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George W. Bush: Campaigns and Elections

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Presidential Campaign of 2000

After Bush won reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 with a resounding victory, many national political figures urged him to run for the presidency. On the morning of his second inauguration as governor of Texas, Bush told his mother that he was still struggling with the decision. She was not sympathetic, suggesting that her son should simply decide. The church sermon that day described the calling of Moses by God to lead his people from Egypt. During the service, Bush’s mother leaned toward him and said, “He is talking to you.” The sermon concluded with a message about the opportunity that each individual has to find his calling. Bush felt a calm confidence that he was meant to run for President and authorized Karl Rove to begin preparing for a national campaign. 

National name recognition, family connections, and fundraising ability made Bush a strong presidential candidate. During the Iowa caucuses, however, his campaign hit some rough spots. When he was asked which political philosopher he most identified with, Bush replied, “Christ, because He changed my heart.” The answer caused consternation in the national press but seemed to play well in Iowa, especially among evangelical Christians, and Bush placed first in the caucuses.

In New Hampshire, the competition stiffened, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona. His candidacy appealed to many moderate and independent voters, which outnumbered Bush’s more conservative supporters in the Granite State. McCain, a political maverick, touted new ideas for reform, in contrast to Bush whom he portrayed as part of the establishment. McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire, forcing Bush to regroup, with his wife urging him never to allow someone else to define him again. Rather than blaming his staff, Bush took personal responsibility for the loss and told them that they would finish the race as a team. He was still confident in his candidacy.

The focus then turned to South Carolina where the Bush campaign chose a new theme, “Reformer with Results,” in order to counter McCain by bringing attention to Bush’s bipartisan accomplishments as governor of Texas. The campaign shifted to expanding grassroots efforts and holding more town hall meetings. Bush won the crucial southern state with 53 percent of the vote. The momentum gained in South Carolina, and his extensive grassroots efforts, carried him to victory in nine of thirteen primary states on Super Tuesday. Bush was able to ride this wave of support to the Republican nomination.  

As his primary victory became secure, Bush turned to the important task of finding a running mate. He sent his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to Dallas for a meeting with his father’s old friend and former secretary of defense, Dick Cheney. Allbaugh’s task was to determine if Cheney was interested in being a candidate for vice president, and, if not, whether he was willing to find a running mate for Bush. Cheney passed on the vice presidency but offered to lead a search committee. Bush later wrote that he was seeking “someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked, and most important, someone prepared to serve as President at any moment.”

By early summer, Bush had a list of finalists, but his sights were still set on Cheney. He decided to make another try for the elder statesman, who finally agreed to serve. Cheney brought little, if any, political benefit to the Bush campaign because Cheney’s home state of Wyoming only cast three Electoral College votes and consistently voted Republican anyway. Bush’s top campaign staffers, including Karl Rove, opposed the Cheney choice. Bush, however, saw the value of having a veteran Washington insider and experienced politician by his side.

The 2000 Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia, where Bush delivered a stirring speech that reflected his reasons for pursuing the presidency: “Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short to waste this moment. So tonight, we vow to our nation…we will seize this moment of American promise. We will use these good times for great goals. …This [Clinton-Gore] administration had its moment. They had their chance. They have not led. We will.” 

Two months after the convention, Bush entered his first debate with Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore. Like Bush, Gore hailed from a family with a history of political involvement and had an Ivy League pedigree. In addition to his service as vice president during Clinton’s two terms, Gore, a former U.S. senator, was also an experienced debater. The high expectations for Gore helped Bush; as long as Bush did not commit any major mistakes, he would surpass the public’s expectations for him.

Moderated by PBS’s veteran anchorman Jim Lehrer, the first debate between Bush and Gore took place in Boston. Bush made a consistent effort to paint Gore as a Washington, D.C., insider who made big promises and showed few results; Gore attempted to portray Bush as a friend of the rich with little experience in governing, especially at the federal level. Neither candidate committed any major gaffes, and both hewed to their prepared scripts. Inexplicably, Gore audibly sighed at several of Bush’s responses. Violating the debate rules, the vice president frequently interrupted his opponent. Gore’s tactics seemed over-eager and unprofessional. The second and third debates went smoothly, without major gaffes from either candidate. Polls suggested that Bush benefitted more from the televised debates, showing that voters felt better about a Bush presidency than a Gore administration.

Governor Bush felt optimistic about his chances before adviser and confidant Karen Hughes approached him five days before the election with news that a reporter had discovered a drunk driving citation Bush had received years ago. Bush had considered disclosing the DUI earlier in his political career but decided against it because, as he claimed, he did not want his daughters to know about his irresponsible behavior. “Not disclosing the DUI on my terms may have been the single costliest political mistake I ever made,” Bush later wrote. Laura called their daughters to inform them of the announcement before they found out from television news. Bush issued a pithy statement: “I was pulled over. I admitted to the policeman that I had been drinking. I paid a fine. And I regret that it happened. But it did. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Bush worried that he might have cost himself the presidency. Karl Rove estimated that approximately three million people, especially evangelical Christians, stayed home or changed their vote following the disclosure. During the five days following the announcement, Bush lost the four-point lead he had held in the polls. He campaigned hard for the last week and entered election day with the race too close to call. 

On election night, the major news networks initially called the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida for Gore. Florida’s polls had not even closed, and Karl Rove adamantly maintained that the early call was flawed. At about 10 p.m., Eastern Time, CNN and CBS rescinded their early call of Florida, and at about 2:15 a.m., the networks revised their call of the race in Florida in favor of Bush. Shortly after the Florida switch, Gore phoned Bush to concede. Gore had about fifteen minutes to address his supporters before Bush would speak to the crowd waiting outside the state capitol in Austin, Texas. The allotted time passed without a concession speech from Gore. Bush’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, checked the networks to find that the margin in Florida was narrowing once again. Subsequently, Bush spoke with Gore again via phone, and in a terse conversation, Gore told Bush that he was retracting his concession as the numbers in Florida kept changing.

By 4:30 in the morning, the Bush campaign discovered that Gore had sent a team of lawyers to Florida to oversee a recount of the votes. Bush was advised to send an emissary as well and dispatched Washington powerhouse and former secretary of state, James Baker, a veteran of the Regan and Bush 41 administrations.

Pending the election results, Bush returned home to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he avoided television coverage of the recount process. He tried to relax, frequently taking long runs. After weeks of legal battles and recounts, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Gore’s plea for a selective recount. Bush then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On December 12, the high court ruled in Bush v. Gore. By a vote of 7-2, they found that Florida’s inconsistent recount process violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th amendment. By a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that there was no fair way to recount the votes in Florida in time for the state’s votes to be counted in the Electoral College. The election results would stand. By just a few hundred votes, Bush had won Florida and with it the presidency. He had wanted to share the victory in Austin with his 20,000 supporters waiting on election night, but, as he wrote, he “probably became the first person to learn he had won the presidency while lying in bed with his wife watching TV.” 

The national spectacle of the Florida recounts, with its disputed ballots, “hanging chads,” and determinative Supreme Court ruling, undermined Bush’s wish to start his presidency with a strongly united nation. While he won an Electoral College victory 271 to 266, Gore won 500,000 more popular votes from the American people than the victor. Many considered Bush’s election to be illegitimate, and the Congressional Black Caucus even protested during the official counting of the ballots on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was a less than auspicious start for any new presidency.

The Reelection Race of 2004

Four years later, Bush faced U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts. A decorated Vietnam War veteran who had seen combat as a swift boat captain, Kerry became a leader of the anti-war movement once he left the Navy. Bush focused on Kerry’s liberal voting record in the Senate, including a vote against an $87-billion bill to fund the war on terror. Bush chose to highlight this choice in his ads, leading Kerry to respond, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bush saw the opportunity to attack Kerry as a flip-flopper. Kerry, on the other hand, attacked Bush as an unqualified commander in chief, who tricked the American people into an ill-conceived and unpopular war in Iraq. He pledged to the Democratic National Convention and a national televised audience that he would “be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.” To drive the image home, he highlighted his wartime experience in Vietnam, saluting and declaring that he was “reporting for duty,” a line that garnered much popular criticism.

Bush experienced a Vietnam-era controversy of his own during the 2004 campaign when CBS reporter Dan Rather aired allegations that Bush did not fulfill his duties in the Texas Air National Guard, which later proved to be based on false reports and forged documents. Along with making a strong case against a John Kerry presidency, Bush focused his campaign on showing that he could continue to lead the nation on major issues. For his second term, he pledged “to modernize Social Security, reform the immigration system, and overhaul the tax code, while continuing No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiative, implementing Medicare reform, and above all, fighting the war on terror.”

The two candidates debated three times during the fall campaign. Kerry was aggressive, particularly in the first debate, which caught Bush by surprise. Networks showed split screen images of Bush reacting to Kerry’s charges in that first debate, and the President appeared arrogant and disdainful. Bush corrected his expressions in the next two debates, while Kerry committed a major gaffe on a question about homosexuality when he cited the fact that Vice President Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. Critics derided Kerry for gratuitously dragging the vice president’s family into the campaign.

Election day started with a shockwave through the campaigns and the media. According to exit polls, the President was doing poorly, even in strong Republican states such as Mississippi and South Carolina. Although they could not yet share their findings publicly, it was clear the media were bracing for a major upset. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, however, was convinced the methodology of the exit polls had to be wrong and, in the end, he was correct. The election would come down to the swing states of Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. Though they were close, the Bush team became convinced they had won all four and, with them, the presidency. At about four in the morning, however, rumors began circulating that Kerry and Edwards would file a lawsuit over the results in Ohio. Provisional ballots had not been counted in the state by the end of election night, leaving the results in some doubt. Consequently, Bush chose not to declare victory and again denied his supporters, gathered near the White House, a chance to celebrate. Bush sent Chief of Staff Andy Card to explain: “President Bush decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election. We are convinced that President Bush has won reelection with at least 286 electoral votes.” Kerry called the next morning to concede. 

In the end, Bush won 286 Electoral College votes to Kerry’s 251, along with 50.73 percent of the popular vote. Having lost the popular vote in 2000, this majority, bare though it was, added some popular legitimacy to the Bush presidency and gave him confidence he had could focus on his domestic policy goals. Bush declared that he had earned political capital from the campaign and now he intended to spend it. His hopes, however, were soon dashed.

The Iraq War grew more unpopular as the insurgency escalated and American causalities continued to mount. The government’s seemingly inept reaction to the decimation caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, further detracted from the President’s popularity. A series of scandals involving Republican politicians also undermined the party’s support. The 2006 midterm elections were a disaster for President Bush and his party as they lost control of both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships across the nation. Bush’s legislative agenda never recovered.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Gary L. Gregg II 

Professor Gregg is the director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. He also holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in leadership. His writings include: 

Considering the Bush Presidency. (with Mark J. Rozell, Oxford University Press, 2004)

Thinking about the Presidency: Documents and Essays from the Founding to the Present. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College (2nd ed.). (ISI Books, 2008)

America's Forgotten Founders (2nd ed.). (with Mark D. Hall, ISI Books, 2012)

The consulting editor wishes to thank Connor Tracy and Travis Wilson for serving as research assistants on this project.