minds up during the first two weeks of October-about 8% of the electorate-Gore led by two points. Among the 10% who made their minds up during the last two weeks of October, Gore led by one point. Then the real movement occurred: Among the 9% of the electorate who said they made their minds up "during the last few days before the election," Gore led by 18 points, and among the 8% who said they decided on Election Day, Gore prevailed by 16 points. While these numbers don't precisely track with what polls were saying at those specific points, the difference could be that some voters were fluctuating between the two candidates.
In their last pre-election track, the weekend before the election, POS found that Bush's six-point lead had narrowed to three points, 45%-42%. As such, POS concluded "among the 17% of late deciders, Bush dropped 2.5 to three points in the last few days before the election." When asked in an open-ended question why they voted as they did, POS found that "early deciders for both Bush and Gore were more likely to cite the fact that their choice was based on the party affiliation of their candidate." POS went on to point out that "on most topics and issues there are no vast differences between the responses of late deciders and those who made up their minds early in the candidate consideration process." But they did find that Gore late deciders based their choice on experience, abortion, protecting the surplus, and that Gore would do a better job taking care of the elderly. Among the far fewer late deciders who ended up in the Bush camp, including quite a few independent and Democratic voters who crossed party lines, the reasons most cited to explain their support of Bush were "abortion and moral issues." POS also cited data showing that among those voters who believed the country was headed in the right direction, Gore ended up pulling a substantially larger share than he earlier had enjoyed.
Many say that given the strong economy, the election was Gore's to lose, that the status quo was the default preference for voters, that if he and his campaign had not been so inept, he would have won. In my view, however, this argument ignores the important factor of Clinton fatigue. Though happy with the economy and satisfied with most of the substantive positions of the Clinton administration, they were tired of lying and embarrassed by the personal behavior of their president. Gore's exaggerations, prior to and during the first debate, reattached the umbilical cord between Gore and Clinton.
Some have argued that Gore's refusal to use Clinton more and better during the campaign cost him the election. But this argument ignores the fact that Gore campaign polls and focus groups made clear that while Clinton was hugely popular among the Democratic base (which ultimately turned out in high numbers), he was radioactive among swing voters. Given the economy and moderate positions of the administration, the only reason many of these voters weren't automatically for Gore was Clinton. While many may have approved of the job that Clinton had done as president, they were sick of him in many other respects and wanted him and all reminders of him gone, quickly. In an era of television, it simply isn't possible to have a high-profile personality such as the president of the United States campaign incognito, even if just in Arkansas.
Taken with Gore's performance during that first debate, it can legitimately be argued that the vice president was eight sighs and four exaggerations away from being elected president. Gore was ahead or tied in almost every reliable poll taken between the end of the Democratic convention and the first debate. Obviously it is impossible to determine whether Gore would have won the election had he performed well in that (and subsequent) debates or whether some other factor would have pushed Bush ahead.
On a technical level, both campaigns seemed to be very well planned and executed. Though the Bush campaign leadership lacked senior-level, presidential campaign experience, they were exceedingly effective in reverse engineering past campaigns: analyzing who won, who lost and why. They exploited Clinton and Gore weaknesses well and pulled off, given the economy, what might be called an inside straight. As for Gore, he beat the point spread, winning the popular vote and coming within a few hundred votes of winning Florida and the presidency, when most expected he would lose the election by two to four percentage points in the popular vote and by dozens of electoral votes.
In the end, this was a hell of an election and was the closest presidential contest that any of us will ever likely see. Still, it will be months, even a year or two before we know whether any of the major factors that affected this election will develop into lasting trends that will affect the mid-term elections in 2002 and the next presidential election. If two years is a lifetime in American politics, four years is an eternity.
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