The Bush campaign's repeated assertion that Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold is untrue, according to both the Florida state coordinator for Buchanan's presidential campaign and the chairman of the executive committee of the Reform Party in Palm Beach County.
Attempting to squash any effort by the campaign of Vice President Al Gore to call into question the legitimacy of the vote count in Florida, the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush has made assertions that look to be at best misleading and at worst demonstrably false. And perhaps the most disingenuous claim involves the disproportionate number of votes that went to conservative Reform Party candidate Buchanan in Palm Beach County, generally considered to be a liberal part of the state.
Thousands of voters in that county seem to have been misled by the county's "butterfly ballot," in which the alignment of the holes and the candidates' names was apparently confusing. The ballot is being used to explain the 3,407 votes in the county for Buchanan, as compared with the 561 votes for Buchanan in Dade County, which is much larger than Palm Beach County, and the 789 votes for him in Broward County.
The Bush campaign claims that the number of votes for Buchanan in Palm Beach County is perfectly accurate. "New information has come to our attention that puts in perspective the results of the vote in Palm Beach County," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Thursday. "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold and that's why Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes there."
When asked about the Bush campaign's statement, Buchanan's Florida coordinator, Jim McConnell, responded: "That's nonsense."
McConnell says he and Jim Cunningham, chairman of the executive committee of Palm Beach County's Reform Party, estimate the number of Buchanan activists in the county to be between 300 and 500 -- nowhere near the 3,407 who voted for him.
"Do I believe that these people inadvertently cast their votes for Pat Buchanan? Yes, I do," said McConnell. "We have to believe that based on the vote totals elsewhere."
Says Cunningham of Buchanan's numbers in Palm Beach County: "It's in the hundreds; it's not a significant amount." Asked if the county is "a Buchanan stronghold," as the Bush campaign has asserted, Cunningham said: "I don't think so. Not from where I'm sitting and what I'm looking at.
"They can say that because they would like to believe that," Cunningham said, "because the votes we received they would like to believe were not mistaken votes." Asked how many votes he would guess Buchanan legitimately received in Palm Beach County, Cunningham said, "I think 1,000 would be generous."
Both McConnell and Cunningham say that they agree with the comments of Buchanan himself on Thursday's "Today" show: "When I took one look at that ballot on Election Night ... it's very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore," Buchanan said.
Because they did not consider Palm Beach a Buchanan stronghold, McConnell said, the campaign decided not to advertise in the area, nor in most of southeast Florida, adding that "the percentage of people down there who would be receptive to our message is much smaller than in other parts of the state."
In addition, McConnell says that the Bush campaign's assertion that there are 16,695 voters belonging to the Independent Party, the Reform Party or the American Reform Party, an increase of 110 percent since the 1996 presidential election, is similarly irrelevant. Bush strategist Karl Rove cited those figures Thursday to argue the point that the area was a hotbed of third-party politics.
"The Bush campaign is inflating the numbers of Reform Party members to the limits of gullibility," McConnell said. "They're including everybody that can in any way be assumed to be members of the Reform Party."
Members of the American Reform Party and the Independent Party "are absolutely not Buchanan supporters." The American Reform Party "is largely made up of people who supported Dick Lamm against Ross Perot for the 1996 nomination," McConnell said. "I don't know what the Independent Party is."
Cunningham says that the Independent Party didn't even have a presidential candidate on the Palm Beach County ballot.
Actually, the Independent Party endorsed Buchanan's Reform Party rival, John Hagelin. And the American Reform Party split with Reform, and this year endorsed Ralph Nader for president. Buchanan wasn't even on the ballot in November 1996, when President Clinton overwhelmingly carried the county. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot received 30,739 votes for president, 7.75 percent of the vote. But that's lower than the 9.1 percent of the vote Perot received statewide. Buchanan did receive more than 7,000 votes in the Republican primary in Palm Beach County that year, but he was a far more viable candidate then, having won the New Hampshire primary.