Volume 76
Number 4

The Uncommon Common Man

Indecision 2000

Fire and Water

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Of 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 independents–the 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 Senate–the 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.

Explaining the Results: Long Term Factors

What do the results of the 2000 election tell us about American politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

While 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.

According 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 GOP’s growing success in congressional as well as state and local elections.

Just 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 Buchanan.

With almost 90 percent of all partisans supporting their own party’s 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.

In 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 seats–Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Washington, and Minnesota–while Republicans picked up one previously Democratic seat–Virginia. 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.

Although 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 party’s 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.

From 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.

The 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.

What 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.

Since 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 party’s candidates.

Short-Term Forces and the 2000 Election

The 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.

Numerous 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.

In this election, voters generally gave Gore higher marks than Bush on qualities relating to competence

such 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.

The 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 Clinton’s high job approval rating in the months preceding the election.

Why 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 it’s time to replace the in-party with the out-party. To some extent, Gore’s 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.

Data 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 Clinton’s 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 opinion.

Voters who approved of President Clinton’s 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 Clinton’s 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 Clinton’s 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 Clinton’s 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.

Vice President Gore defeated Governor Bush by a margin of 77 percent to 20 percent among all voters who approved of President Clinton’s 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 Clinton’s job performance. The fact that one out of five voters who approved of the President’s 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.

The Nader Factor

The 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.

In 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.

What Next? The Outlook for Reform

The 2000 presidential election exposed serious flaws in our electoral process. As a result of the prolonged battle for Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes, the American people learned what election officials have long known–that 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.

According 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.

What 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.

Congress 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 don’t know how to properly cast their ballots.

Finally, 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.

The 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.




© 2001 Emory University