That’s true, of course. Nor had the media selected the president the day before, when it determined that Joe Biden had clearly won more votes in Pennsylvania and, therefore, enough electoral votes to earn the title of “president-elect.” The voters selected Biden to replace Trump. The media simply reported on that selection.
But Murtaugh’s argument was incorrect in another, more important way. The media never made a similar assertion about Gore in 2000, because he was never determined to have clearly won enough votes in enough states to win the presidency. The media never called Gore “president-elect” at all. And, in fact, the Washington Times never carried that front page, as it was quickly pointed out to Murtaugh. (He subsequently deleted his tweet.)
It’s understandable why the idea that Gore had been declared the winner in 2000 would hold some appeal. Then, as now, there was an effort to scrutinize the results of a close contest. Having a recent precedent of a candidate having been prematurely determined to have been the winner would be useful solace for those eager to see Trump serve another four years. But it simply didn’t happen.
On the night of the 2000 election, Gore was briefly declared the winner in the state of Florida. It lasted about two hours, from shortly before 8 p.m. Eastern time until shortly before 10 p.m., when networks and the Associated Press noticed discrepancies between projected and actual vote totals. The call wasn’t in place long enough for Gore to have demonstrably passed the 270-electoral-vote margin, so he was never declared the winner.
A few hours later, Fox News declared that the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, had won the key state. Other networks followed suit. Bush was declared the winner of the contest overall by CNN at about 2:18 a.m.
But that, too, was premature. The Florida call was rescinded for a second time. Over the next several weeks, the Gore and Bush campaigns would fight over a few hundred ballots in the state, with Bush hoping to survive an erosion of his lead. Finally, the Supreme Court interceded, halting additional recounts and essentially making Bush, at long last, the president-elect.
During the period between Election Day and Gore’s eventual concession, no major media outlet referred to him as the president-elect. A search of headlines collected by Nexis shows a smattering of references to “President-elect Gore,” but those are either letters to the editor or speculative, as in, “what might a president-elect Gore do?” The first declarative headlines about there being a president-elect were in reference to Bush.
How did the idea that Gore had been dubbed president-elect originate? It’s not clear. There was speculation that it originated on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, but the only recent discussion of that period came last Friday and didn’t speculate about Gore having been given that title. (It did, however, point out that the 2000 election took more than a month to resolve in defense of the president’s efforts to undercut his own loss.)
The morning after the race was called for Biden (precisely 20 years after Election Day in 2000), conservative activist Tom Fitton tweeted an incorrect reference to Gore having been given the title. It was retweeted thousands of times.
A few hours later, Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis made a similar reference.
As is often the case with such rumors, the appeal of the claim gave it more traction than it deserved. It quickly filtered outward, including to Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.).
“The media has got to stand down on all of this because they’re creating so much havoc,” he said in an interview with the Alabama Daily News. “I remember in 2000 Al Gore was president, United States, president elect, for 30 days — 30 days — and after 30 days, it got to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court says, no, George Bush is going to be the president.”
Of course he doesn’t remember that, since it didn’t happen. It’s also ironic for Tuberville to suggest that media projections of winners should be discounted, given that his victory in Alabama is no more or less concrete than Biden’s win in the presidential contest. Tuberville is senator-elect because the media figured out that he would win his race, not because the votes have been certified.
There’s another factor here that’s worth pointing out. In 2000, the Gore-Bush fight lasted into December because the election came down solely to Florida, where the margin between the candidates ended up being fewer than 600 votes. In 2020, the race is nowhere near as close. Biden will likely have won more than 300 electoral votes by the time Georgia is called, meaning that he could have lost several states he won and still been elected president. It’s not the case that Trump’s on the brink of victory, should recounts be conducted: He has no path to victory, and even government agencies reject the idea that any significant fraud occurred.
The “remember President-elect Gore!” meme isn’t a useful reminder about how results change. Instead, it’s an example of how false memes can serve as a balm. Gore was never erroneously identified president-elect.
Bush, weirdly, was, not that it ended up mattering. And on Sunday, he released a statement congratulating Biden on his own election as president.