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"What we were left with pointed to a Gore victory. He was ahead in Florida, ahead in Pennsylvania, ahead in Michigan, and making his numbers—the expected percentages—in his naturally strong states. Bush, on the other hand, wasn't making his number in Florida, wasn't making his number in Georgia, wasn't making his number in North Carolina, Louisiana or Ohio, wasn't making his number in Colorado, wasn't making his number in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire or Maine. Dominoes tend to fall in one direction on election nights. The dominoes all seemed to be falling Gore's way."
Fox News election analyst
and George W. Bush's cousin
George W. Bush was having none of it.
Yes, the Election Day exit polls showed Al Gore had won the state of Florida. Yes, all of the major television networks had placed his little brother Jeb's state in the Democratic column before 8:00 P.M. on election night, virtually assuring that Gore would be the nation's 43rd president. But George W. did not approve of what he was seeing on the television screens at the Governor's Mansion in Austin. "I'm pretty darn upbeat about things," Bush declared, even as each new round of numbers seemed to place the White House further and further from his reach.
While most campaigns view election night as a time to sit back after the long hard fight and watch the returns come in, the Bush campaign was still working hard.Campaign aides Karl Rove and Karen Hughes were on the phone to the networks, telling them they were wrong to call Florida and Pennsylvania for Gore. Bush operatives were flooding newsrooms around the country with upbeat press releases. And the candidate himself was tugging some family ties that would, in a few short hours, change the course of history. True, Bush was going to lose the popular vote. And, truer still, he appeared to be trailing in states that would deliver a majority of the electoral college votes that would actually decide the election. But Bush had successfully spun his way out of several electoral mishaps during the 2000 campaign—most notably a series of searing primary election defeats to Senator John McCain—and he was quite certain that he could spin his way out of the jam he was in this night.
"I was confident that, when it was all said and done, that Florida would be taken off of the declared state roll and that cooler heads would prevail," Bush explained early the next morning, after exactly that scenario had played out. The candidate and his aides understood something that most Americans did not: that the declaration of "winners" and "losers" by the media on election night has never been an exact science. Shell-shocked as they may have been at the realization that the American people were compassionate but not conservative, the Bush camp was not about to let an inconvenience like a lost election prevent them from claiming the White House.
They knew how to play the game—how to make the calls, pressure the right people, and turn the course of history against itself.
The machinations the Bush camp would undertake on election night would take full advantage of a media that have come to treat elections as spectator sports—with presidential elections as the Super Bowl. The only difference from sports coverage is that, because the networks always declare the winner before the game is done, they are always just a little bit unsure of their call. Knowing how to play on that uncertainty would prove to be Bush's salvation.
Political seer E. J. Dionne, Jr. was right when he wrote that "Americans hate politics." Measures of civic engagement in developed nations regularly rate the United States in the basement when it comes to democratic participation—with just 51 percent of eligible voters choosing to cast ballots in the 2000 presidential election and a mere 36 percent deciding the 1998 congressional contests.
Paradoxically, Americans rather enjoy election nights. According to the monitors of such matters at Nielsen Media Research, Americans tune in in healthy numbers for the quadrennial reading of the returns. An estimated 62 million Americans watched election results during the long night of November 7-8, 2000. Americans were more interested in learning the identity of their next president than in watching the final episode of "Survivor," which drew 51.6 million viewers.
Better than "Survivor" is good business for the broadcast and cable networks—which are, of course, all about show business. In fact, the networks were a lot more serious about putting on the Election Night Show—something CBS News anchor Dan Rather rather too poetically refers to as "the dance of democracy"—than in actually getting the story straight. "The problem is that in the 1960s, network television was a prestige item that wasn't expected to make a big profit. It was home to some very serious journalists, both in front of the camera and behind," explains Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Since then the owners of networks want major profit centers dependent on ratings. They've spent an enormous amount of money on very visible showcase talent. Something had to give. And what gave was the meat and potatoes of a serious news operation."
When network news operations become corporate profit centers, beating the competition on election night is less a matter of deadlines than bottom lines—or, as Rather indelicately explained before cutting away to election night advertising, "This is commercial television. We've got money to make here." In the days leading up to November 7, major networks bought full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines touting their election night productions as bigger and better than the other guys'. "Election time is usually a time when the public turns to television and counts on them," explained Linda Mason, CBS News vice president of public affairs. "We want the public to be able to turn to us."
Placed in the ironic circumstance of delivering election news to a disengaged electorate, television did what came naturally: It entertained. Millions of dollars were poured into building sets, designing graphics, and hiring color commentators, as each network produced an election night "special" that borrowed far more of its direction from the sports department than from Jeffersonian democracy. As with the big game, network coverage of the big election really had only one responsibility: to get the score right. This, however, was no easy task. Unlike other democracies, the United States has an entirely decentralized election system; there is no clearly defined, nonpartisan authority responsible for organizing fair elections and accurate counts of the votes cast in them. So unique—and so inferior—is the U.S. system that former president Jimmy Carter, who has devoted much of his postpresidential career to monitoring closely contested elections in foreign lands, says he is "embarrassed" by it. "If we [The Carter Center] were invited to go into a foreign country to monitor the election, and they had similar election standards and procedures, we would refuse to participate at all," explains the former president.
Notably, there is no official count of the popular vote in the United States. To this day, the results of past elections remain unsettled—for instance, different sources offer counts of the results in the 1968 contest between Nixon and Humphrey that vary by hundreds of thousands of votes.
Lacking an official structure for tabulating the popular vote and determining with some proximity to Election Day the identity of the next occupant of the most powerful position in the world, the count has essentially been privatized. Media outlets—chief among them the Associated Press—traditionally collected results from the various states and added them together for a national count. As the news cycle sped up with the rise of the broadcast age, the various television networks created their own systems for polling voters and sampling precinct results in order to project winners before the local and state poll workers completed the actual count. Networks competed to be the quickest and most accurate predictors of the results. Getting a projection wrong when the others got it right was seriously embarrassing, so all of the networks poured substantial resources into election analysis divisions that became the jewels of their election night operations.
"But," explains Sam Roberts, a retired CBS executive, "when the ownership of the networks changed in the late 1980s, everybody was under this incredible cost-cutting pressure. All the companies were squeezing the news divisions very hard." The pressure to cut costs focused on the polling operations, recalls Roberts, who talks of accountants "jumping up and down and saying what a great way to save money" when the idea of creating a single polling operation for all the networks was proposed. Old-timers in the newsrooms objected that the move would lead to mistakes and, even more painful for serious journalists, the sacrifice of control over the data that were, after all, the raw count of history. Nevertheless, in 1990 news corporations pooled their resources to create Voter Research and Surveys, a consortium that was responsible for gathering and analyzing data, then projecting winners. As Voter Research and Surveys evolved into the Voter News Service (VNS), the networks grabbed back some of the responsibility for analyzing the raw data in an effort to beat the competition on election night. In reality, however, it was a fixed race: The network "analysts" did not gather their own information. Rather, they worked from the same basic pool of data and, invariably, called the winners within minutes of one another.
By the time the 2000 election rolled around, none of the major news media in the United States made the pretense of gathering actual election returns to create a precise picture of the popular will. As the New York Times explained, "All the networks, and other news organizations that pay to receive voter-poll information, get their data from the same source, the Voter News Service." VNS promises to get the results of elections before the overwhelming majority of votes are actually counted in individual states, a nifty trick the consortium accomplishes by conducting exit polls and, when the voting finishes, reviewing actual results from handfuls of scientifically selected "sample precincts" to create a model of the sentiments of an entire state. This makes it possible for Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw to look, with that authoritative glimmer in their eyes, into the camera at the very moment election workers are locking polling-place doors and declare, "The polls have closed in Florida, and we are now prepared to report that Al Gore has won that state's crucial 25 electoral votes." So confident was Rather in the soundness of the VNS data and projections that he announced early on Election Night 2000 that "if we say somebody's carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank, book it, that that's true."
Steadier hands noted that the VNS had never been relied upon to call a razor-close contest at the national level. And they worried. After the election, Jeff Gralnick, a former ABC executive, told the media magazine Brill's Content that the whole VNS system was a bomb waiting to explode. Comparing the VNS to NASA before the Challenger disaster, Gralnick said, "They were launching space shuttles: Nothing can go wrong. You become so secure in your own technology that you just keep doing it until it blows up."
There was a blowup on November 7, 2000. And in the dusty confusion following the explosion, the Bush campaign made off with an election.
* * *
"We're going to win Florida."
—Bush aide Karl Rove,
after all networks called Florida for Al Gore
George W. Bush. America's first 12-step president, surrounded himself during the 2000 campaign with a team that took the mantra of self-improvement seriously. His posse of workaholics, reformed drinkers, and loners had faith in what they had read in all those "get-your-life-together" manuals. Above all, they subscribed to the "looklike-a-winner-to-be-a-winner" theory of politics. Never predict a mere victory when you can predict a landslide, the Bushies believed. The problem was that, often, the big talk made them look like political numbskulls. So it was in New Hampshire, where on the eve of that state's critical Republican primary, Bush aide Karl Rove predicted his man would win big. As it turned out, the Texan was toast, losing by 19 points to Arizona senator John McCain's renegade campaign.
Rove was not chastened by his New Hampshire experience.
As the November 7 election approached, he was predicting to reporters that Bush would win 320 electoral votes and prevail by at least 6 percent in the popular vote.
By the time the first exit polls began to come in on Election Day, however, it was clear that Rove had been as wrong about America as he had been about New Hampshire. It was Gore, not Bush, who looked like a winner.
The first real evidence of Gore's strength would be revealed to the American people with the call of Florida—the home state of Jeb Bush and 25 critical electoral votes—for the Democrat.
As the polls began to close in Florida at 7:30 P.M. eastern standard time, analysts at the various networks were busily running the numbers. Less than twenty minutes later, the pieces were in place for a Gore declaration. NBC, CBS, and CNN called the state for the vice president within minutes of one another. By 7:52 P.M., only the conservative Fox News Network had failed to declare a Gore victory in the Sunshine State and, by extension, in the race for the presidency. Still holding out hope for a Bush win, Fox analysts pored over results from a few more sample precincts, hoping against hope to discern even the most minute ray of hope for a Bush win. But each new batch of information darkened the scenario for the Bush broadcasters. "If anything," acknowledged Fox analyst John Ellis, the new information made his team "even more certain that Gore had won." At 7:52 P.M., Ellis made a painful call—not just because it disappointed his conservative bosses at Fox but because George W. was his first cousin. "OK," he shouted, "Florida goes Gore."
We now know that this was the best call of the night. A solid plurality of Florida voters had gone to the polls intending to vote for Al Gore. No surprise then that this reality was reflected in the answers that Florida voters gave to VNS exit pollsters.
Unfortunately, however, VNS, as it later acknowledged, failed to account properly for absentee ballots and early-in-the-day voting, and had consequently projected a wider Gore win than was possible in a state so closely divided. As VNS and the networks started to realize that the actual results were not meeting their projections, they began to worry about their credibility. This in turn allowed the Bush team to play on those doubts. Their goal was to apply enough pressure on the networks to get them to reverse the call for Gore and declare Florida for Bush. If they could finish the night as the declared "winner," they reasoned, it would be hard to contest a close result.
The Bush camp's rationale was simple: Their man may have lost Florida on Election Day, but he could still win it on election night.
The spin was about to begin.
"We threaded the needle and did it artfully."
—Ari Fleischer, Bush campaign spokesperson
The Bush family had planned a regal election night, as befits a family that was about to reassert the Divine Right of Poppy's Progeny to rule the land. Early evening would be spent dining with "the masses" at a chic Austin restaurant, after which the candidate and his entourage would consent to view election returns with supporters at the swank Four Seasons Hotel. Finally, a majestic declaration of victory in front of 20,000 subjects—er, citizens—would take place in time for the eleven o'clock news and George W.'s bedtime. Despite a nasty cold front and the threat of rain, the crowd was rocking to a gospel choir and waving suitably suggestive "Bush and Jesus" signs. But inside the Governor's Mansion to which the Bushes had retreated, the mood was anything but festive. Courtiers were nervously tendering returns from far provinces that had not been kind to the prince. Mom and Dad Bush were getting shaky. They knew more about losing than the kid. "The old man—well, you could see the ghosts of 1992 coming back," an aide who was with the family said, recalling Bush the Elder's 1992 defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. "And Barbara Bush? She just looked real pained."
George W. was calmer. And it was not just blissful ignorance. Despite Karl Rove's over-the-top predictions, insiders in the campaign had recognized trouble on the horizon for the better part of a week. Bush's lead in preelection polls had dwindled deep into the margin of error, an old drunk-driving bust had been revealed, and Gore simply seemed to want the presidency more than did the tired Texan who kept to his early-to-bed, late-to-rise schedule even in the campaign's closing moments. Then there had been a dispiriting exchange of calls between the candidate and cousin John Ellis at Fox.
A media veteran, Ellis had recused himself from writing publicly about George W. But, behind the scenes, he never let the demands of his journalistic duties strain a family tie. Ellis had been feeding George W. a steady stream of insider election analysis going back to the 1970s, and this Election Day was no different. As head of the Fox News Channel decision-desk team, Ellis was responsible for managing the process that would lead to the network's state-by-state projections. As such, he had access to all the VNS data, as well as a team of Fox specialists to analyze it. Ellis had confirmed the tightness of the race to George W. early on, but he reminded the candidate that Bushes always polled poorly early in the day. Democrats are working people; they get up early and vote before heading off to the job. Republicans have more flexible schedules; they get around to voting after the stock market has closed.
"I wouldn't worry about early numbers," Ellis cautioned. "Your dad had bad early numbers in `88, and he wound up winning by 7 [points]. So who knows?"
What Ellis knew by early in the evening was that George W. was not going to win the sort of victory Bush the Elder did over Michael Dukakis. "At 5:30, I walked outside to have a cigarette and call Governor [George W.] Bush," Ellis would recall after the election. "He answered and immediately asked: `Is it really this close?' He already had all the new second-wave numbers and expressed disbelief at some of what he had been told. `Yeah,' I said, `it's really close.' `Well, what do you think?' he asked. `I have no idea,' I replied."
Two hours later, when Jeb Bush called, Ellis had a very good idea of what was going on. And the tidings were not glad for the Bush campaign. "Are you sure?" the Florida governor asked about the call of Florida for Gore. "Jeb, I'm sorry, I'm looking at a screenful of Gore," Ellis replied. "But the polls haven't closed in the [west Florida] Panhandle," Jeb shot back, looking for a thread of possibility. "It's not going to help," Ellis said. "I'm sorry."
That was Ellis talk, not Bush talk. Bushes don't say they're sorry. Bushes say, "What is it going to take to turn this thing around?"
What it would take would be some serious pressure on network news operations that, after years of cutbacks, no longer had confidence in their news-gathering abilities.
There was no question that the networks were vulnerable to a Bush-provoked crisis of confidence. "They do not have the mechanism for making their own judgments," Alex Jones, of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said of the networks in 2000. "They were dealing with campaign consultants rather than their own experts on the ground. The networks did not have anybody to ask on the ground" to help them analyze the results independent of campaign spin.
The Bush camp would speak to the fears of the networks about election night operations built on the shaky ground of Voter News Service projections. Campaign aides were summoned from the victory party to war rooms across Austin, computers were turned back on, cell phones were recharged. The Bushes were going to war. If they could not kill their opponent on the field of battle, they would kill the messenger. It was as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Step One: Deny national reality. Rove's rosy preelection predictions were not wrong, this line of spin claims. The network projections were the problem. No, not in the states projected for Bush—even where margins were narrow, projections for the Republican were pristine and unassailable. But in the states that were projected for Gore, well, that was a different story. No way Gore had won Pennsylvania, the Bush spin went. George W. was on the phone to Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, a state the networks had called for Gore shortly after they had pegged Florida. Ridge was a savvy pol—a serious contender for the GOP vice presidential nod disqualified only because of his support for a woman's right to choose. He had run and won Pennsylvania in primary and general elections. He knew his state precinct by precinct, and he knew Bush had lost it. Ridge had seen the massive get-out-the-vote drive for Gore in Philadelphia and other cities around the state. He had seen Pennsylvania's unions mobilized more effectively than they had been for a half century. There was no way the call for Gore was wrong. Yet, Bush told Ridge to get out there and challenge the projections. And Ridge did just that, pushing his message hard so as to suggest that the network decision desks might have more than one problem on their hands. George W. fanned the flames, telling reporters who were hastily summoned to the Governor's Mansion that Ridge had just confirmed to him that the exit polls were "wrong" "[Ridge is] not conceding Pennsylvania, and I'm not either in the state of Pennsylvania," the Texan blustered. Soon, George W. was burning up the phone lines to Republican governors across the country, and the governors were giving media interviews to say that they knew George W. was winning their states—even if both the projections, and the final results, would show them firmly in the Gore column.
Excerpted from JEWS FOR BUCHANAN by John Nichols with research by David Deschamps. Copyright © 2001 by John Nichols. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
|Introduction: Conceits, Corruptions, and a Healthy Sense of the Absurd||vii|
|Chapter 1||Media Manipulation||1|
|Chapter 2||Deliberate Disenfranchisement||27|
|Chapter 3||The Count That Couldn't Count||59|
|Chapter 4||Jews for Buchanan: A Palm Beach Story||79|
|Chapter 5||Homage to Katarina||109|
|Chapter 6||The DeLay Delay||139|
|Chapter 7||Bushwacked by the Better Brother||163|
|Chapter 8||Bush's Barristers||189|
|Afterword: "No More Floridas!"||211|
Posted October 1, 2003
The cover art, the format, and even the title of this book are misleading. They lead the reader and browser to think it's a lighthearted romp through the Florida election mess. It isn't. It's a serious, thought-provoking study that can be read and understood even by non-lawyers. I've read several serious studies of the subject and this is the best. Short, pithy, and just as unfunny as the subject matter.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2002
For anyone who followed the U.S. presidential selection...er, sorry, election, and knew in their gut that this thing was stolen, this book lays it out in such a way that even a skeptic should at least do more research. For political historians, political junkies, and people who just want to know what the heck happened from Nov. 7, 2000 to Dec. 12, 2000, this book is a real education.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.