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.)
March 7: Super Tuesday lives up to its name and proves to be Decision Day in both parties. Bush closes in on the nomination by triumphing in New York and California, as well as in key swing states, including Ohio, Missouri and Georgia. Gore wins every Super Tuesday primary and the nomination.
March 9: McCain concedes the Republican nomination to Bush but pointedly declines to endorse him. Bradley drops out and publicly supports Gore. Nationally, the bruising GOP primary campaign has weakened Bush, who has been dogged by criticism that he lacks the maturity or intelligence for the job. As a consequence, Bush has quickly lost his advantage nationally over Gore, particularly among moderate and independent voters.
Democrats hammer Bush's lack of foreign policy experience, an area where Gore is seen as stronger. But foreign policy ranks near the bottom as a voting issue, while education, protecting Social Security and health care top the list.
(In 2004 the agenda has flipped. Foreign affairs -- Iraq and the war on terrorism -- are the big worries, along with the economy. And what a difference four years and 9/11 make: Bush's handling of foreign affairs, specifically the war on terrorism, has been his strength with voters through most of the year, though the violent aftermath of the war in Iraq appears to be eroding his advantage.)
April 4: The most volatile day ever on Wall Street. Falling technology stocks at one point send the Dow Jones industrials and Nasdaq composite index down more than 500 points, and fears grow that the economic boom, which Democrats are counting on to lift Gore, may be over.
April 22: Federal immigration agents take Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives. Cuban American leaders denounce President Clinton, Gore and Attorney General Janet Reno. In New York City and Union City, N.J., protesters, some wrapped in Cuban flags and holding American flags upside down, carry banners proclaiming, "First Waco, Now Elian," and "Reno-Clinton-Gore, you can celebrate with your friend Castro."
(In 2004, Cuba is back in the news as Castro has repeatedly denounced the U.S. travel and trade embargo while Bush hasimposed even harsher restrictions. Who cares? A big chunk of the roughly 250,000 Cuba-born and Havana-dreaming exiles living in battleground Florida.)
May 5: The Labor Department announces that the unemployment rate hits a 30-year low of 3.9 percent, good news for Gore.
(In 2004, the month of March is kind to Bush: A winter of consistently bad economic news ends with reports that the economy is beginning to bloom.)
May 9: Much to the relief of Republican strategists, McCain endorses Bush, who reclaims the lead from Gore and holds it in the runup to the Republican convention in July.
(Four years later McCain once again delivers a springtime surprise to Bush. After publicly flirting with his "good friend" Kerry, who reportedly wants to make him his running mate, McCain hugs Bush in mid-June onstage at Fort Lewis, Wash. In politics, keep your friends close and your enemies closer . . . )
May 26: A front-page story in The Washington Post showcases the forecasts of prominent political scientists whose statistical models, based on past presidential elections, predict a Gore victory in November, with 53 to 60 percent of the vote. "So how exactly did Al Gore win the election of 2000?" the article begins. "By making the clever decision to run in the midst of an economic boom, and by choosing to succeed a popular incumbent." The lesson for prognosticators and pundits: Choose only the tastiest words when making election predictions -- you may end up eating them.
June 25: In Denver, Ralph Nader accepts the presidential nomination of the Green Party.
(In 2004, Nader is a different shade of green. He selects longtime party activist Peter Miguel Camejo to be his running mate. But Nader, twice the Greens' nominee, decides not to seek the party's nomination because he does not want to be too closely associated with any party. Nader does say he would accept the Greens' endorsement, which would give him access to the party's ballot lines in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The Greens say no and nominate Texas lawyer David Cobb, complicating Nader's efforts to win a place on the ballots of enough states to appear a credible national candidate. Nader sees red and describes the party as "strange" and its nominating convention as a "cabal.")
Throughout the 2000 campaign the Democrats, who have a philosophical soft spot for Nader, handle him with kid gloves.
(Not so in 2004: They've reminded everyone who will listen that he cost Gore the presidency in 2000, when his Democratic supporters outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1. So far this year many Democratic voters haven't been listening, or don't seem to care, as polls show Nader continuing to draw votes away from Kerry.)
July 11 to 25: Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat meet at Camp David. Talks collapse despite Israeli concessions.
July 25: To answer critics who question his experience and gravitas, Bush names former congressman and defense secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate a week before the start of the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
(Note to John Kerry: It's a myth that vice presidential candidates do much to help the ticket. As a rule, vice presidential candidates don't by themselves add votes, nor do they enhance the likelihood of winning the veep's home state, according to political scientists who have studied the impact of vice presidential candidates in presidential elections. A notable exception: Lyndon B. Johnson, who undoubtedly helped John F. Kennedy carry Texas in 1960.)
In 2000, Cheney's selection seems to help, at least a little bit. Six in 10 voters approve of Bush's choice. Even though a substantially larger majority say it will make no difference to their vote, Bush increases his advantage over Gore and goes to the City of Brotherly Love riding a 12-point lead and a wave of favorable publicity.
July 28: The Commerce Department announces that the economy grew at a "vigorous" 5.2 percent annual rate during the second quarter of 2000 -- welcome news for a beleaguered Gore but bad news for Bush on the eve of the GOP convention. As a very rough rule of thumb, the nominee of the incumbent's party rarely loses when the economy grows by roughly 4 percent or more. Less than that -- watch out.
But all bets are off when the election comes in the midst of an unpopular war. In 1968, the economy grew at an annual rate of 7.8 percent during the first half of the year. That should have greased the skids for the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. But Humphrey couldn't overcome dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and political unrest at home, and narrowly lost to Richard Nixon.
July 31 to August 3: Bounce! Presidential conventions are little more than weeklong ads for the party's candidate, and the predictable result is an uptick for the nominee in the polls. Bush's bounce begins even before delegates arrive in Philadelphia. Political scientists say most bounces quickly dissipate. But some voters won over during the conventions do stick with the ticket through Election Day, so size matters -- the bigger the bounce, the better.
(The 2004 exception: Incumbent presidents such as Bush historically don't get much of a bounce. So look this year to see if Kerry is bouncing, and how high. No bounce is bad news for Democrats.)
August 7: Gore picks Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. The Connecticut senator was the first Democrat to denounce President Clinton on the floor of the Senate for his X-rated canoodling with Monica Lewinsky. Polls immediately show that most voters who approve of Clinton's policies but disapprove of him personally say they feel more comfortable with Gore because he picked Lieberman. But other than reassuring voters already predisposed to vote for Gore, it's doubtful that Lieberman does much: About half the voters say Lieberman's selection makes them feel more favorably toward Gore -- virtually identical to voter assessments of Cheney.
(One wild card in 2004 may be the impact of the other mates: the wives of the two nominees. Everybody loves Laura Bush, a former librarian who dresses sensibly, while Kerry's helpmate, Teresa Heinz Kerry -- first name pronounced Tuhrayza, European style -- may be a bit too, well, cosmopolitan for American tastes.)
August 11: Patrick J. Buchanan, veteran of the 1992 and 1996 Republican primaries, wins the Reform Party nomination after a disputatious convention. Though Buchanan attracts as much as 6 percent of the vote in Washington Post-ABC News polls over the summer, by Labor Day he has lodged firmly at 1 percent. On Election Day, he garners even less than that.
August 14 to 17: Democrats put on their own party in mid-August and bounce big. Gore surges and Bush drops; after the bouncing stops, Gore leads Bush by 2 points.
(As the losing party in 2000, Democrats have held their convention first this summer, while the GOP will gather from August 30 to September 2. Democrats wanted to go in early to mid-August but decided not to compete with Olympics coverage. The early start has real implications. Under federal election rules, each party's nominee gets $75 million to finance a general election campaign. A candidate must start spending general election money the moment he becomes a nominee; at that point, he must stop raising money on his own behalf. That means Kerry will have to spread his $75 million over an additional five weeks, while Bush can continue to raise and spend pre-convention money during the same period.)
August 28: Gore tells supporters at a campaign stop in Tallahassee that his dog's arthritis medication cost less than a similar drug prescribed to his mother-in-law, which his aides admit a few days later is substantially incorrect. A spokesman for Bush immediately calls the story part of Gore's "troubling pattern of embellishing and exaggerating his plans and personal experiences." Meanwhile, the gaffe gives reporters an excuse for reprising what Republicans repeatedly claim were Gore's other whoppers, including his purported boast that he invented the Internet, and that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for the couple in the weeper novel Love Story. For the record, Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet, rather that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet" while in Congress. And Erich Segal, who wrote Love Story, did say Gore was one of the models for the male half of the famous couple but Tipper wasn't the basis for the woman.
(Four years later, Bush faces challenges to his credibility on more serious matters. After more than a year of scouring Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. And the evidence documenting Saddam Hussein's purported links to the al Qaeda terrorist organization has been criticized as tenuous and speculative, at best.)
September 4: Historically, polls taken immediately after Labor Day are considered especially important by presidential candidates because they are the first that measure the lasting impact of the political conventions. They also mark the moment in the race that many Americans begin to pay serious attention to the candidates.
In the four elections prior to 2000, the candidate ahead at Labor Day has gone on to win the White House. In 2000 the candidates are tied -- just as they were at this point in 1980 and 1960. The 1980 contest broke open in late October, with Ronald Reagan easily defeating President Jimmy Carter. The 1960 race stayed close until the end, with JFK narrowly defeating Nixon. The 2000 race went one better -- it remained a tossup even after Election Day.
September 14: Al Gore appears on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and reads a list of his Top 10 rejected campaign slogans. Slogan No. 9: "Remember America, I gave you the Internet, and I can take it away." Immediately, the "Modern Humorist" Web site denounces Gore, claiming he stole the line from a bumper sticker it produced and distributed at the Democratic convention a month earlier. Not to be outdone, Bush appears on "Letterman" a month later to announce his own Top 10 list, which includes "Will not get sick on Japanese leaders like other President Bushes I know." Their appearances underscore the growing influence the clown princes of late-night TV have on the electorate, particularly younger voters. A widely quoted Pew Research Center study reports that half of all young adults get some of their political news from late-night comedy shows.
September 20: Independent Counsel Robert Ray ends a six-year Whitewater investigation and brings no charges against either Bill or Hillary Clinton. Nationally, the polls continue to show a close race. Gore narrowly leads in a survey conducted during the final week of September. It will be the last time that the Democrat tops Bush in Post-ABC polling.
October 3: The first presidential debate is held at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Here's a dirty little secret about presidential campaigns: Debates rarely change many voters' minds. The first national surveys conducted immediately after this debate suggest Gore is viewed as the winner, but both candidates are viewed more favorably, and the horse race remains largely unchanged -- a virtual deadlock.
The debate marks the prime-time appearance of the "lockbox," the secure place where Gore says he would put Social Security and Medicare. This debate serves to remind that debates may not switch many votes, but they do reinforce images. Gore's petulant sighs, and stiffly aggressive and incessant references to the "lockbox," make him look like the smart-alecky dweeb everybody hated in seventh grade. Instantly, his performance is parodied by the late-night comics, who in the spirit of equal time, portray Bush as a clueless, fumble-mouthed bumbler whose verbal boners include nonsense words like "strategery."
(What are the flashpoints -- existing negative stereotypes -- for the candidates to avoid in 2004? Bush must dispel the perception that he's rigid, insensitive to the needs of average Americans and a clueless tool of his advisers who misled the country on Iraq. Kerry needs to use the debates to help convince voters he's not just another Massachusetts lefty, doesn't flip-flop on the issues and isn't chillier than Harvard Square in February. )
October 11: The second presidential debate is held at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
October 12: The bombing of the USS Cole kills 17 sailors in Yemen. Initial suspects include Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Over the next two weeks, the Clinton administration links the attack to Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, but the president of Yemen and the FBI caution that it is too soon to conclude that bin Laden was behind the bombing.
October 17: The third and final presidential debate is held in a town hall format at Washington University in St. Louis. It one of the least-watched presidential debates ever. Barely one in four television households bothers to watch. While the debates again do not change voters' choices, they change perceptions of the two candidates: Both Gore and Bush are viewed with heightened skepticism, and Gore in particular suffers a sharp drop in his credibility rating. On the other hand, Harvard researchers tracking the campaign find that the public's ability to recognize Bush's and Gore's positions on key issues has risen by 25 percent during the debate period. They also find the proportion of the country following the presidential campaign, and thinking and talking about it, has doubled during the 2 1/2-week debate period. As a rule, shifts in interest and motivation close to Election Day are critical. Few voters switch their preferences late in the campaign. Instead, victory often hinges on late deciders and which campaign can persuade more of its supporters to go to the polls, particularly the weak partisans or people for whom voting is not a habit, such as many young voters.
November 2: Bush's October Surprise comes two days late when the candidate confirms accounts that he was arrested and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol when he was 30. The news comes as the national polls suggest Bush continues to hold a narrow lead, with the election still too close to call.
(Some cynics are already predicting what 2004's October Surprise will be: Osama bin Laden, conveniently captured the weekend before the vote. But warnings that terrorists may try to disrupt the election have forced political strategists to consider this macabre question: What would happen if there was another September 11th? Much would depend on the nature of a preelection attack. Some argue that a terrorist strike immediately before the election would spark Americans to rally 'round the president, similar to the way they did after 9/11. If it came further out, Kerry might be helped, as it would give him time to question why the administration failed to protect the country from another attack.)
Nov. 7: Election Day. No clear winner emerges and the post-election campaign begins. Meanwhile, America's pollsters breathe a sigh of relief. The final preelection polls were almost uniformly close to the mark. The 10 major surveys in which interviews were conducted up to Election Day all forecast an extremely close race, though most had Bush narrowly ahead. On average, these polls were off by only 1.1 percentage points on the estimates for Bush and Gore. The error on Nader was 1.3 percentage points. Seven of the 10 media polls leaned to Republican Bush, while three had Gore narrowly ahead or found the race tied. Four years earlier, eight of nine nine major polls erred in favor of overstating Clinton's support. (For the record, the Post-ABC final daily tracking poll on November 6 correctly estimated the share of the vote won by Bush -- 48 percent -- and Nader -- 3 percent -- but underestimated Gore's -- 48 percent -- by 3 percentage points.)
December 12: The Supreme Court votes 5 to 4 to halt the ballot recounts in Florida, making Bush the 43rd president of the United States.
December 13: Gore concedes victory to Bush. "It's time for me to go," he tells a nationwide television audience.
Postscript: And then, finally, the campaign that wouldn't end was over. In some ways it had been the "Seinfeld" election: It wasn't about anything in particular, at least anything important -- alpha males and earth tones, college grades, hanging chads, opaque court rulings and the dusty workings of the electoral college. The specter of Bill Clinton haunted the election from beginning to end, and still haunts Democrats with what-ifs. What if Gore hadn't run away from Clinton? What if he had sent Clinton to campaign in the final days before the election? What if . . .
Contrast that with this year, when life-and-death issues command the attention of voters: the war on terrorism, the continuing bloodbath in Iraq, jobs and the economy. And unlike four years ago, the public is paying attention: Nearly eight in 10 Americans said in July they were following the campaign. Only five in 10 were similarly engaged four years ago.
One finding revealed by Harvard's yearlong tracking surveys in 2000 stands as a poignant and altogether fitting epitaph to the 2000 campaign. According to Harvard's polls, citizen involvement in the race -- as measured by people's thoughts, conversations and news exposure -- was far greater after Election Day than at any point during the campaign. "The Florida wrangling captured public attention in a way the campaign itself did not," concluded political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Will the 2004 campaign end in a bang or a whimper? Will democracy be elevated by enlightened debates on the fundamental issues of war, peace and prosperity, or dumbed down by a robo-campaign waged with clashing sound bites and 30-second attack ads seen and heard by voters in a handful of battleground states? Like the outcome of the race itself, it's much too early to tell.
Keep watching the numbers, and expect the unexpected.
Richard Morin is director of polling and Claudia Deane is deputy director of polling at The Post. They will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.