And the Winner Is...Still George Bush

Robert Alt

April 1, 2001

Remember the presidential election? There were the ubiquitous chads — dimpled and pimpled, pregnant, hanging, and swinging. Then there were the counts, the recounts, and the re-recounts. Today, we can add one more unofficial recount to the ever-increasing tally: The Miami Herald released the results of its recount of “undercounted” ballots in all 67 Florida counties. I know that you are eagerly waiting to know who the president is (there’s that whole clause in the Constitution that delegates power to the newspapers to decide close elections that turn on the results in Florida), but before I give you the results, let me remind you of what some of the luminaries have been saying since the election:

Terry McAuliffe, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee: “[Y]ou’ll see soon, that we also won the electoral vote. Many of the newspapers will be out soon that will show that Al Gore actually got the most votes.”
(Capital Gang, February 24, 2001)

James Carville: “Everybody knows who won the election. …[W]e’re not going to get over it.” (Meet the Press, Jan 21, 2001)

Jesse Jackson, who referred to Florida as “the scene of the crime,” said, “the evidence is that he [Bush] lost the vote in Florida.” (CNN Late Edition, December 25, 2000)

And finally, Joseph Lieberman, who in a February speech at a Florida temple referred to himself as “vice president of the government in exile,” and stated: “I believe you brought Al Gore and a me — and me [sic] to victory in the state of Florida.” (Hardball, February 20, 2001)

Despite the fact that Bush won all official counts, loyal Democrats offered
these declarations, guided by the hope that some silver bullet existed.
If they just counted all the ballots, then Gore really won. He
had to. Maybe it was the butterfly ballot that cost him the election?
Or maybe it was the machines? Yeah, that was it. If, on a manual recount,
they just counted small enough indentations on the ballots, then surely
Gore would win. Even if the courts had some silly notions that prevented
party officials from counting the ballots using different standards from
day-to-day, the newspaper recounts would vindicate them in the end.

Enter the Miami Herald, which yesterday said that if the recounts
had been allowed to continue, then “under almost all scenarios, Bush still
would have won.” The particulars are as follows: Bush officially won by
537 votes. If Gore’s more liberal counting standard prevailed and all
dimpled and hanging chads had been counted, then the Bush lead jumps to
1,665. If dimples only count where other races are dimpled (which would
suggest a uniform error by the voter or by the machine, rather than a
voter changing his or her mind before perforating the chad), then the
Bush lead is 884. If two corners of the chad must be perforated, this
being the predominant standard for recounts throughout the country, then
the lead is 363. Finally, if only clean punches count, then Gore wins
by 3 votes.

Several themes can be gleaned from this data. First, the methodology of
the study provides substantial support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.
The Herald analyzed the data based upon multiple counting standards,
and therefore supplied multiple results. Why not simply apply a single
standard, and announce a final outcome? Because, as the Supreme Court
recognized, there wasn’t uniformity among the counties (or even within
the counties) as to which counting standard applied. Gore supporters advocated
continued counting exercises using variable standards, yet, clearly, permitting
endless revisions to voting standards after the election was over was
not the way to solve the problem, especially given the constitutional
interest in finality that had been observed by the Court.

Second, the data suggest that Republicans and Democrats did a poor job
of gaming outcomes — at least to the extent that they chose counting
standards based on what they believed to be best for their candidates’
chances for success. After all, the Republicans wanted strict standards
for votes (some advocating a clear-punch rule, while other advocated a
rule permitting a vote where light shined through in a manner like the
two-corner rule from the Herald recount), and Democrats wanted
even the slightest marks to count. In the end, it probably didn’t matter,
because almost any standard would have favored Bush, with the exception
of the clear-punch rule.

Third, the study provides substantial support for Bush’s victory, and
generally decimates the theory that Gore would have won if dimpled chads
had been counted. But don’t look for this to decide the issue for Gore
supporters. No sooner was the study released, then Bob Poe, Chairman of
the Florida Democratic Party said: “My feeling is still that more people
went to the polls to vote for Al Gore than went to vote for George W.
Bush, and that some really bad things happened.” Doug Hattaway, a former
Gore campaign spokesman, went further: “If you count every vote, Gore
wins. This study confirms that Florida’s election system failed the voters.’’
OK. Why the sudden case of statistical impairment? One explanation is
the faith of a true believer. Put simply, there are those who will never
believe that Bush won, no matter how overwhelming the evidence. For these
individuals, there is little I can say, other than to proffer other mysteries:
The world is not the center of the universe, and, more amazing still,
it is round, not flat.

Another explanation for this reticence is that the Democrats are relying
on the stolen-election theme as a battle cry for the next election. When
the DNC met and elected McAuliffe as Chairman, the “we-really-won-the-election”
theme was the rant du jour. The party-faithful perceive the charge of
electoral illegitimacy to be a motivating factor for voter turnout in
the next election — and don’t let facts get in the way, thank you.

In the end, the Herald study provides a useful piece of data, which
will be interesting to statisticians, historians, and unattached voters,
but will probably not make that big a difference. Republicans were generally
satisfied with the first three counts, and Democrats will not be satisfied
until the prophesy of Gore’s ascendancy is fulfilled.

Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.