Johnny Gore and Sarah Lieberman: What the Republican Ticket Can Learn From 2000

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2008

As the final weekend of the 2008 campaign approaches, it is worth taking to heart Joe Lieberman’s recent recollection that he and Al Gore were behind with a week to go in 2000. The weekend before election day, Karl Rove predicted a 6-7 percent popular vote plurality and about 320 electoral votes for Bush—a prediction brought to mind by David Axelrod’s public pronouncement that Obama now has a clear path to victory. When all the votes were counted—some of them three or four times—Gore led the nationally-aggregated popular vote by one half of one percentage point. There are a number of lessons John McCain and Sarah Palin can learn from Gore’s fast close.

  1. Don’t let up. In the last few days of the 2000 campaign, Gore took up a frenetic pace. He was still campaigning on Election Day itself, traveling and calling into radio shows. This energy not only reaped electoral benefits in its own right, but it also conveyed the notion that Gore was still convinced he could win, an important morale boost to his supporters. Bush, on the other hand, rested on his lead.
  2. Be prepared to take quick and decisive advantage of whatever scraps fall from the adversary’s table. In 2000, Gore took control of the message in the final days, pouncing when Bush made a comment that inadvertently left the impression that he did not know that Social Security is a federal program and when news reports revealed that Bush had been convicted of a DUI offense two decades earlier. (The latter tidbit may not have come to the fore spontaneously.) The Obama campaign will be well-advised to lock up Joe Biden at an undisclosed secure location until November 5, but Obama himself (or a host of congressional Democrats) may provide the scraps. There are now almost daily revelations about Obama’s past and present, including the Khalidi tape and the campaign’s prepaid credit card scam. It will be up to Republicans to turn them into a banquet quickly, and in a way that coheres with McCain’s overall message.
  3. Go for the jugular. Aware of the tightening race, Gore’s rhetoric reached new levels of intensity. Speaking in a black church, Gore suggested that Bush wanted to return America to the days before the 14th amendment. While over-the-top denunciation may not work for McCain against Obama, he or his surrogates (including Palin) have to be ready to press their case with a new degree of vigor.
  4. Remember that Gore’s late surge did not show up as a tie or a small Gore lead in the polls until Election Day or the day before. According to the most recent polls, McCain has already closed the gap considerably, but it might be worthwhile to remind voters—particularly McCain supporters—of this lesson from 2000.

  5. Do not concede early. After falling behind by a large margin in the vote count in pivotal Florida, Gore called Bush to concede the race and offer him congratulations. Once it was clear that Florida could not be declared after all, Gore called Bush again and un-conceded. Yet his backtrack marked him in the minds of millions of Americans as a sore loser who would throw a tantrum if things did not go his way, and Gore never succeeded in getting the public behind his challenges politically. McCain, who is often quite magnanimous to his partisan opponents (to the degree of irritating his partisan friends.) should be on alert not to let the magnanimity slip into a too-early concession that may box him in if things change later in the evening.

There are, of course, also some lessons that can be learned from Bush’s close. The most important may be to keep up the drive for turnout even if early returns are not good. First, you might win despite a slow start. Second, though it has no constitutional standing, the nationally-aggregated popular vote has a moral standing. Bush has been hobbled for most of his two terms by the bitterness that attended the circumstances of his victory. If he wins and wants to be able to govern, McCain (and the country) has to hope that his vote in California is big enough that he will not win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.