course, the presidency was not the only office at stake in the
2000 election and the battle for control of Congress, like the
presidential election, was excruciatingly close. In the House,
Republicans barely maintained their narrow majority, as Democrats
scored a net gain of two seats. The new House will have 221
Republicans, 212 Democrats, and two independentsthe closest
party division in almost fifty years. In the Senate elections,
Democrats scored a net gain of four seats. Each party will have
fifty seats in the new Senatethe first tie in more than
one hundred years. Republicans will maintain control of the
upper chamber, however, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting
the tie-breaking vote.
the Results: Long Term Factors
do the results of the 2000 election tell us about American politics
at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
no one could have predicted that the outcome of the presidential
race would come down to a few hundred questionable ballots in
Florida, the fact that both the presidential and congressional
elections produced such close divisions is not at all surprising.
Political scientists have long recognized that the most important
long-term influence on voting behavior and election outcomes
in the United States is party identification, and today the
American electorate is almost evenly divided between those who
identify with the Democratic Party and those who identify with
the Republican Party.
to the Voter News Service exit poll of more than thirteen thousand
voters in the 2000 election, 39 per-cent identified themselves
as Democrats, 35 percent as Republicans, and 27 percent as independents.
While this is similar to the partisan division of the electorate
in other recent elections, it represents a dramatic change from
the 1960s and 1970s, when Democratic identifiers greatly outnumbered
Republicans. In the 1976 national exit poll, for example, Democrats
outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 40 percent to 25 percent.
Republican gains in party identification since 1980 have been
a major factor in the GOPs growing success in congressional
as well as state and local elections.
as striking as the nearly even division of the U.S. electorate
was the high level of party [loyalty] in the 2000 presidential
election. According to exit polls, Democratic identifiers favored
Gore over Bush by an impressive margin of 86 percent to 11 percent.
Despite the well-publicized fears of Democratic Party leaders
and strategists that many liberal Democrats would be attracted
to the candidacy of consumer advocate and Green Party nominee
Ralph Nader, only 2 percent of Democrats defected. Republican
identifiers were even more loyal, favoring Bush over Gore by
a 91 percent to 8 percent margin. Only 1 percent of Republicans
cast their ballot for Nader, and virtually none were drawn to
the candidacy of Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan. Voters who
identified themselves as independents split their ballots almost
evenly, favoring Bush over Gore by a 47 percent to 45 percent
margin, with only 6 percent opting for Nader and 1 percent for
almost 90 percent of all partisans supporting their own partys
nominee, the level of party voting in the 2000 presidential
election was the highest since at least 1976. Moreover, this
pattern was not confined to the presidential race. Exit polls
from the ten most hotly contested U.S. Senate races showed a
similar pattern. In these races, 84 to 91 percent of Democrats
voted along party lines as did 83 to 91 percent of Republicans.
every one of these close Senate races, the party with more identifiers
in the electorate was victorious. As a result, Democrats picked
up six previously Republican seatsDelaware, Michigan,
Missouri, Florida, Washington, and Minnesotawhile Republicans
picked up one previously Democratic seatVirginia. In the
eight contests won by the Democrats, Democratic identifiers
made up an average of 40 percent of the electorate while Republican
identifiers made up an average of 32 percent of the electorate.
In the two contests won by Republicans, Democratic identifiers,
on average, made up 32 percent of the electorate while Republican
identifiers, on average, made up 37 percent. Democratic gains
were mainly attributable to a return to partisan voting patterns
six years after the Republican landslide of 1994.
exit-poll data are not available for individual House races,
the national exit-poll data show a very high level of party
voting in the 2000 House elections as well. Altogether, 87 percent
of Democratic identifiers and 91 percent of Republican identifiers
voted for their partys House candidate. As in the presidential
election, independents split their ballots almost evenly, with
49 percent voting for a Republican candidate and 46 percent
for a Democratic candidate.
the presidential election down, this was an extremely partisan
election, with the results reflecting the distribution of party
loyalties in each constituency. The close-to-even division between
the parties in the presidential election, the House, and the
Senate, all reflected the close-to-even division between Democrats
and Republicans in the national electorate.
results of the 2000 elections clearly contradict the conventional
wisdom that party loyalty in the American electorate has been
steadily declining and is now a thing of the past. In fact,
there is convincing evidence that the widely heralded decline
in partisanship in recent decades was exaggerated and that partisanship
in the electorate has actually been increasing since the 1970s.
Compared with twenty-five years ago, a larger percentage of
American voters identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats
and a larger percentage of these partisans cast their ballots
along party lines.
explains this resurgence of partisanship in the U.S. electorate?
At least part of the explanation is that since 1980 the U.S.
electorate has undergone an ideological realignment. The increasing
ideological polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties
in the Reagan and post-Reagan eras has made it easier for voters
to recognize the differences between the parties policy
stands. As a result, voters have been choosing their party identification
on the basis of their policy preferences rather than maintaining
the party allegiance they inherited from their parents. Conservatives
raised by Democratic or Republican parents have moved dramatically
toward the Republican Party, while liberals raised by Republican
or independent parents have moved toward the Democratic Party.
The major results of this realignment are that the advantage
in party identification that the Democratic Party enjoyed from
the 1930s through the 1970s has been drastically reduced and
there is now a much closer correspondence between party identification
and ideology in the overall electorate.
1980, the ideological center of the Democratic Party has shifted
to the left, while the ideological center of the Repub-lican
Party has shifted to the right. The increased correspondence
between party identification and ideology in the electorate
means these two factors are more likely to reinforce each other
and that fewer Democratic and Republican identifiers are likely
to be attracted to the policies of the opposing partys
Forces and the 2000 Election
outcome of any election is a product OF both long-term forces,
such as the distribution of partisan and ideological loyalties
in the electorate, and short-term forces peculiar to that election,
such as the personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates
and the issues of the campaign. The closeness of the 2000 election
reflected the fact that not only were long-term forces evenly
balanced, but so were short-term forces.
polls conducted during the 2000 election campaign found that
the American people generally saw Al Gore and George W. Bush
as having distinct personal strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps
the two most important qualities that voters look for in a political
leader are competence and trustworthiness.
this election, voters generally gave Gore higher marks than
Bush on qualities relating to competence
as knowledge, intelligence, and experience; on the other hand,
voters generally found Bush to be more honest and trustworthy
than Gore. For example, an October 2000 Newsweek poll asked
a national sample of registered voters to rate Gore and Bush
on a variety of personal traits. Eighty-two percent of the respondents
described Gore as intelligent and well informed
compared with 69 percent for Bush. On the other hand, 63 percent
of the respondents described Bush as honest and ethical
compared with only 52 percent for Gore.
voters were also closely divided in their assessment of the
major issues in the 2000 election. Political scientists generally
divide issues into two types, prospective and retrospective,
and retrospective issues usually play a major role in presidential
elections. Every presidential election is, to some extent, a
referendum on the past performance of the incumbent president,
and the 2000 election was no exception. What surprised many
election scholars and many Democratic Party strategists, however,
was that Gore did not benefit more from the strong performance
of the U.S. economy and President Bill Clintons high job
approval rating in the months preceding the election.
did Gore fall short of most scholars expectations? At
least part of the explanation may lie in the ambiguous legacy
of the Clinton administration. After any administration has
controlled the White House for eight years or longer, regardless
of the popularity of the President or the state of the economy,
there is generally a growing sentiment among the electorate
that its time to replace the in-party with the out-party.
To some extent, Gores problems merely reflected this time
for change factor at work. However, the phenomenon of
Clinton fatigue in the 2000 election appeared to
involve more than this normal time for change sentiment.
from the 2000 national exit poll show that there was an extraordinary
split in voters opinions about President Clinton. On the
one hand, 57 percent of the voters approved of President Clintons
job performance, while only 41 percent disapproved. On the other
hand, only 36 percent of the same voters had a favorable opinion
of Bill Clinton as a person while 60 percent had an unfavorable
who approved of President Clintons job performance were
much more likely to be conflicted in their view of Clinton than
voters who disapproved of his job performance. Almost all of
those who disapproved of his job performance also had an unfavorable
opinion of Clinton as a person. In contrast, 36 percent of voters
who approved of Clintons job performance had an unfavorable
opinion of him as a person. Furthermore, these conflicted voters
were substantially less likely to vote for Gore than voters
with consistently positive opinions about President Clinton.
Voters who approved of Clintons job performance and had
a favorable opinion of him as a person preferred Gore to Bush
by a margin of 85 percent to 12 percent. However, voters who
approved of Clintons job performance but who had an unfavorable
opinion of him as a person favored Gore over Bush by a much
smaller margin of 63 percent to 33 percent.
President Gore defeated Governor Bush by a margin of 77 percent
to 20 percent among all voters who approved of President Clintons
job performance. In contrast, Bush defeated Gore by a more decisive
margin of 88 percent to 9 percent among all voters who disap-proved
of President Clintons job performance. The fact that one
out of five voters who approved of the Presidents job
performance voted for the Republican presidential
candidate clearly reflected the ambivalence many of these voters
felt about Clinton. Based on these findings, it seems very likely
that the Monica Lewinsky scandal cost Gore a decisive victory
in the presidential election.
impact of the Monica Lewinsky scandal was not the only problem
Gore faced in his bid for the White House. Another major obstacle
was the Nader candidacy. Even though the Green Party nominee
ultimately won less than 3 percent of the national vote, he
may very well have cost Gore the election.
contrast to other recent third-party candidates, including Ross
Perot, Nader did not take votes equally from the two major party
candidates. According to data from the national exit poll, when
Nader voters were asked how they would have voted if Nader had
not been on the ballot, they chose Gore over Bush by a margin
of 50 percent to 20 percent, with the remaining 30 percent indicating
that they would not have voted. Projecting these results onto
the national popular vote, it appears that if Nader had not
been on the ballot, Gore would have defeated Bush by a margin
of well over a million votes. More importantly, it seems almost
certain that Gore would have carried both Florida and New Hampshire
and thereby had a clear majority in the Electoral College.
Next? The Outlook for Reform
2000 presidential election exposed serious flaws in our electoral
process. As a result of the prolonged battle for Floridas
twenty-five electoral votes, the American people learned what
election officials have long knownthat every election
year, hundreds of thousands of American citizens are effectively
disenfranchised because of overcrowded polling places, poorly
trained poll workers, confusing ballot forms, faulty voting
equipment, and inadequate voter education.
to the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate,
last year more than two million ballots were invalidated across
the nation. These problems exist in every region of the country
and almost every state. In Georgia, for example, thousands of
punch-card ballots were invalidated in Fulton and DeKalb counties
because voters failed to cleanly punch out a hole corresponding
to a presidential candidate or punched out more than one hole.
Moreover, these problems have a disproportionate impact on lower-income
and minority voters, who are more likely to encounter obsolete
voting equipment and have more difficulty understanding complicated
ballot forms than affluent white voters.
is needed is a national effort to correct these problems before
the 2004 presidential election. Congress and state legislatures
should provide funding so that every precinct in the nation,
not just those in the most affluent counties, can have modern
voting equipment that accurately records every vote and lets
voters know when they have made a mistake. Funding should also
be provided to increase the number of polling places and train
poll workers to answer voters questions and assist those
having difficulty with voting equipment.
also should encourage states to develop simpler, more uniform
ballots for use in presidential and congressional elections.
State and local governments, the media, and private organizations
should make greater efforts to educate citizens about the voting
process. Turning out voters on Election Day does no good if
these voters dont know how to properly cast their ballots.
almost every other democracy in the world makes it easier for
their citizens to vote than we do in the United States. We should
seriously consider changing our voting laws to hold national
elections on weekends or to make Election Day a national holiday.
This would make it much easier for working Americans to find
time to get to the polls.
reforms I am advocating would help ensure that election results
more closely reflect the will of the voters. All of them can
be accomplished through legislative action. They do not require
amending the Constitution, as would abolishing the Electoral
College. They only require political will and a modest financial
investment. Surely our democracy is worth that much.