Whether you think the 2000 election was stolen or won fair and square, a close look at the way our opinions fluctuated four years ago says a lot about polls, and more than a little about what's ahead
By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page W08
Remember the lockbox? The Straight Talk Express? The butterfly ballot? Of course you do. The 2000 election was hard to forget, a campaign defined less by unforgettable personalities than by memorable numbers: 5 to 4, the Supreme Court vote that gave the election to George Bush; 5, Bush's winning margin in the electoral college; and 543,895, Al Gore's winning margin in the popular vote, out of more than 100 million cast.
Four years later, the presidential campaign is shaping up in key ways to be deja vu all over again. Dubya is back, seeking the mandate from voters that eluded him four years ago. One charisma-challenged Democratic nominee -- Al Gore -- has been replaced with another -- John Kerry. America remains divided neatly in half politically. The red and blue that appeared on those 2000 election-night maps remain the colors of choice for this political season. Ralph Nader, more committed -- and, arguably, more deluded -- than ever, continues to torment Democrats. John McCain is still the Republican Democrats love and George Bush tolerates.
As the two political parties gear up for their quadrennial showdown, memories of '00 remain fresh and festering. But what exactly happened in 2000 -- and how does it help us understand what will happen this year? In what ways has '04 been similar to '00, and in what ways has it been different?
Here's a look back, not in anger but in amazement, at the election that democracy nearly forgot -- told by the numbers.
January 1, 2000: Election year -- and the New Millennium -- dawns foggy and unseasonably warm in Washington. Throughout America, the Y2K bug proves a bust and voters awaken on New Year's Day with a hangover and a bad case of Clinton fatigue. Unlike what will happen in 2004, both parties have seemingly settled on their respective nominees even before the first votes are cast in the primaries. Texas Gov. George W. Bush led the Republican field throughout 1999 and in December was the choice of 72 percent of all Republicans. Arizona Sen. John McCain was a distant second with 13 percent. Across the aisle, Vice President Gore led former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley nationally among Democrats throughout the year.
Democrats gasp in horror and envy when the Bush campaign announces it raised a record $67 million in 1999 -- a mark Bush demolishes four years later as both parties take a lesson from 2000 and exploit loopholes in the newly enacted and instantly irrelevant federal campaign finance laws.
In the shadow election between the Democratic and GOP front-runners, Bush begins 2000 with a double-digit lead over Gore. The Republican also is viewed as the stronger leader and the candidate Americans most trust to handle a crisis.
(For much of 2oo4, Bush enjoys those same advantages over Kerry, which form the foundation for his reelection bid.)
January 14: The Dow Jones industrial average closes at 11,722.98, a record high. Nobody knows this day marks the symbolic end of the '90s economic expansion. Over the next two years, the market will lose more than a third of its value. And barely a year later, the economy will enter a recession that in 2004 it is only beginning to shake off.
February 1: The Straight Talk Express rolls in the New Hampshire primary. The media are deeply in love with McCain, and a seat on his campaign bus is the hottest ticket in town. New Hampshire tracking polls see the Arizona senator gaining support, and the race there is a dead heat. On primary day, McCain wins by 18 percentage points, leaving the pollsters to mutter into their computer printouts about the Granite State's quirky registration laws, which make it difficult to predict who will vote. Gore has an easier time in the Democratic primary, beating Bill Bradley by 4 points.
Even in defeat, Bush continues to hold a comfortable but dwindling lead over Gore nationally. McCain claims he has momentum as polls show his popularity surging among nearly everyone -- everyone except the Republican faithful who vote in primary elections.
(In early 2004, the Democrats are bedeviled by a maverick of their own when former Vermont governor Howard Dean, unknown on the national stage, parlays opposition to the war in Iraq into a surprising early lead nationally, much to the chagrin of party leaders.)
February 19: Big Mo' proves a big bust in the South Carolina primary. Despite McCain's victory in New Hampshire and the swooning national media, the Straight Talk Express hits a pothole in the Palmetto State. Powered by the religious right, Bush beats McCain by 11 points in the South Carolina primary. GOP party loyalists -- and not a few Democrats, sensing McCain would be a more formidable opponent -- breathe a sigh of relief. National polls show he does better than Bush when pitted against Gore in a head-to-head contest, drawing significant support from independents and Democrats while dividing Republicans. But electability doesn't trump everything else among loyal Republicans, who still prefer Bush by a comfortable margin.
(In contrast, in early 2004, Democrats are looking for someone -- anyone -- who can beat Bush. The perception that Kerry has the best chance of beating the president carries him to victory in the primaries. In New Hampshire, electability is the second most important candidate quality, after "stands up for what he believes." Dean dominates among people looking for the latter, but Kerry runs away with the vote among those looking for a winner. But this strength could mask a core weakness: Democratic voters seem less attracted to Kerry than repulsed by Bush.)
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