Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

George W. Bush was elected the 43rd President of the United States after prevailing in the Florida recount and winning the Electoral College by a margin of 271 to 266. Bush lost the popular vote, however, becoming the first candidate since Benjamin Harrison to do so and still make it to the Oval Office. His final total of 50,456,062 was more than half-a-million votes short of Al Gore's total of 50,996,582. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, running on the ballot of the Green Party, received nearly 2.9 million votes, and Patrick J. Buchanan, running as a conservative populist, garnered about 439,000 votes. Such a mixed result has happened four times in American history, but the most recent was in 1888, and the 2000 result generated calls in some quarters—though not a serious political movement—to abolish the Electoral College.

Bush ran for the presidency vowing to be a "compassionate conservative," but by the time Al Gore conceded and Bush made his acceptance speech from the Texas statehouse, the trait of Bush's that Americans were most familiar with was his competitiveness.

Run for the White House

Although new to national politics, Bush was practically anointed as the Republican standard-bearer by the GOP establishment in early 1999 after he proved to be a one-man fundraising machine that scored a record $68.7 million the year before the election. There was a speed bump on the way to Bush's coronation in the form of one John Sidney McCain III, a Vietnam war hero and senator from Arizona who used New Hampshire's open primary to soundly thump Bush. This upset made the South Carolina contest all-important. There, Team Bush was able to upend McCain, but the roughness of its tactics ruptured the relationship between the two candidates' respective loyalists and staffs—and strained relations between the senator and the governor as well. "I want the presidency in the best way," a bitter McCain said after he lost South Carolina to Bush. "Not the worst way."

McCain stayed in the race, winning primaries in Michigan and Arizona, but Bush's vastly superior organization, war-chest, and list of surrogates—McCain only had four of his GOP colleagues aboard the "Straight Talk Express," while 37 Republican senators signed onto Team Bush—made the outcome seem inevitable. Yet by the time the Republican convention was held in Philadelphia that summer, McCain was on board. He forcefully endorsed Bush in a prime-time convention speech and appeared on stage with the nominee on the convention's last night. In 1992, Bush's father had been hurt by a convention portrayed as intolerant, right-wing, and too-white. Rove and the other architects of the 2000 campaign did not make that mistake. Polarizing preachers from the Christian right were kept away from the podium. Prominent speaking roles went to blacks, Latinos, and women. In his acceptance speech, Bush vowed to "extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country." Signaling his intention to set a new tone in the nation's capital, which had been the scene of an acrimonious impeachment fight during Bill Clinton's presidency, Bush indicated that he would behave neither like Clinton nor the House Republicans who attempted to hound Clinton out of office.

"I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years," Bush said in his nomination acceptance speech. "I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

For the next three months, the race between Bush and Al Gore see-sawed back and forth. In three debates, Bush was consistent and steady, projecting a reasonable persona and not flubbing any questions. Gore's staff had inexplicably raised expectations for their candidate by publicly disparaging Bush's intellect prior to the debates. Certainly, Gore also knew his brief and, particularly on foreign policy, was able to demonstrate his experience and expertise. But Gore lost points with the public with his impatient and patronizing attitude toward Bush, and public opinion polls going into the last weekend showed that Gore's one-time lead had evaporated, with Bush slightly ahead. A story of a long-ago Bush drunk-driving arrest surfaced over the weekend, but pollsters detected only a slight drop in Bush's support. On November 7, Americans went to the polls with the same uncertainty about the outcome as the candidates. They—and the nation—would remain in the dark for another six weeks.

Gore initially conceded to Bush on election night, then later rescinded his concession in a terse phone call to Bush when it appeared that Florida was too close to call—and that victory in the Electoral College depended entirely on Florida. This set the stage for a no-holds-barred recount in Florida that went to the Florida Supreme Court (which ruled 4-3 for Gore) and the U.S. Supreme Court (which ruled 5-4 for Bush.) A strange-looking "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County resulted in more votes for third-party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan than was expected, while partially punched voting cards with their infamous "hanging chads" made the job of recounting tense and uncertain. In the end, a recount paid for by news organizations showed that Bush indeed won Florida by 537 votes, but many Democratic activists remained unconvinced of Bush's legitimacy even after he was sworn in. Partly, this was because of Gore's victory in the popular vote. In addition, the presence of Ralph Nader on the ballot almost certainly cost Gore the win in Florida—and in tiny New Hampshire, which also would have given Gore the presidency.

The 2002 Midterms

Democrats immediately began planning revenge against Bush in the 2002 midterm elections. For one thing, they said, Bush's brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, was finished. They also vowed to harness Democratic anger to retake the House and the Senate. This effort might well have been successful, except that by November 2002, the political landscape had been changed by the attacks of 9/11.

Bush's job approval ratings in the Gallup Poll, which had been in the mid-50s in the summer of 2001, shot upward after 9/11. They peaked in the high 80s around November 2001 and stayed high for nearly a year. The mid-term campaign of 2002 and the impending war with Iraq took the luster off for many people: A Gallup survey taken in the first week of October 2002 showed Bush with a 55 percent job-approval rating—identical to what his numbers had been in early August 2001. But Bush's high popularity during the previous year had helped the Republican Party recruit a high-powered class of Senate Republican candidates. In several bruising races around the country, these Republican challengers either captured open seats or waylaid Democratic incumbents. Bush spent a lot of political capital campaigning for these Republicans. One of the issues he stressed was Democratic reluctance to back his version of a Department of Homeland Security bill. This stance proved particularly damaging to Georgia senator Max Cleland and Missouri senator Jean Carnahan. Privately, some party activists blamed the Democratic leadership in the Senate for bucking Bush on homeland security, but Democrats were also highly critical of the way Bush and the Republican candidates used this issue—particularly against Cleland, a triple amputee from injuries sustained while he was a soldier in Vietnam. After the votes were counted in 2002, however, Republicans remained in control of the House and recaptured the Senate.

As he had done in South Carolina while defeating McCain, Bush prevailed at the ballot box, but at a heavy cost. The political advertisements run in Georgia against Cleland galvanized the Democratic party for two years, and were an issue in the 2004 presidential race.

Cleland spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston where John Kerry was nominated, and his very name became a battle cry for Democrats. When the dust settled on 2002, Bush's willingness to play hardball had undermined whatever good will was left among Democrats on Capitol Hill. It set a tone for a 2004 presidential campaign that was relentlessly negative from the start as the Democratic candidates launched proactive strikes against a President they believed would do anything to win.

2004 Presidential Race

Unlike his father, George W. Bush began his reelection bid with no opposition within his own party. Meanwhile, the Democrats lined up nine-deep to challenge him. The one who emerged briefly during the winter was little-known former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who tapped into a deep reservoir of disillusionment over Bush's foreign policy in general, and the Iraq invasion in particular. The four best-funded and best-known Democratic candidates—Representative Dick Gephardt, and Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards—had all voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution sought by Bush, and two of them—Gephardt and Lieberman—supported it vociferously. Dean's own contemporaneous statements about the wisdom of that venture were not ambiguous, but Dean hadn't had to vote one way or the other on the measure and was easily able to adopt the mantle as Bush's most vocal anti-war critic. This stance brought him adoring crowds, surging campaign contributions, and unexpected press attention; it did not bring him the nomination. His third-place finish in Iowa and second-place finish in New Hampshire all but ceded the race to Kerry, who won both contests, and Democrats eager to defeat Bush swiftly united behind the Massachusetts senator.

Because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law signed (reluctantly) by President Bush, the 2004 race was supposed to be the first without huge influxes of unregulated "soft" money from wealthy donors or corporate interests. Nevertheless, this law had a loophole large enough to drive several trucks full of cash through, and the Democrats were the first to spot it. The loophole was for so-called "527" committees (named for a section of the bill) which could raise money with hardly any limitations and spend it on the federal election, provided they didn't coordinate directly with the campaign and that they didn't overtly endorse a candidate. This ban on coordination was impossible to enforce—and was essentially meaningless anyway. One 527, for example, was led by a Democrat who was John Kerry's campaign manager as recently as November 2003. By the end of 2004, some $300 million was raised and spent by these committees, most of it on television ads. Moreover, the campaign reform law itself all but ensured that these ads would be negative hit pieces—a committee can attack a candidate, but it can't endorse one. It was a Democratic-leaning 527 (MoveOn.org) that aired Internet ads comparing Bush to Hitler. It was a Republican-leaning 527 (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) that aired ads labeling Kerry a traitor to his country and his Vietnam-era comrades-in-arms.

In the midst of this mud-slinging came the presidential debates. It was a merciful—and valuable—diversion. Operating on the theory that the issues played to the President's strength, Team Bush insisted that the theme of the first debate, held at the University of Miami on September 30, be foreign policy, war, and terrorism. Things did not work out as it had hoped. A scowling Bush came across as impatient and repetitious; if anything, Kerry looked the more presidential. Bush improved his performance markedly in St. Louis on October 8 at a debate held with a town-hall format, and yet again during the last debate in Arizona on October 13, where he came across as knowledgeable on domestic policy and very much at ease. Kerry was steady, as he had been throughout the three debates, setting up a furious last 2 ½ weeks of campaigning in an election that public opinion polls showed to be a virtual dead heat.